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Peter Buchanan 1942 – 2023

Architect, fierce writer and critic, dedicated teacher and voracious reader, whose most influential work was The Big Rethink

Credit: Freddie Ardley

Peter Buchanan, who has died aged 80, was an architect, writer and teacher committed to the idea that architecture should draw from the full breadth of human knowledge and cultures, and who advocated a more central place in architectural thinking for tradition, psychology and the natural world. ‘He sought to become specialist across every field, describing architecture as “the nexus of all disciplines, as fundamental as language”,’ says his friend and colleague Will Hunter. ‘At its most compelling, this enabled him to put architecture into its largest perspective, explaining “design as the way humanity can consciously participate in evolution”.’

Born in Zomba, Malawi, Peter studied science in Johannesburg before taking up architecture at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1968. He worked for two leading practices in the city, Gabriël Fagan and Revel Fox & Partners, before moving to London in 1972 where he joined Halpern & Partners and then Siddell Gibson, masterplanning an extension to the city of Arak in Iran. 

In 1979 he switched to journalism, joining the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review (AR), becoming deputy editor at the latter three years later. ‘Peter Davey, the editor, was the magazine’s heart, while Buchanan was its brain,’ recalls his colleague Julia Dawson. ‘Though Peter Davey had an impressive intellect, Buchanan’s was of a higher order than most mere mortals.’ He also had prodigious energy, authoring entire issues on the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain. 

When the magazines changed hands in 1992 he went freelance, beginning work on a five-volume series of monographs on Renzo Piano Building Workshop. He also taught and lectured extensively, from Uzbekistan and Peru. As a curator he had notable success with Ten Shades of Green, an exhibition exploring the opportunities for creativity and invention provided by sustainability. First shown at the Architecture League of New York, it toured museums across the US. As a critic he contributed to numerous publications, and was on the editorial boards of the Harvard Design Magazine and Japan’s A+U. 

His most influential writing was The Big Rethink, a series of 12 essays published in the AR between 2011 and 2013, which called for a reconception of the discipline in response to economic and environmental crises, and for the enrichment of life. It took aim at targets from ‘starchitects’ to narrow functionalism, and championed esoteric ideas from Integral theory to spiral dynamics. ‘He was interested in the human mind and spirit,’ says the historian Alan Powers, ‘and ways of recovering from the mistakes of modernity.’

One broadside targeted architectural education, and Buchanan continued to discuss the subject with AR deputy editor Hunter, who in 2015 founded the London School of Architecture. Buchanan was a founding faculty member and the school’s Reader in Architecture and Urbanism, whose wide-ranging lectures could last late into the evening. When students suggested they might be curtailed he countered that they were too short; he had given talks on Le Corbusier that lasted five days. Former students remember his generosity and enthusiasm, and a forthright, even fierce critic. 

Buchanan’s own appetite for learning, for discussion and for books was always voracious. ‘With the resources of Montaigne, he’d be considered a great collector’, says Hunter. ‘In a London studio apartment, his vast library so overwhelmed his living quarters that books invaded all storage opportunities, from the oven to trouser legs.’Towards the end of his life, when seriously ill, he continued to correspond with numerous international architects whose work he admired, and had done so much to encourage. He is survived by his sister, Yvonne, and nieces Catherine and Robyn.