The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Andrew MacMillan

by Gordon Benson

Andrew MacMillan, ‘Andy’, became a metaphor for himself: the living embodiment of the gifted enlightened Scot: modest, informed, curious, generous, intellectually assured, mildly self-deprecating, effortlessly transforming the pragmatic into the poetic and back again.

His character is the central sensibility which permeates Scottish literature, the poetry of Dunbar, Burns and MacDiarmid, and inextricably woven into the philosophical fabric of Enlightenment thought in its aspiration for a humane and egalitarian society.

MacMillan’s fully integrated emotional and intellectual awareness allowed him to pinpoint how others could be encouraged, supported, nudged to become more fully themselves. This humanity, combined with innate architectural talent and an individual perspective on modernism which re-integrated tradition and innovation, practice and thought, had a profound influence on architectural education in Scotland and became the catalyst which transformed the Glasgow School of Architecture, ‘The Mac’, into one of the most rigorous and highly regarded schools in Europe.

MacMillan’s intellectual perspective on future architecture was shaped by his exposure, to and synthesis of, five apparently contradictory experiential phenomena: Victorian/Georgian urbanism; pragmatic/poetic in the work of Macintosh; a Beaux Arts informed education; the traditional programmes of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (GK&C); and the non-doctrinaire modernism of post-war Europe.

He recognised the value of Victorian (Glasgow) and Georgian (Edinburgh) urban typologies liberated from nostalgia, ornament and (modernism’s and society’s) oversimplified view of the social and environmental problems with which they were perceived to be synonymous.

Five years shared exposure with his friend and future partner in GK+C, Isi Metzstein, to Mackintosh’s masterpiece , the Glasgow School of Art, revealed the seamless, delicate umbilical which links the most individual and intimate experience, through shared/collective encounter, to the urban/civic and society in its entirety.

The hybrid education within the school, part Beaux Arts residue with its encyclopaedic analysis of architectural history, and part doctrinaire modernism, uniquely equipped Andy and Isi to address the programmes presented to them within the office of GK+C.

What emerged was an enriched modernism. An inclusive view of history was synthesised with empirical modernism (i.e. starting from first principles). The architecture shaped by these ideas is qualitatively the equal of anything being produced in Europe or the USA. Two of the unparalleled masterpieces were St Brides and the seminary in Cardross, which, sadly, are inadequately maintained and in ruins respectively.

In his seminal article (which became the template for a similar body of thought) on the tenement and the inhabited wall, MacMillan argued that the Georgian/Victorian urban model with its spatial/continuum of streets, squares and gardens, produced a more humane environment which lent itself to being incrementally extended without loss of local or collective identity. The article appeared when cities in the UK were being indiscriminately demolished under the banner of a utopian future for all; in practice, this meant the loss of that which most visibly defined cultural identity, continuity and the unique sense of place. This revised view of urbanism and place-making articulated by MacMillan is now generally accepted (but sadly rarely implemented) and can be found in miniature in the practice’s competition-winning building for Robinson College, Cambridge.

In 1973 MacMillan was appointed Professor of Architecture at Glasgow University and Head of the Mackintosh School, where he remained for the next 21 years. It is in this role that he is most warmly remembered by generations of students throughout Britain.

The school was transformed by a collective passion and enthusiasm, and an implementable understanding of how the lessons within the architecture of the past could be selectively synthesised with a poetically transformed modernism. Architecture and urbanism were reinvigorated by acknowledging their dual identities, that is, both their ‘thingness’ – what they are and what they house – and their ‘placeness’, their genius loci – how they draw upon, amplify and inform the unique experience of where they are.

His students and, their students, share the transformational experience and delight which he brought to their subject and their lives. Without realising it, he was what he most wanted to be – a renaissance architect. In the renaissance of his own invention.

Professor Andy MacMillan, born 11 December 1928, died 16 August 2014.