Obituary: Professor Andy MacMillan OBE RSA RIBA FRIAS, architect and educator

Born: 11 December, 1928, in Glasgow. Died: 16 August, 2014, in Inverness, aged 85

Professor Andy MacMillan: Much loved architect who had a profound effect on Scotlands built environment

The renowned architect and educator, Professor Andrew (Andy) MacMillan, who died suddenly at the weekend, has had an unparalleled influence on the quality of Scotland’s towns and cities over the past six decades. His own buildings drew international acclaim. Arguably, however, it was Andy’s inspired teaching of generations of students at the Mackintosh School of Architecture which will be his enduring legacy.

Throughout Scotland and much further afield, students from the “Mac” acknowledge the influence of their much loved professor. The work of generations of Andy’s students has enhanced and, in some cases, transformed communities throughout Scotland.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Born in Glasgow’s Maryhill in December 1928, the son of a former railway porter, also Andrew, and Mary Jane (née McKelvie) Andy went to Maryhill Public School then North Kelvinside Senior Secondary. On leaving school he took the Glasgow Corporation Exam. The top ten students were allowed to choose which department they would work in. Andy opted for the Surveying Department, thinking that this would allow him to pursue his fascination for maps and drawings.

The senior surveyor decided that surveying would bore him and sent him along the corridor to Housing. The corporation subsequently prompted Andy’s studies at Glasgow School of Art. On his first day he met fellow students Joe Taylor and Isi Metzstein, both to become co-workers and lifelong friends.

After seven years with the corporation, Andy moved to East Kilbride New Town Development Corporation in 1952. In 1954 Isi arranged an interview with Jack Coia, whose practice, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, already had a strong reputation for its work for the Roman Catholic Church. Andy became an assistant in the practice, becoming a partner in 1966.

The coming together of Andy and Isi under the guidance of Jack Coia was the start of a collaborative career which brought together a whole range of young talents who were nurtured and encouraged in the MacMillan and Metzstein atelier. The practice produced an extraordinary series of churches, schools, colleges, hospitals, offices and housing developments, including their acknowledged masterpieces at St Bride’s Church, East Kilbride, St Peter’s College, Cardross and Robinson College, Cambridge. Set on a hilltop above East Kilbride, St Bride’s was the largest church ever undertaken by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, seating 800. It was built of brick, and the only external punctuation was a series of long, slit windows at the upper levels. Internally, however, the depth of the loadbearing walls is pierced by a series of apertures, patterning light into the atmospheric, top-lit interior.

MacMillan and Metzstein often credited the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, as their greatest influence. That influence was nowhere more apparent than at St Peter’s, Cardross, a seminary for training priests, completed in 1966. Many regard it as their masterpiece. Sadly, however, teaching practice within the Catholic Church subsequently changed quite radically and it was abandoned. Efforts are ongoing to restore and re-use what survives of this extraordinary and inspired modernist homage.

Dating from 1980, Robinson College, built to house 370 students, incorporates a chapel, a library and a theatre as well as the more usual Oxbridge communal dining hall and refectory. It was the culmination of decades of evolving their own distinctive idiom which the former MacMillan/Metzstein student, Gareth Hoskins has acclaimed as “architecture which has confidence and boldness in its use of materials, form and light to lift it to a level of international ambition and recognition”.

Andy MacMillan’s creative career as an architect, in a practice which won innumerable awards, including the ultimate accolade of the RIBA Gold Medal, might be considered to represent quite sufficient for one creative lifetime. Yet the inspired appointment of Andy as Professor of Architecture at the University of Glasgow and head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture in 1973 signalled the most influential period of his career.

Andy’s appointment to head the Mac created an establishment that rapidly gained an international reputation as a focus, not merely of excellence and rigour in architecture, but enormous enthusiastic fun. Writing in 2007 for the brilliant publication, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia Architecture 1956 to 1987, which accompanied the international touring exhibition of the same name, the late Sir Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson summed up Andy MacMillan’s approach to architecture and teaching: “You could learn a lot from his discussion of working detail, of how two materials should come together, perhaps in ways they had never done before, technique fired by impudent imagination.”

He continues: “It is a cliché (but nevertheless irresistible) to claim that the mantle of Charles Rennie Mackintosh descended upon Andy’s shoulders”.

Under Andy’s charge, the Mac was always an invigorating place to be, buzzing with enthusiastic students, inspired in large part by Andy’s gentle encouragement but also by the trepidation of an adverse “crit” from his best friend and colleague, Isi Metzstein.

Andy’s inspiring teaching was not restricted to Glasgow. In 1986 he was Davenport Visiting Professor at Yale University. His influence as the Vice President for Education at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) during the first half of the 1980s helped protect architectural education in the UK from the predations of the first Thatcher government. He was subsequently a visiting professor or lecturer in a number of South American institutions in Mexico, Columbia and Chile and as far afield as Japan. He was instrumental in establishing the new architecture school at Dublin University and was headline speaker in innumerable conferences, including the International Dubai Conference in 2006.

Alongside his extraordinarily full career as an architect and an educator, Andy MacMillan was a devoted husband and father. He married Angela McDowell in 1955 and very rapidly they had three daughters, Angela, Siobhan and Fiona. Some years later, their son Fred joined the happy and chaotic MacMillan brood. Their large Victorian villa in Andy’s native Maryhill always rang with laughter. Visitors were always sure of the warmest welcome and, at the very least, a wee dram, although food was always proffered with unfailing generosity.

In his later years, Andy continued to enjoy his multiple involvements and influence within the RIBA, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) and particularly the Royal Scottish Academy where he was made an Academician in 1990. He was awarded an OBE in 1992 and some years later, he and Isi Metzstein received the inaugural RIAS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, soon followed by the RIBA’s Annie Spink Award for services to architectural education.

From 2002 Andy chaired the RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award each year. Poignantly, it was during this year’s Doolan Award visits that he was taken ill and collapsed. He was, at the time, walking quietly by the River Ness in early evening sunshine. He was rushed to Raigmore Hospital but never regained full consciousness. When his beloved wife Angela arrived in the early hours of Saturday morning, he recognised her voice and gripped her hand. He quietly slipped away a few hours later.

Andy’s was a life lived fully, creatively, with passion, humour and love. His legacy is the enduring improvement of his native land, the love of family, friends and colleagues and the affectionate regard and admiration of architects throughout the world. Andy is survived by his wife Angela, his brother John, his four children and three grandchildren.