The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Rick Mather

by Matthew Wickens

Rick Mather died in April after a short illness, having suffered from asbestos-related cancer. He was 75. He was well-known for his carefully crafted modernist extensions to several London institutions and Oxford colleges, and many earlier residential projects in Camden. His firm, Rick Mather Architects, was twice shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.

Rick was born in Oregon and trained at the University of Oregon in the 1950s when it was one of the first US Schools to break free of the Beaux Arts tradition. Having read Arts & Architecture magazine as a teenager, he became interested in European urban design via Camille Sitte’s The Art of Building a City and a stack of borrowed Baedeker guides. He first came to Europe in 1959, visiting Norway and Denmark while researching Oregon’s barns as well as making more predictable trips to pay homage to Le Corbusier and Rietveld.

In 1963 Mather moved to London and found work with Lyons Israel Ellis, well-known at the time as a breeding ground for architectural talent. After a couple of years he enrolled on the urban design course at the AA. He would go on to teach the 1st year at the AA with Su Rogers and, later, Dale Benedict. He fondly recalled taking students to see Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris ‘long before the French came to appreciate it’. Going on to work for the Borough of Southwark, he set up in private practice in 1973 after completing his first house for himself  in Arlington Road in Camden.

Mather honed his skills remodelling domestic interiors, always with a desire never to let any space go unused. Even when projects grew much larger – such as a masterplan for Central Milton Keynes(2002-12), every square metre was made to count. A considered sense of volumetric play was always apparent and early projects such as the freestanding Gladwell House(1977-79) on Lady Somerset Road in London NW5 demonstrate his desire for complex interiors within a simple container. The remodelling of the Architectural Association was handled with typically understated assurance and highly regarded by its well-versed occupants. Further commissions for the Zen chain of restaurants further raised his profile. An interest in university master-planning was also taking shape, and the Climatic Research Unit (1985) at the University of East Anglia was one of the earliest low energy super-insulated buildings in the UK.

Student housing for UEA led to work for other higher education clients, including a competition win for a student residence at Keble College, Oxford. The Arco Building (1992-95) used an ingenious single-stair arrangement in plan to give kitchen groups off corridors, based on the Keble precedent, rather than staircases, and provided a rooftop terrace with views back to Butterfield’s Victorian Chapel. This led to further commissions from Keble College and – more recently – a new auditorium within a bastion of the old city wall for Corpus Christi (2005-09).

A lifelong interest in 1930s modernism – which included a talk to the Society on modernist houses – influenced the Klein House in Hampstead, a runner-up for the Stirling Prize.  In a happily acknowledged nod to Connell, Ward and Lucas, a simple white box from the outside enclosed an inside cut apart to reveal the basement swimming pool below and the sky above through various glass floors and staircases.  A complete set of all eight editions of F R S Yorke’s The Modern House and all three of The Modern House in England were proud possessions, and he was always amused by the changing fortunes of those architects deemed admissible in one edition but omitted the next.

At the turn of the millennium, cultural buildings came to fruition, with an extension to Soane’s jewel-like picture gallery/mausoleum in Dulwich (1995-2000), a cloister and open-sided courtyard which provided all the things modern galleries need without impinging on the original building. Projects at the Wallace Collection in Central London and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich used the same device of glazing over under-used courtyards to re-orientate visitors and provide much needed additional gallery and back-of-house space.

This capacity to realise projects where others had failed was the context for the South Bank Centre master-plan competition win of 1999. While respecting the existing buildings, this breathed new life into the South Bank, while pragmatically ensuring that the work could be done in stages as funding and tenants became available. The liveliness of the South Bank today owes a great deal to this careful approach which future phases will hopefully heed.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1999-2009) was the culmination of all these strategies: working with an existing structure, eking out every inch of useable space, responding to historic context and creating rich volumetric play within a simple container. The new building uses the scale of C R Cockerell’s 1845 original to create interlocked double-height galleries which gather around two atria, each with a cascading staircase subtly differentiated from the other in terms of views and orientation.

In recent years commissions came from the US, with a new wing for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (2002-10) and shortlisting for the transformation of the New York Public Library (2008) entailing frequent flights across the Atlantic. Rick’s current project was his biggest yet: a new wing for the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The site for the new building sits next to an early pilgrim burial ground where lies his distant relative Cotton Mather – his ‘clan’ having come full circle.

Richard Martin Mather, born 30 May 1937, died 20 April 2013.

Published May 2013