The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: Richard MacCormac

by Mark Hines

Richard MacCormac, who died aged 75 after a long illness, developed an interest in architecture at an early age. This was inspired initially through a love of model making: as a boy at Westminster School he had built model boats, and enjoyed sailing and blowing them up in equal measure. He also loved the sea, doing his National Service in the Royal Navy, and in later life his pride and joy was the 1908 Oyster Smack he renovated.

He studied architecture at Cambridge and at the Bartlett school of architecture at UCL. As a young architect, he worked at Powell and Moya, and Lyons Israel and Ellis, and designed social housing with Merton Council. He founded his own practice in 1972, along with Peter Jamieson and David Prichard. Together they built a number of neo-vernacular housing schemes in Milton Keynes using a ‘people’s architecture’ of pitched roofs, timber and brick. The 1970s were dark days for modern architects, and, with a number of contemporaries, MJP played a small part in helping to rebuild the public’s trust in modern architecture.

MacCormac was always the lead designer in the office, and went on to develop an architectural language of picturesque massing, carefully controlled views, complex geometry and ordered planning, through a series of well-crafted student residences for Oxbridge Colleges. These projects would eventually lead to large scale public and office buildings, such as a headquarters building for Cable and Wireless, Southwark underground station and a new building and extension for the Science Museum. However, MacCormac’s most committed client was St John’s College Oxford, for whom he built the Garden Quadrangle (voted the best modern building in Oxford of the last 75 years in an Oxford Times poll), an extension to the Senior Common Room, and most recently, Kendrew Quadrangle.

He was a skilful writer, and had a tremendous ability to communicate the ideas behind the projects in a thoughtful, modest and accessible way. Like his architectural heroes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Soane, MacCormac’s best buildings were complex, spatial yet structured arrangements that questioned the perception of the boundaries of spaces. He developed an interest in the direct human experience of architecture, with a language of historical references, colour, surface and material, into a rich, personal style. Despite its historical allusions, complex section and plan, the floor of the Worcester College JCR was also carefully designed to match punt level on the adjacent lake.

The recent £1billion redevelopment of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London was to be the culmination of a distinguished career – an opportunity to explore many of these ideas at a large scale. But his buildings depended on long-term aspiration and commitment, and, while Oxbridge colleges were able to offer this, half-way through the BBC project concerns over costs and his reluctance to compromise led eventually to his removal – a loss that he felt profoundly.

Richard was committed to furthering the cause of architecture in public life. He was a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission (1983–93) and the Architecture Committee of the Royal Academy (1998–2008), and a Trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum from 1998. He was elected a fellow of the RSA in 1982, made a CBE in 1994 and knighted in 2001 (as the Prince of Wales laid his sword on his shoulders, he whispered, ‘So, Richard, are you still a modern architect? I suppose I really ought to take your head off…’). MacCormac went on to do further ‘National Service’, as he always referred to it, as President of the RIBA.

He was an extraordinarily clear thinker with an infectious enthusiasm for architecture. He was a remarkable man, engaging and funny, clever and modest, articulate and effusive, immensely social yet somehow shy. Richard enjoyed the company of the young architects in his office, but rarely gave advice – you learnt by watching him.

Richard married Susan Landen in 1964 and they had two sons. After they separated he lived for 30 years with the designer and author Jocasta Innes in two adjoining Georgian houses in Spitalfields, connected by a secret door disguised as a fireplace.

Designing was what he enjoyed most, and he instigated a large RIBA exhibition called The Art of Process – referring fondly to architecture itself as ‘a sort of mad quest’. For him, designing was a magical yet very serious game, and for those of us lucky enough to have worked in his office, it was a privilege playing it with him.

Richard MacCormac, born 3 September 1938, died 26 July 2014.