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Sir Richard MacCormac (1938 - 2014)

Richard Murphy

‘Architectural lion’, essayist, RIBA president and raconteur whose passions for the aesthetic, Soane, and life in general informed and enlivened his work

Richard MacCormac, past president of the RIBA and founder of the London Practice of MacCormac, Jamieson & Prichard has died after a prolonged battle with throat cancer. England has lost an architectural lion.

Educated at Westminster School, he descended on his father’s side from a distinguished line of Northern Irish medical practitioners and the Irish gene figured prominently in his personality with a hugely infectious sense of humour and masterful skill as a raconteur. His undergraduate years were spent in Cambridge and his post-graduate at the Bartlett: at that time, two hugely contrasting schools of architecture. The first was concerned with the aesthetic and the second with a kind of social determinism; Richard’s sympathies were for the first and he never lost a fascination for form and geometry in the generation of his buildings. A scholarship to America produced a masterful analysis of Wright’s tartan grid planning of his prairie houses and the influence of Froebel patterns.

Housing was his first preoccupation and following the studies of Leslie Martin and others at Cambridge, he joined them to challenge the orthodoxy of the time that urban density could be achieved only by building tower blocks. Always keen to put into practice his theories, the extraordinary snaking housing project at Duffryn in South Wales was the first of many such demonstrations; indeed, his fascination with creating housing density without frustrating the suburban aspiration for a garden continued right to the end of his life, when he was developing what he called ‘an urban tool kit’.

His partnership with Peter Jamieson, later joined by David Prichard, quickly started to mine an extraordinary rich seam of work in Cambridge and Oxford Colleges. His first competition win at Worcester College, for what came to be known as the Sainsbury Building, is still perhaps his most recognisable image. Jutting into the college lake (which he actually extended onto the site) the building appears to be a cascade of what he called ‘roofed rooms’ arranged around the then revolutionary concept of kitchens as ‘social heartbeats’ of groups of students, the whole being generated by his mastery of tartan grid planning. Dubbed ‘romantic pragmatism’ by his friend Peter Davey, then editor of the Architectural Review, Richard never felt entirely comfortable with either word. Always wholly open about acknowledging the sources of his inspiration, he nonetheless transformed them into his own architecture. For example, a beautiful film made by the Royal Academy, of which he was a leading light, explains how the ideas of Palladio came to influence the disposition the Cable and Wireless Headquarters through the essay by Colin Rowe and Richard’s own love of the English country house and its relationship to landscape.

After Worcester College the office was on a roll, with no fewer than a dozen competition victories in Oxbridge courts and quads. He became the most prolific post war architect in both cities. Undoubtedly mostly variations on a theme, they were never formulaic, each one produced after the most intense reading of that particular site and its history. A lifelong love affair with Soane (he became a trustee of the museum) infused his work, culminating in the tour de force ‘Garden Quadrangle’ for St John’s College, Oxford, with its dreaming towers of student rooms surmounting a glimpsed Piranesian underworld of auditorium and dining room under Soanian saucer domes. Perhaps Richard was insulated by college budgets and eccentric and indulgent masters (the Master of St John’s once said he wanted a building on which he didn’t want to spend any maintenance money for 500 years!), but arguably his most poetic and exquisite project was built for the less wealthy Fitzwilliam College, its Chapel. This astonishing little building took the idea of a boat (one of Richard’s lifelong obsessions; he sailed an oyster smack on the Essex coast), with the worshippers sailing on a spiritual journey. An equally exquisite building followed shortly after – the Ruskin archive library at Lancaster University, a perfect commission for an architect so fascinated with history.

Buying the derelict house next door, he transformed the interior into a homage to the Soane Museum and connected the two properties via a secret pivoting fireplace.

In the 1990s the office grew in size with prestigious commissions for a memorable tube station at Southwark with its main hall inspired by Schinkel’s sets for the Magic Flute; commercial office buildings in the City, proving that Richard could engage with the ‘real world’ after Oxbridge; and the Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum. Of course, much has been written about the BBC, which will come to be seen as our own version of the Sydney Opera House tragedy. Put simply, Richard saw the BBC as one of our greatest national institutions with, rather like the Catholic Church, an influence throughout the world – in particular the reputation of its news service. It seemed to him wholly appropriate that the epicentre of both the organisation and the building, the great newsroom, should be its St Peter’s. But he was unlucky with his pope and cardinals, who compounded their feebleness by throwing him into a pit of project managers, an irreconcilable clash of cultures with the inevitable result. As a man of great passion and emotion and also a fierce Londoner, this was a colossal blow from which emotionally he never really recovered. His knighthood in 2001 was a poor compensation.

If all Richard’s buildings turn to dust he would still leave us another treasured resource, namely his extraordinary essay writing. Thirty of these, but only the tip of the iceberg, are included in the summation of his work ‘Building Ideas’ published four years ago. A double first at Trinity is evident in the breadth of his knowledge, his astonishing intellectual curiosity and his supremely elegant prose. He was the most complete architect with his knowledge of all aspects of architecture, planning, construction, history, art, philosophy etc was immense, making connections across the years in a written and spoken use of the English language which was truly intoxicating. As a consequence, his architecture – spanning that difficult period where modernism needed to be redefined – remains some of the richest and most fascinating in the country.

Richard separated from his wife Sue Landen and after moving his office to a derelict brewery off Brick Lane he fell in love with his neighbour the celebrated author, cook and interior designer Jocasta Innes. In many ways an unlikely partnership, they remained inseparable for 30 years, with Jocasta’s kitchen playing a convivial role in Richard’s gregarious lifestyle. Buying the derelict house next door, he transformed the interior into a homage to the Soane Museum and connected the two properties via a secret pivoting fireplace. He continued designing right to the end, sketching out an extension to his own Maggies Centre in Cheltenham from his hospice bed. 

In a great personal tragedy his younger son Luke died suddenly at school aged 10. He is survived by his elder son William.