The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: Charles McKean

by Gavin Stamp

The impressively prolific, wonderfully inspiring and intimidatingly energetic historian Charles McKean may be best known to older members of this society for his 1987 book, The Scottish Thirties: An Architectural Introduction, the result of a major research project he had instigated. I crossed swords with him over this, arguing that the Modern movement north of the Border in the 1930s was even more peripheral than it had been in England. But I had underestimated both McKean’s commitment to Scotland and the scale of the task he had set himself (as Secretary and Treasurer of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland) of making Scottish architecture – both historic and contemporary – the best promoted in the world. In this he certainly succeeded.

Charles McKean was born in Glasgow, one of two sons of a civil engineer who would make a significant mark in British architectural culture. After a difficult childhood and education at Fettes in Edinburgh and at the Universities of Bristol and, exotically, Poitiers, he took an administrative job at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. There he flourished, his enthusiasm and energy expanding into journalism and new research projects. He was much involved in the publication in 1975 of Battle of styles: A guide to selected buildings in London of the 1914-39 period, the RIBA’s contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year. The following year he produced, with Tom Jestico, a Guide to Modern Buildings in London 1965-75. Charles was also responsible for Fight Blight: A Citizen’s Guide to Urban Dereliction – and What They Can Do About It.

In that momentous year 1979, Charles was invited to apply for the job of running the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, the Edinburgh-based professional body founded in 1916. Over the next fifteen years, he succeeded in revitalising both that then moribund institution, making the premises in Rutland Square a centre of activity, and Scottish architecture as a whole. One of his major achievements was starting the series of illustrated architectural guides to the cities and regions of Scotland emanating from the publishing arm of the RIAS, the Rutland Press. In the absence of the relevant volumes of the Buildings of Scotland, these paperback guides were – and are – essential. Charles himself was responsible for several of them, and he also wrote with knowledge and passion about the buildings of Edinburgh and Glasgow – not least about those by C R Mackintosh.

In 1995 Charles was invited to be the Head of the Duncan of Jordanstone School of Architecture in Dundee, but this proved a difficult task, due to the usual resentments architects feel towards non-architects entering their compound. Happily, Charles was able to move sideways two years later by becoming Professor of Architectural History at the University of Dundee. In that role, his talents as a teacher and researcher were properly exploited and his irrepressible enthusiasm directed towards encouraging interest and awareness about this much-abused city on the Tay. Charles had the gift of being able to inspire and work with others – he would usually describe conducting research in terms of ‘we’ – and made entering new and sometimes perverse fields of investigation seem like an adventure. His interests were not confined to the 20th century: in the 1990s he pursued a major project into Scotland’s many and misunderstood Renaissance castles, arguing that they were not built for defence but for show and – controversially – that they were originally brightly coloured externally. The result was the publication of The Scottish Chateau in 2001.

Charles was involved in many organisations – the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland, the Scottish Castles Association – all of which owe him a debt, as does the Twentieth Century Society, if to a much lesser extent. In his latter years he was much involved in the UNESCO Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. Charles’s enthusiasm and optimism remained undimmed until the last. Hearing he was very ill, I contacted him at the Edinburgh hospice where he had ended up. He e-mailed back, telling me how he was trying to finish his book, ‘A Revisionist History of the Evolution of Scotland’s Architecture within Britain, 1660-1910’ (a quintessentially McKean project), and about wanting ‘to get back home, stabilise and make a plan! I have always liked plans.’ Eleven days later, he was dead.

Charles McKean is very much missed: he did a huge amount for his native land by celebrating Scottish architecture, but he understood it in a wider context, both British and European. How, I wonder, would he have voted in the coming referendum?

Charles McKean, born 16 July 1946, died 29 September 2013.