Richard Burton 1933-2017

Words:
Elain Harwood

ABK founder partner, best known for the British Embassy in Moscow, public housing – and of course the National Gallery Extension design that famously drew Prince Charles’ ire

Richard Burton (centre) flanked by Paul Koralek (left) and Peter Ahrends at Burton's wedding in 1956.
Richard Burton (centre) flanked by Paul Koralek (left) and Peter Ahrends at Burton's wedding in 1956.

Richard Burton met Peter Ahrends and Paul Koralek at the Architectural Association in 1951, when the three students vowed to form a practice.  This they did in 1961: when Ahrends designed a house in Devon, Koralek won a competition for a library at Trinity College Dublin and Burton secured a commission through his mother’s third husband for the Kasmin Gallery – described as the trendiest gallery in Bond Street.  The partnership lasted until 2012 and the three remained friends thereafter, surely a record.  

Burton’s father was half-Irish and the manager of the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street.  Richard was introduced to architecture through his grandmother, who commissioned FRS Yorke to build a modernist house, Torilla, and his mother’s second husband, Gerald Barry, director general of the Festival of Britain.

As students ABK shared an enthusiasm for Frank Lloyd Wright, then newly fashionable and most influential on the house Burton built for himself in Kentish Town in 1986-8.  The practice perhaps never bettered Trinity College Library, but in the 1960s it designed many fine buildings for higher education.  Powell & Moya passed on two jobs to Burton as a former assistant – he readily acknowledged how much he learned from Hidalgo Moya’s attention to detailing.  ABK’s brutalist Chichester Theological College was followed by an expansive business school at Oxford, built in seven phases by Burton between 1967 and 1990.  Unusually, all three partners were designers, but Burton’s compositions are distinctive for often being broken down into segments.

ABK in 1991: Richard Burton with Paul Koralek, left, and Peter Ahrends, right.
ABK in 1991: Richard Burton with Paul Koralek, left, and Peter Ahrends, right.

Burton was also the partner who specialised in public housing. When in 1968 ABK was commissioned to design 1344 housing units in Chalvedon, Basildon,  Burton employed a social psychologist to interview the first residents, whose findings informed simpler planning and cheaper heating for the later phases.  This led to a second neighbourhood, Felmore, commissioned in 1974 and the first major housing project in Britain designed around energy conservation, with heavy insulation for the time.  It led to Burton’s appointment to the RIBA’s first energy initiative and his chairmanship of its low-energy group.  

ABK struggled after the Prince of Wales criticised its competition winning design for an extension to the National Gallery.   Ahrends turned to teaching and Koralek to work in Ireland, while Burton designed St Mary’s Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight.  This was a rarity among hospitals for its good looks, where energy was recycled and its shiny steel cladding reflected heat on warm days while bouncing light into the wards. 

Burton also took charge of ABK’s last major commission, when it was invited in 1988 to design the British Embassy in Moscow.  This was an opportunity for public redemption after the National Gallery and to connect with his Russian roots – he may have appeared the perfect English gentleman, but in fact his mother was Russian, Vera Poliakoff, who acted under the stage name Vera Lindsay.  He designed a series of separate pavilions housing residential and office accommodation linked by high-level bridges, rich in detail and with the ceremonial spaces filled by specially commissioned furniture and works of art.  His own house was similarly a series of pavilions, designed for energy efficiency and regularly opened for Open House.  Its greatest feature was a south-facing conservatory that stored heat in winter and shielded the house in summer. 

Burton retired in 2002, but remained involved with Hooke Park, Dorset, where he designed two buildings for the Parnham Trust set up to research the sustainable use of timber.  He was instrumental in saving the estate and securing it for the Architectural Association.  

He married, in 1956, Mireille Dernbach, daughter of the sculptor Jupp Dernbach-Mayen, with whom he had four children.