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Support system

Hugh Pearman

MJ Long and Sandy Wilson’s intertwined lives were an example of what partnership can really mean

Architects who are partners in life as well as in work have one big advantage over their peers who ‘marry out’:  they understand all the frustrations and joys, all the late nights and the reasons for those. They have one big disadvantage too, which is the same. There is really no escape apart from taking turn and turn about, especially when it comes to looking after children, or ailing parents. And even then, you’ll be bringing your work home with you. 

I don’t want this column to be about the time-consuming pressures of practising architecture and how best to deal with those pressures in the interest of domestic harmony, vital though it is for every architect to manage that. Rather I want to celebrate a telling coincidence this month in RIBA Journal where, although we sadly publish our obituary of MJ Long, we get the chance to examine her working life with and without her husband Colin ‘Sandy’ St John Wilson. Because Sandy Wilson also features in our RIBAJ archive slot which starts off being about the launch of the Stirling Prize in 1996 but goes on to discuss the disruptive role his British Library played in the early years of the prize.

‘His’ British Library, did I say? Deborah Saunt, as a one-time employee of them both, puts the record straight in her obituary of MJ: she had as much to do with the British Library as Sandy, indeed, she was ‘in charge of the brief’ as it was put. As an incisive teacher and critic she could bring Sandy’s ideas into focus and contribute her own, while simultaneously running her own business.


As an incisive teacher and critic, MJ Long could bring Sandy’s ideas into focus and contribute her own, while simultaneously running her own business

Then things went a stage further: such was the controversy surrounding the British Library in the usual way of our great public projects that she established the successful practice of Long and Kentish with Rolfe Kentish as a kind of distancing device as much as a legal one – and Sandy collaborated with this practice for the final part of his career, in a subsidiary role to the named partners.

The whole life/work thing for Sandy and MJ was captured perfectly by their friend the artist RB Kitaj for whom MJ designed a studio; there are the two of them at work, presumably in their self-built home in Cambridge, children and cat present. But Sandy is looking at us in that quizzical way of his over his glasses, while MJ, leaning over her drawing board in profile, is not engaging with us, is just absorbed in her work. So it was in life: while he quite enjoyed the limelight if not the controversy, neither was her choice. This didn’t stop her designing excellent buildings on her own account. 

And then, finally, they designed the Pallant House gallery in Chichester together, which brought their art collection – Kitaj represented there of course – together with their architecture. A remarkably apt culmination of two intertwined lives well lived.