Obituary: Isi Metzstein - Esteemed architect who made a life in Scotland after escaping Nazi Germany as a child

Isi Metzstein, architect and teacher
Isi Metzstein, architect and teacher
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Born: 7 July, 1928, in Berlin. Died: 10 January, 2012, Glasgow, aged 83

MY father, Isi Metzstein, was widely considered one of Britain’s most significant post-war architects. As well as having a remarkable built legacy, he was an important formal and informal teacher, mentor and critic to several generations of architects working in Scotland and further afield.

Intellectually rigorous and tirelessly stimulating, he was also noted for his wry sense of humour and acerbic wit; trading Isi Metzstein quotes is a recognised pastime among architects, his charm and warmth felt by all who met him.

Isi Israel Metzstein and his twin sister, Jenny, were born in 1928 in the Mitte district of Berlin. Their parents, Efraim and Rachel Metzstein, Jews from Poland, had eloped to Germany in the early 1920s, searching for a better life. Efraim died in 1933, leaving Rachel to raise five children (older siblings, Lee and Josef, younger brother, Leo), during the Nazi reign, in which anti-Semitism became enshrined in law, building up to the Holocaust.

While, in a sense, his life was defined by the horrors of the Holocaust, he was insistent that he was in no way a victim of it. Rather, he had had the great fortune to have avoided it entirely. He even acknowledged that being forced to flee might have afforded him opportunities he would not have had in Berlin.

Isi made it to Britain as part of the Kindertransport scheme, in which Jewish children were evacuated from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. As a child of foreign parents, he had been an immigrant in one country who became an immigrant in another, and thus was largely immunise to the trauma of such an upheaval.

He initially lived with a family in Hardgate, who had selflessly volunteered to take in a child, before being placed in a hostel with other refugee children. And unusually, by the end of the war, the Metzstein family was reunited, his mother and siblings having also reached safety.

In 1945, not long after leaving Hyndland School in Glasgow, he decided he wanted to become an architect. He got an apprenticeship through a friend’s mother, a seamstress for the wife of an architect. That architect turned out to be Jack Coia, the sole surviving partner at Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (GKC). Isi would work there for the rest of his professional life. As part of the apprenticeship, he enrolled in architecture evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, where he met Andy MacMillan, who would become his lifelong collaborator, and the other half of their amusing “Isi and Andy” double-act. Isi and Andy were profoundly influenced by Glasgow’s Victorian architecture and urbanism, in particular the work of the city’s two greatest architects, Alexander “Greek” Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. But Glasgow was also a cultural influence; with other likeminded individuals, Isi and Andy would regularly meet in the King’s Arms on Elmbank Street to drink and discuss architecture, culture and politics. Architecture for them was always something that should be practised, but also passionately argued about.

Isi got Andy a job at GKC in 1954, and their breakthrough building came in 1957. St Paul’s, Glenrothes, although modest in size, was a radical departure in ecclesiastical architecture, doing away with all the usual trappings of neo-Gothic church design. From this moment, the two architects, still in their twenties, assumed control of the firm’s design output

A series of striking modernist churches followed, including St Bride’s, East Kilbride (1963) and St Patrick’s, Kilsyth (1964). Their masterwork of the period was undoubtedly St Peter’s, Cardross (1966), a Catholic seminary. It was a dramatic reinterpretation of a quasi-monastic building type, spatially brilliant and strongly spirituality. A victim of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council and declining student numbers, St Peter’s was mothballed in 1980. It has since been heavily vandalised and is currently in a ruinous state (although there are plans afoot for its renovation). Nevertheless it remains an inspiration to a generation of architects and artists, and a site of secular pilgrimage to many.

My father mostly jokingly referred to himself as a lapsed atheist, and he was very attuned to architecture’s religious qualities. In his work it was important to him to bring the sacred into the secular, particularly with regards to the play of natural light.

Isi and Andy also built a series of important university buildings, including the Lawns Halls of Residence at Hull University (1968), the library and other additions to Wadham College, Oxford (1971–77), and Robinson College, Cambridge (1980), the last entirely new Oxbridge college.

The college, which was their last major work, was a less overtly polemic reworking of many of the ideas seen in the Cardross seminary, and a culmination of Isi and Andy’s architectural explorations. A synthesis of a stunningly diverse range of inspirations, including the classic Oxbridge college, Glasgow and medieval urbanism, and modernist abstraction, it is, for me, their richest and most important building. It represented an illustration of my father’s belief that modern architects are influenced by everything they see, and yet should design from first principles.

Throughout the 1970s and onwards, as commissions dwindled, teaching took up more and more of his time. Having taught at the Glasgow School of Art from the late 1960s, Isi became Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh University in 1984. He also taught at the Architectural Association in London, and lectured throughout the UK. He was a natural teacher and we were all his students, including my brother, sister and me. Or put another way, he was a father figure to his students, of which there were many hundreds.

There has been a dramatic resurgence in interest in GKC’s work in recent years, including a major retrospective in 2007. While he undoubtedly appreciated the late-in-the-day adulation, he did find it somewhat redundant; when he and Andy received a lifetime achievement award for teaching, he thanked RIBA with the rejoinder that “it would have been even better to receive this while we were still alive”.

He loved the drama of cities, the architecture and human interaction; New York was a favourite, with Glasgow, Berlin, Venice and Paris also figuring strongly in his imagination. He had a wide range of other interests. He was a keen amateur scientist, with a considerable understanding of maths, engineering and physics. Language and puzzles were also preoccupations and he loved cinema. He told me that, had it been even the remotest possibility in 1940s Glasgow, he would have liked to become a film director.

His greatest love, however, was Dany, my mother. Also an immigrant of central European Jewish origin, he said that, when he first met her, “I knew my number was up.”

He died at his home in Glasgow, and is survived by his wife, children Mark, Saul and Ruth and grandson Eli, as well as his twin sister Jenny and brother Leo. SAUL METZSTEIN