News
06.17.2013
Obit> Rick Mather, 1937-2013
Barry Bergdoll remembers an architect known for intelligent interventions at cultural institutions in England and the US.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 2010.
Bilyana Dimitrova / VMFA

Rick Mather arrived in London from Portland, Oregon, in 1963, just as the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” was hitting the top of the charts. He ended up staying for fifty years. It was also the year that Alvin Boyarsky, one of Rick’s teachers in Oregon, arrived at the Architectural Association (AA). Mather did a degree course there in urban design before going on to work for the Brutalist firm Lyons, Israel and Ellis on school buildings in Yorkshire and then on public housing for the London borough of Southwark. But the AA would remain a focus, especially after he established his own practice not far away in Camden Town in 1973. In the 1970s, Boyarsky rejuvenated the roster of unit masters—Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Elia Zhengelis, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas—while Mather, despite New England puritan ancestry, created a stylish bar at the heart of his transformation of the AA’s string of Georgian row houses on the west side of Bedford Square. With its mirrored surfaces in unexpected places (under the bar for one)—something that would become a hallmark in the next decade of Mather’s own two houses, as well as whole series of astounding restaurant interiors for the “Zen” restaurants—the bar was the lynchpin of the AA’s metamorphosis into an international hub.

 
Rick Mather.
Courtesy Rick Mather Architects
 

I first met Rick in 1988 or 1989, years after I had already made the bar and bookstore at the AA a necessary stop on any trip to London; and not through the world of architecture but through a former teacher and friend from my years at Cambridge, the old master drawings specialist and Fitzwilliam Museum curator, David Scrase, Rick’s future life partner. In 1978, Mather had reimagined a Victorian terrace house on the slopes of Hampstead into an amazing bachelor pad/party house, with a library and guest bedrooms on lower floors and a duplex living/dining room at the top with access to a lushly planted roof terrace commanding views of the London skyline. Its outdoor dining table featured a glazed bench cantilevered over the back garden three stories below. Rick and David made this space into a nexus of conversation, conviviality, and new friendships (including ours), now centered on the intersecting worlds of architecture and art museums. Is it merely a coincidence that right around this time Mather’s practice would shift dramatically from residential and restaurant interiors towards university and museum work? This began in 1988 with the master plan for the extension of the University of East Anglia and the brilliant transformation of a gallery space in Cork Street London to allow light to penetrate into a basement gallery for the Waddington Art Gallery, entered over a stair suspended from cables. Mather’s vocabulary of lightweight structure and bringing daylight into previously wasted or inhospitable spaces was announced. Over the next 25 years this approach to restructuring at all scales from a small gallery to a campus or city district would be combined with a zest for complex spatial reorganization of historic buildings, which announced a sophisticated marriage between a lyrically minimalist modernism and an intelligent respect for historic structures.

Unusual for someone trained in modernism at Oregon and coming of age in an AA dominated by Archigram excitement, Mather had a voracious openness to architectural history. A library of rare volumes spilled from his office shelves in Camden Town and his home library at Belsize Park, even as more and more of his work was in dialogue with British masters from the austere reduced classicism of Sir John Soane (his hero ever since the mirrored bar) via the High Victorian Gothic exuberance of William Butterfield (in a sophisticated addition to Keeble College, Oxford) to the Brutalism of Denys Lasdun. That his own style could enter a conversation with this whole tradition without changing its accent any more than his American English had softened over the years, was, for him, proof that a modernist approach to materials, space, and an elegant restraint of means, was indeed the most respectful way to dealing with inherited masterworks and with the collage that is both London and, no less, the college campuses which were the venue for most of his free-standing new buildings.

 
The James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Bilyana Dimitrova / VMFA
 

In the years when the Prince of Wales’s neo-traditionalism was in ascendancy, Mather became one of the most convincing—and least shrill—voices demonstrating that an architecture of contrast could bring new life to even some of the most beloved of English architectural monuments. The exquisitely detailed, glazed, L-shaped cloister addition that, in 1999, Mather connected to Soane’s sober London stock brick 1812 Picture Gallery at Dulwich College won over a whole new generation of museum directors, fifteen years after the Prince’s torpedoing of a proposed modernist addition to the National Gallery as a “carbuncle on the face of old friend.” A whole series of deft transformations of some of Britain’s most cherished spaces for viewing art followed, as Mather turned the courtyard of the Wallace Collection into a glazed restaurant and circulation space, proposed a brilliant solution for the British Museum—passed over for Sir Norman Forster—restructured a coherent set of spaces for the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and began work on his most complex, and most adroit museum project of all, the Ashmolean at Oxford. Working inside Charles Robert Cockerell’s highly personal classical U-shaped building with myriad later additions and alternations, Mather not only managed to increase the floor area and qualities of the gallery spaces without changing the overall footprint of the historic structure, he also found space at the heart of the impacted complex for a light-filled stairwell, the ramps and railings of which cascade through the height of the building to animate the new found light and to dramatize the new flowing ease of space that he breathed into the whole project.

Slowly word crept out of Mather’s ability to transform an institution, borrowing a historic building for a few years and giving it back with both its original intent and its current life richly enhanced. In 2001, Mather began work on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, bringing sense to a somewhat chaotic complex with his characteristic sense of master plan clarity and sectional richness. He was poised to do the same for the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which he hoped might anchor his practice back on the shores of the homeland he had left a half century earlier. But within a few weeks of the news his precipitous decline in health and then death on April 20 from an aggressive case of Mesothelioma, contracted, it is thought, earlier from asbestos exposure on building sites, the New England museum announced its decision to sever ties with Mather’s firm and to delay the project for at least two years. Enough had been accomplished that Mather’s design intelligence will in all likelihood still undergird that project, and all can regret deeply that Mather did not find time to set up his office to assure a successful transition. But it can be hoped that the astute master planning he had devised for one of the great urban planning quagmires of late twentieth century London—the South bank from Waterloo Bridge to Lasdun’s National Theatre, a challenge that had defeated Terry Farrell and Richard Rogers before him—will carry both his architectural acumen and his devotion to his adopted London into the future. Rick will be sorely missed by the institutions who had been rejuvenated by this perennially youthful architect—what a shock to learn that this ebullient convivial professional and wonderful friend was a few weeks shy of his 76th birthday—as he is by the international circle of friends who had dined either at his table in London, or the wonderful house and garden he and David created on the coast near Saint Tropez, or those who still hope to catch a glimpse of him in the mirrors of the AA bar.

Barry Bergdoll

Barry Bergdoll is the Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.