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Obituary: David Mackay 1933 – 2014

Neil Baxter

Political advisor, writer, lecturer and Amnesty president who lived for 60 years in Catalonia and designed Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic village

David Mackay was one of the most influential British architects of the post war period. He was also one of the most charismatic and influential figures in Catalan public life.

David’s activities stretched from internationally-significant masterplanning and architectural practice to teaching, writing, chairing architectural competitions and award juries and contributions to major international conferences across the globe. He was a brilliant, intuitive designer, a gentle but determined leader of multi-disciplinary teams on major projects, an advisor to senior politicians and governments and a highly regarded leader among his professional peers.

He was also a man of great learning, a voracious bookman, a writer of achievement, a passionate ambassador for his adopted Barcelona and Catalonia, both at home and on the international stage, an adoring husband and a devoted family man. His was a life of extraordinary achievement.

Born of an Irish father and an English mother in Eastbourne, Sussex on Christmas Day 1933 and trained in England, David Mackay has lived and worked in Barcelona for nearly 60 years. In 1962 he became a partner MBM Arquitectes, founded by Oriol Bohigas and Josep Martorell, which evolved as one of the pre-eminent architectural practices in Europe. Its work has helped to shape many cities and fundamentally influenced the evolution of European architecture and city planning.

In 1957 David married his beloved Roser Jarque who he had met when they were both tenants in the same street in Highgate, London. With characteristic understatement, he later would describe his relationship with Roser as the greatest bond of his life. It was a bond which produced six children, twelve grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In addition to his extensive architectural practice, David bravely became the first President of Amnesty International in Spain while Franco was still in power.

Martorell, Bohigas and Mackay’s work is characterised by its simplicity of form and human scale. The buildings and urban spaces they designed are welcoming to their inhabitants and add to the quality and vibrancy of the very many towns and cities where they have worked. David Mackay’s urban design of Barcelona’s Olympic Village in 1992 and the more recent Design Museum in Barcelona are inspired additions to his adoptive city, enjoyed by millions of visitors each year.

Back in England, his masterplan for Plymouth transformed derelict docklands into an area full of new homes, bars, restaurants and shops, helping to regenerate the city and deliver both improved fortunes and – more importantly for David – a greatly improved quality of life. His ambitious plan for London’s Lea Valley was superseded by the Olympic Park, but although he had spent a decade working on it, with minimal remuneration, David was characteristically sanguine.

David was a judge on the famous 1991 competition for the Temple Bar area of central Dublin. The inspired choice of a consortium of young architectural practices transformed the fortunes of Temple Bar and brought new vibrancy to the city. Also in the early 1990s David served on the jury, chaired by Lord Foster, to create a new viewing tower in Glasgow. The Science Centre Tower is now a much-visited attraction. He was, however, profoundly disappointed that the winning scheme for Glasgow’s George Square, by John McAslan and Partners, in a competition which he was invited to chair, did not proceed – rejected on the whim of the council leader.

In addition to his extensive architectural practice, David bravely became the first president of Amnesty International in Spain while Franco was still in power. He had previously smuggled out images and reports of Franco’s brutal repression of the Catalan people to The Times. Fortunately he was never caught.

He wrote and lectured widely and was a guest professor at Washington University, Saint Louis and Wisconsin University, Milwaukee. He was a senior advisor to the British deputy prime minister, John Prescott, in the late 1990s. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Plymouth.

He was also, among a plethora of other honours and awards, an honorary member of the Bund Deutscher Architekten, honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and a loyal and supportive friend and honorary fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Although David was Anglo-Irish, his Scottish sounding name, his affection for Scotland and the many links he forged there have resulted in the oft-repeated error that he was Scottish. He never refuted this and indeed took some pleasure in this additional national identity, which augmented his English, Irish and Catalan roots.

David’s recent step down from MBM may have signalled a reduction in his workload and given him more time with his beloved Roser but it also marked the start of new adventures in architecture as the honorary president of the AxA Architects for Architecture European Forum – a cause close to his heart.

David had the poetic spirit of the true architect. His books, A Life in Cities and On Life and Architecture, testify to the richness of his life in architecture and the profound insights he achieved. His built projects, many masterplans, publications and architectural teaching are a legacy which will continue to benefit mankind now and in future generations.

Neil Baxter is secretary of RIAS