Born: 3 September 1938
Died: 26 July 2014
Elected RA: 24 May 1993
Trained in the most straight-laced social modernist ethos at Cambridge and the Bartlett School at UCL, Richard MacCormac began his career at a time when architecture was treated more as a social service than an art. He even worked on housing schemes for a local authority – the London Borough of Merton – before starting his own practice which became MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard in 1972. He soon realised the limitations of this approach to architecture, but it was not until the end of the 1970s, when he won a competition for a university building in Bristol just as the Thatcher Government stopped building public housing, that he found opportunities to expand his architectural repertoire.
A series of memorable university buildings, mainly in Oxford and Cambridge, followed. The luscious setting of Worcester College Oxford inspired MacCormac to introduce a sense of allusion and mystery into the design for the Sainsbury building (1983). Dubbed Romantic Pragmatism by the Architectural Review, its traditional materials connect it to its context, but its sophisticated composition means it is never quite what it seems from a single angle. After decades of being mired in the equation of function x economy, architecture again showed a potential to convey meaning and to relate to other cultural practices. He summarised his belief in the interplay between ideas and objects: "the concept comes through if the detail gives it rhetoric".
From the early 1980s onwards, MacCormac became increasingly interested in the relationship between art and architecture. Combining the different sensibilities of artists and designers helped to challenge the assumptions of both and led to greater levels of insight and meaning. His architecture has moments of exhilarating beauty, such as the shimmering blue tiles on the wave-like roof of the Cable and Wireless training centre outside Coventry and the long, taut curves of the Tesco supermarket at Ludlow. The Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster proved a perfect opportunity to interweave form, function and meaning. Long a devotee of Ruskin’s belief that architecture is more than mere building, MacCormac conceived the library as casket of allusion where visitors are pushed to the edge to make way for the artefacts, which stand for Ruskin himself. Materials and compositions make reference to Ruskin’s beloved St Mark’s, so as well as being a functioning library and research centre, it attains other layers of meaning which commemorate Ruskin and draw attention to his ideas and the works he celebrated.
Other outlets for MacCormac’s commitment to exploring the relationship between art and architecture were designing exhibitions and in leading the RA Forum. But the most far-reaching manifestation is the Phoenix Initiative, where with input from artists like Jochen Gerz, Susanna Heron and David Ward art and architecture combine to draw on the history and project a future for central Coventry.