The Scots super-architect with a Yankee vision

John McAslan’s work owes a lot to time spent on the other side of the Atlantic, writes Lee Randall

‘I REMEMBER sitting up in bed as a kid, and having this fantastic view of the American ships coming up the Clyde to settle in the Holy Loch at the Polaris base. Dunoon went from being a town of about 5,000 to 8,000 or 9,000 overnight. The whole world opened up and I became fascinated by America and its culture. It had a huge impact on me.”

Award-winning architect John McAslan is good at deflecting attention away from himself. Though I’d seen A8, the monograph he commissioned from photographer Martin Parr as an homage to his home town, Dunoon, it was reading snarky criticisms of his proposal to erect a sleek glass confection at 5 Cheapside, close to St Paul’s Cathedral, that piqued my curiosity about the Scot at the helm of one of Britain’s most successful architectural practices.

“I’m here to find out all about you,” I say. And he launches into an enthusiastic pitch about a bursary his firm distributes with the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institute of Civil Engineers, to promote community improvement. It’s intriguing, but the question remains: who are you?

McAslan, handsome and relaxed despite his hectic schedule, laughs. “Don’t ask a Scotsman that!” And then he tells me about the Americans.

Born in Glasgow in 1954, he’s the son of a doctor descended from shoe merchants. His mother’s people were lawyers.

“I was always interested in drafting and drawing. I remember visiting the School of Art in Glasgow. It was the only accessible Mackintosh building at the time, and I was overwhelmed and amazed. I remember looking at buildings when I was 14, 15, when I’d go into Glasgow. I was struck by the scale.

“Then – I must have seen this in MAD magazine – they used to have pictures of American houses with open plan interiors, surrounded by grass and kids on bicycles. I thought, ‘Where are the fences?’ America seemed much more open and more democratic.”

From Dollar, McAslan went to Edinburgh University. Part of his course involved a year out: “I spent the first six months in Basil Spence’s office in Moray Place. I remember days doing nothing in the basement, reading about football in The Scotsman, really disengaged. I thought, ‘Where’s the creative dialogue?’”

He travelled to America, landing in Baltimore, where his father had re-established himself after his parents’ divorce. Dad secured his son an interview with a firm called RTKL. McAslan now recalls: “Although they were successful and worldwide, they were based in the docklands in Baltimore – this is 1976 – in quite a rough, old industrial building. The people were great, it was lively, I could go up to New York and see things. I thought, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do’.”

He finished up in Edinburgh and returned to RTKL the following summer. But it was a job in Boston, with Cambridge Seven, that fundamentally altered McAslan’s vision of what architecture could be. “At uni, I was slightly stuck in this whole Scottish thing, and finding a national style,” he says. “I remember photocopying my Fair Isle pullover as a frontispiece to my thesis.”

Cambridge Seven appealed because they’d worked with Buckminster Fuller on the geodesic domes for Expo ’67 in Montreal. While in the United States, he encountered Terry Rankin, from Dunfermline. “He took me under his wing and said, ‘Come work with us next summer’. So I skipped the queue thanks to the Scottish mafia.

“Cambridge Seven was fantastic. They were embedded in Harvard and MIT and designed all the Metro stations in Boston. They were multi-disciplinary, so they had film-makers, exhibition design, interior design, everything.”

Under US rules, the only way to become registered was by returning to the UK, or accumulate ten years of experience in lieu of an American degree.

However, another bit of networking helped him jump the queue – a colleague suggested having a word with Richard Rogers and John Young, who were visiting Cambridge Seven’s office. “They offered me a job and I came back to London.” He makes it sound simple, never alluding to the talent needed to persuade these architecture giants.

By now, he’d met his wife, Dava. After a trans-Atlantic courtship they married in 1981 in Syracuse, New York, her home town. (“I promised her parents we were going back to America to live. They still haven’t forgiven me.”)

After three years back in the UK, he and Jamie Troughton – also from Scotland – formed their own partnership. “Jamie was an instinctive businessman. I had no idea about accounting, invoicing, nothing, but I knew how to win work and do work and motivate people,” says McAslan.

When McAslan decided to fulfil his long-term dream to have his own firm, they parted on good terms. “My new practice was a combination of [the styles of] Rogers and Cambridge Seven. I liked the collaborative practice and engaging with academic life, the rich portfolio, but I also liked Rogers’s office, which was designing landmark buildings.”

The John McAslan + Partners (JMP) website lays out the company’s ethos: “We believe that architectural presence should reflect, and celebrate, human presence. Architecture has the power to change places and situations for the better, by giving fresh meaning to culture, commerce, and place.”

And that means what, exactly? “Architecture has to celebrate life. It wants to be open and democratic and reflect possibilities.”

In addition to new builds, such as the proposal for 5 Cheapside, (currently undergoing revision after a review by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), JMP fights to save historic buildings, among them the De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, in Bexhill-on-Sea. McAslan also devotes time to charitable projects.

His firm is widely acknowledged as having good green credentials – they’re designing a green energy centre for the 2012 London Olympics. But one of their largest projects is the restoration and reconfiguration of King’s Cross Station.

McAslan comments: “At heart, it is a wonderful Victorian station designed on a tuning fork plan. Then bits began to be added … Now there’s just this horrendous single-storey concourse about a third of the size it needs to be.”

He’s always been turned on by working to improve and save what already exists. In this case, he has also enjoyed the sedate pace imposed by the reviews inherent in any civic commission: “The benefit of time allows you to work things out. The starting-off point is deciding the programmatic issues: What is the site? Where is access? How is it going to be used? What is the budget? What is the size of the space? … The inventive bit comes once you’re clear about all those things.”

So has he ever turned a corner, stumbled upon something he designed, and burst his buttons with pride?

“I do go back and look at things occasionally and think, ‘That worked well’, but I often think, ‘Oh I wish we’d done that differently’, or hadn’t caved in with a client or the circumstances. I don’t mean to be a miserable Scottish critic, but it’s always good to learn from what you’ve done. Without being too pompous, I think the best projects are about to come.”

Is there a fantasy site? “To build in New York would be a high point, because it’s very hard to build there as a British architect … The most exciting project, and it could be anywhere, would probably be a major cultural project, like a museum.”

Finally, I’m dying to know what his house is like. He admits it’s not a sleek bit of modernism but an old house in terrible condition. “It’s disgusting. Because a, it would be very expensive to remodel; and b, our kids have been brought up in it and they like it the way it is.”

Renovations are on the cards, however, though McAslan has no time to be his own architect. Is he a nightmare to have as a client? “I’ve got Umberto Emoli to do it. He’s designing it just about the way I’d like it to be, but it has just enough of him so he’s interested. I’m not a bad client, but he is after me to spend more money!”

&#149 For more information on JMP, visit www.mcaslan.co.uk