Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sir Richard MacCormac

I'm very sad to learn that one of Britain's most learned, civilised and civilising architects, Sir Richard MacCormac, has died, at the age of 75.

He and his MJP team won the competition to redevelop the Broadcasting House site in 2000 - by a mile, I'm told. He sold his ideas with a combination of wisdom and charm that enabled the BBC to get a really substantial building on the site, through a planning process of intense scrutiny. You never really knew if all the ideas were his - he assembled a team of quality and ambition - but wherever they started, they turned into something special as he explained them, and connected them, back to themes from the past, and forward, to spaces that would inspire.

I joined the project when Phase 1, the rebuilding of old Broadcasting House as a place to make radio programmes again, and the creation of its new sister wing, nee Egton, was about to start. We had great fun as MJP developed designs for Phase 2, watched like hawks by serried ranks of Dickensian cost consultants, quantity surveyors and builders-who-knew-best. He was erudite, but never earnest, fastidious but not fussy; we'd barter items, distract them from stopping good ideas by letting them worry about light fittings in escape stairs - and celebrate small victories over a bottle of crisp dry white.

BBC bosses with shorter-term ambitions steered clear - buildings are tricky things, and the best come from strong organisations.  Delays to Phase 1 scared them badly. The contract for Phase 2 eventually made Sir Richard the servant of builders - and they were looking to their margins, as, I'm afraid, was the BBC. A sad, sorry process of "simplification" was put in place; he fought a losing battle, and the wider "client" selected different architects to complete the detailed design.

There was some painful use of the word "iconic" in executive meetings of the BBC as they tracked the design work; I think they really meant memorable. Sir Richard's broad shape for the site, his stone and glass cladding, his gull-wing roof, his piazza and bridges, the twin atria and central circulation, the bold modern frontage along Portland Place, all survived simplification. Succeeding architects did good work inside, but with a much reduced budget - and I worry that the BBC doesn't have the discipline to keep the to-a-price interior in good nick.  But it's the framework that's memorable, and for that, we should remember and thank Sir Richard MacCormac.

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