Richard MacCormac RA discusses the developing relationship between architecture and market forces since the 1970s.
To find the studio of Richard MacCormac, aged 62 and Britain’s newest architectural knight, you have to go to Spitalfields. Leaving Liverpool Street Station behind, weighed down by the Broadgate office development, the challenging composition of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch confronts you while passing the chaotically vibrant old market.
But rather than enter the church you flit to the side, past the gentler classicism of the Huguenot weavers’ houses in Fournier Street, alongside a mosque, then across shabbily vibrant Brick Lane and into the side alleyway where MacCormac’s studio is located.
It’s just the sort of location – a former industrial building, in a diverse area – which artists, and those architects who think of themselves as artists, tend to gravitate toward.
On living in London
The area around Richard MacCormac’s Spitalfields studio condenses much of the diversity of contemporary London: the extremes of wealth and poverty, of different social and ethnic groups, of varying activities and contrasts between intellectually demanding, monumental architecture and softer, recessive, background buildings. And it provides MacCormac, who chairs the Royal Academy’s Architecture Committee, with a continual stream of inspiration.
Born in London shortly before World War II, he enjoyed the Blitz – ‘the noise was wonderful’ – but didn’t like growing up in the suburbs. As a graduate student he lived in ‘a disgusting communal artists’ dosshouse in Waterloo’ and moved to Spitalfields about 20 years ago. ‘I like parts of cities which can’t be classified socially’, he says, following his friend the urban theorist Richard Sennett. ‘There is a dark side to community and conformity.’
Art and architecture
Moving to Spitalfields in the early 1980s re-ignited MacCormac’s interest in the relationship between art and architecture. With only about nine staff at the time they moved, his firm MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard didn’t fill the space, so they ran a small art gallery. MacCormac remembers Vivien Lovell, then the Tower Hamlets arts officer, ‘teasing us in her amiable way about not working with artists. We told her it was hard enough to get clients to pay for architecture!’ But the message sank in and clients began to be persuaded.
Sensuous forms and sumptuous materials began to appear in his work, such as the softly undulating blue tiled roof of the Cable and Wireless training centre outside Coventry. The Ruskin Library at Lancaster University and Southwark Jubilee Line station incorporated works by Alexander Beleschenko while a major regeneration project in Coventry has several artworks.
These include an installation by David Ward which comprises a series of loudspeakers activated by people’s movements. Go close to one, MacCormac warns, and you set off the amplified sound of a giant Amazonian dragonfly. Working closely with artists generates ‘wonderful uncertainty [which] not many of my contemporaries are prepared to engage in’.
Architecture as social service
MacCormac became interested in the relationship between art and architecture as an undergraduate student at Cambridge either side of 1960. The professor of architecture was Sir Leslie Martin, who had co-edited a magazine called ‘Circle’ in the 1930s with Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson. He also designed the Royal Festival Hall in the late 1940s. But the tide of post war attitudes was more aptly summed up in a pamphlet which appeared in the early 1960s called ‘Architecture: art or social service?’
MacCormac was ‘never completely convinced by the ideology of the Modern Movement [in architecture] that form follows function’, but he still felt compelled to submit. One of the great joys of designing Ruskin Library at Lancaster University in the early ‘90s was trying to ascertain what Ruskin himself meant by ‘historical’. This creative necessity went beyond the narrow notion of architecture as social service. Instead, the task became one of developing instantaneous meanings through reference to Ruskin’s work and enthusiasms.
Having completed his first degree at Cambridge, he decided for the two year graduate diploma course to undergo the ‘very scientific rigour’ then supposedly on offer at the Bartlett School at University College London, under the headship of Richard Llewelyn-Davies, old Etonian, Cambridge Apostle and Labour life peer.
There were moments of high comedy. One professor, an expert on daylighting, occasionally sent up from his windowless basement room dictats about the ideal shape and size of windows. ‘I had an underdeveloped sense that windows were about architectural ideas’, but found most of his colleagues and tutors unreceptive.
1979 and all that
When MacCormac graduated in the 1960s architecture was seen as a social service. The most interesting opportunities for ambitious young architects lay in publicly funded projects, such as schools, hospitals and housing. MacCormac’s firm, founded in 1972, quickly established a reputation in housing, and thrived at a time when chief architects could place commissions directly with outside firms. But these projects offered little chance to nurture ideas about art and, in any case, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 put an end to them.
MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard was lucky; it had just gained a toehold in Oxford and Cambridge, and produced several memorable additions to the universities’ building stock. They offered MacCormac opportunities to evolve his architectural ideas, to hone them in academic debate, to experiment with composition – the chapel at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge allowed him to develop the idea of a building within a building – and, at St John’s College Oxford, to work directly with artists.
As Thatcherite policies nudged architecture from a social service towards being a servant of business, MacCormac was preparing to recover lost ground and reclaim architecture, once again, as an art.
Spending other people's money
Architects may be, unlike artists, ‘trustees of large financial resources’, but ‘that has to be deliberately reconciled with what we are’. He expands the point with reference to a recent project for a large bank in London, one of several explicitly commercial commissions which have recently come into the practice. ‘It’s hard to satisfy pragmatic requirements and to say “you must let us give you a glimpse up into the atrium. It’s slightly crunchy but they can see it’s rather exciting.’ Fortunately some nimble rearrangements had already made space for an extra row of dealing desks, so to sacrifice the edges of two floors and about six desks for a Piranesian slot through the building wasn’t so difficult.
Architectural creativity is a balancing act. Many architects – even very good ones – tend to explain all their decisions in contingent terms, where artists need say no more than ‘I like it’. MacCormac often starts with an intuitive idea. The suffused blue light in the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum for example, ‘came quite early – it could have been looking at the background on a computer screen’, and an interest in ‘putting objects inside objects’ led to a mysterious curving shape floating in the blue atmosphere. Through discussion with colleagues this became the essence of a very practical diagram; the shape is the IMAX auditorium, and with floors suspended like trays in the residual volume, the museum had the large exhibition areas they wanted.
The Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, for Ruskin’s archives, acquired layers of meaning as MacCormac and his colleagues tried to ascertain with the client, Professor Michael Wheeler, exactly what Ruskin meant by ‘historical’. The task became one of developing instantaneous meanings through references to Ruskin’s work and enthusiasms. Realising it could be ‘a fundamentally alllusive building’ that represents ‘all sorts of things’. There is also a historical reference in the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing to memory theatres, ‘buildings which indicate how knowledge is made available. You come on stage and everything is made available spatially’.
Between art and a hard place
Design, says MacCormac, is ‘an intuitive procedure that perhaps discovers things, possibilities, potentialities.’ Architecture, as an art, hovers between the most prosaic and deterministic conditions and intellectual or emotional perceptions. It is both practical problem-solving and the most visceral embodiment of those practical, everyday problems and this renders it part of our intellectual culture.
Remodelling Broadcasting House for the BBC, and a 160 acre masterplan on the western edge of Cambridge, take this to a large scale. The Broadcasting House proposal treats the building as a city, with stairs and corridors becoming public ‘streets’, off which are ‘intense office workspaces’. West Cambridge develops the theme; it includes two fora for bringing together bright young graduates who might be ‘incubating’ ideas and commercial organisations with premises on the site.
It might be, perhaps, something like Spitalfields, a successful interaction between different sorts of community and creative modes.