Obituary: Kathryn Findlay, architect

Kathryn Findlay: Outstanding Scottish architect behind the 2012 Olympics corkscrew Orbit Tower
Kathryn Findlay: Outstanding Scottish architect behind the 2012 Olympics corkscrew Orbit Tower
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Born: 26 January, 1953, in Forfar, Angus. Died: 10 January, 2014, in London, aged 60

KATHRYN Findlay was an internationally respected architect, perhaps best known for her work in Japan, in the Arabian Gulf and not least for her UK portfolio including the bright red-steel, corkscrew-like sculpture known as the Orbit Tower, the focal point of the London 2012 Olympic Park. After the renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond came up with the idea of the 376-foot looping lattice tower, it was Findlay and her team who were assigned to make it functional for the public. That meant planning how to get people up there, in an elevator to two observation platforms, but more importantly to get them down on a winding staircase where they could breathe in not only the futuristic architecture of the tower but the entire Olympic Park vista – the whole point of the structure as the emblem of the Games.

Formally known as the ArcelorMittal Tower, it is Britain’s largest piece of public art, intended to be a permanent legacy of the London Olympics and a symbol of the regeneration of the Stratford area of east London.

Stricken by a brain tumour last summer, Findlay was praised by her peers for her “outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture”.

But she made an outstanding contribution to architecture, male or female, in the UK and beyond. “She was one of the most talented people in British architecture,” according to the citation for the coveted Jane Drew Prize, announced, by chance, just hours before her death but decided by an architectural jury some time in advance.

Last September, she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), based in Edinburgh’s Rutland Square. During her years in Japan, she taught at Tokyo University, and was believed to be Japan’s first female teacher of architecture and one of the first foreigners to teach there since the early years of the 20th century.

She would later teach at the University of Dundee. Although she herself did not coin the term, she smiled when she heard her work described by her peers as “future-rustic”.

“She loved the colours and the light of the Angus/Tay area where she grew up,” her daughter Miya told The Scotsman. “While she was ill, she went to visit James Morrison, the painter, who lives in Angus. She was inspired by his interpretation of the light of the area. She tried to capture the beauty of the body of water and sky in her work, in her writings and in her own paintings. She was always inspired by the Scottish landscape and nature.”

Findlay was co-founder and principal director of Ushida Findlay Architects, initially based in Japan after she married Japanese architect Eisaku Ushida, but now headquartered in Camden, London, its name now recognised around the world for its daring avant-garde designs.

While still based in Japan, the firm’s work soon made it globally admired and sought-after. In Tokyo, the couple created projects which startled members of their profession, including what they called the Soft and Hairy House (1992–94), described by a fellow architect as “at once a romantic dell and a piece of organic research”, and the Truss Wall House (1993). Both projects stunned not only Japanese architects, young and old, but their counterparts around the globe.

The daughter of a sheep farmer, Kathryn Findlay was born in Forfar, Angus, where her father, supported by his wife Elizabeth, used to bring his animals to market.

After attending Forfar Academy, she studied at the Edinburgh College of Art.

It was during a trip to the Glasgow School of Art that she “fell in love” with the work of Glasgow-born architect Charles Rennie Macintosh. (Like Findlay, Macintosh was only 60 when he died, also in London). She headed down south in 1972 to study at the renowned Architectural Association School of Architecture (commonly known as AA) in Bedford Square, central London, the oldest independent school of architecture in the UK and one of the most highly admired in the world.

She gained her diploma in 1979, having made her mark on both teachers and fellow students for her skill, vision and single-mindedness.

Straight out of AA, already fascinated by Japan and its architecture, she jumped on a plane with a one-way ticket (rumour has it that two Japanese would-be boyfriends, each unbeknownst to the other, showed up separately at the arrival gate to welcome her.)

A wee bit of Scottish charm ensured that both men escorted her to her lodgings. She would end up getting married twice in Japan, working and teaching as an architect there for 20 years.

Findlay explained her vision of her craft thus: “Every project has a unique site and a bespoke brief … focus on the client’s aspirations and crafting a design solution to realise them … how users will utilise the space …. The uniqueness of the project creates the magic of the architecture … it is the marriage of programme and poetry.

“There is joy in our architecture which comes from the serendipitous chemistry between ourselves and the client … specific architectural language which express buildings and spaces as natural elements.”

She put those ideas into use in several UK projects in recent years, including the design for pool houses in rural areas, notably the Chiltern Hills where her works known to architects as Poolhouse 1 and Poolhouse 2 (2009) were considered gems of their genre. The specialist media described them as “neo-expressionist, wildly imaginative, seemingly from a different planet”.

Rory Olcayto, deputy editor of the influential Architects’ Journal, said after her death: “Thatched-roof pool houses! Joyful buildings that effortlessly fused contemporary and medieval technologies. Future-rustic!”

“I worked with her and her then husband in a tiny apartment in Tokyo between Gotanda and Shinagawa,” architect Hiroshi Okamoto said in a blog.

“She was the creative one, he the technical guru. Together, they were among the most talented architects I have ever come across … but too far ahead of their time. Japan was not ready for their vision.

“Kathryn taught me humility, passion and drive … and not least, how to make proper English tea.”

Back in the UK, Findlay won an award in 2000 for a stunning, starfish-shaped contemporary country house, Grafton New Hall in Cheshire. Its design broke the mould, won planning consent against the odds in a green field area and later became a catalyst for changes in government planning policy.

Her firm, Ushida Findlay, ran into the same financial problems as did many businesses in recent years, but those unique rural pool houses, followed by the London 2012 Tower, put her back on the map internationally.

One of Findlay’s closest friends, Neil Baxter, secretary of the Edinburgh-based RIAS, told The Scotsman: “She was a truly brilliant architect, one of the few who have managed to completely change architectural thinking for the whole planet.

“She was a remarkable lady, humble, far from what we sometimes call in the business “starchitects”. Her energy and enthusiasm explain why, although she died too young at 60, she looked 20 years younger in photographs taken last year.

“Her mixture of Scottish pragmatism, slight AA (Architectural Association) wackiness and Japanese logical and lyricism came together in her unique brand of architecture in a way that was transformative without ever doing a big ‘I am’.”

Kathryn Findlay was twice married. She and Eisaku Ushida were divorced in the late 1990s. She is survived by their two children, Miya and Hugo Ushida, as well as by her sister Alison and brother Alan.