Isi Metzstein: Architect hailed for his modernist visionand inspirational teaching
Friday 27 January 2012
Isi Metzstein, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, arrived in Scotland in 1939 and became one of the most significant figures in British post-war architecture. As a practitioner and an educator, the acerbic and provocative "Glaswegian adop-tee" enriched the lives of those he met professionally and socially, and influenced generations of architects now working in Scotland and all over the world.
He rose to international prominence during the 1960s with the firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and designed numerous award-winning buildings, many for the Catholic Church. With his lifelong collaborator Andy MacMillan he designed Modernist churches in and around Glasgow, as well as school and university buildings. Aficionados view their defining piece as St Peter's Seminary in Cardross (1966); it was regarded as the practice's most powerful and interesting work, indeed the finest modern building in Britain. It fell victim, however, to a new policy of training priests in urban settings; abandoned in 1980, it now stands empty.
The pair seemed to assimilate everything they saw, later designing a number of important university buildings, including the Lawns Halls of Residence, Hull University (1968), the library and other additions to Wadham College, Oxford (1971-77), Bonar Hall, University of Dundee (1976) – and the complex and inventive redbrick Robinson College, Cambridge (1980), the last entirely new Oxbridge college. Metzstein's son Saul said it was "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."
Born in 1928 in the Mitte district of Berlin, not far from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, Isi Metzstein and his twin sister were the children of Jewish Poles, Efraim and Rachel, who had eloped to Germany in the early 1920s in search of a better life. His father died in 1933 during a routine operation, leaving his mother to raise five children, just as Hitler came to power.
Following the November 1938, known to history as Kristallnacht, Metzstein and his siblings escaped to Britain through the Kindertransport, a rescue scheme that helped thousands of mostly Jewish children find shelter with British families. Metzstein was taken in by a family in Hardgate, Clydebank, before being placed in a hostel with other refugee children. The scattered family was re-united in 1945 and '46.
A man who did not dwell on the past, Metzstein embraced his new surroundings and the opportunities afforded him in Glasgow. Soon after leaving school in 1945 he decided he wanted to become an architect, and at 17, through a family friend, he secured an apprenticeship at Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, where he remained for the rest of his career. For years he attended architecture evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, while learning on the job during the day. It was here that he met Andy MacMillan, who became his partner and friend.
During the 1950s the young men travelled extensively, taking in the Festival of Britain and visiting some of Europe's major cities. These travels would have a profound effect on them and their work. In 1954, MacMillan joined the firm; the immigrant and the working-class Glaswegian threw themselves into their projects, and despite neither being fully qualified they had assumed creative control by 1956.
With the Catholic Church GKC'sprincipal client, the firm designed churches, with demand rising due to the creation of New Towns aroundGlasgow, part of the post-war construction programme. Their first project was St Paul's, Glenrothes (1956), which embraced the Modernism of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, a trio of influences from which Metzstein and MacMillan would draw freely. Although they were greatly influenced by Glasgow's Victorian architecture, in particular the work of the city's two greatest architects, Alexander "Greek" Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the pair's work evolved as they continued to be inspired by mid-century modernism.
Metzstein, who described himself as a "lapsed atheist", had a vision of religious architecture full of verve and inventiveness, and a series of striking modernist churches followed St Paul's, including the striated brickwork of St Bride's, East Kilbride (1963) and St Patrick's, Kilsyth (1964) as well as the complex fenestration of Sacred Heart, Cumbernauld (1964). Robinson College (1980) was the last major building they designed, and their final project was the conversion of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1987).
Metzstein then devoted himselfto what had long been his second career – for which he will be missed as much as the first – teaching. He lectured at the Mackintosh School of Architecture at Glasgow School of Art (where MacMillan was head), the University of Edinburgh (where he became professor) and elsewhere. Though he could be a harsh critic of students' work, one practitioner recalled him as "an inspiration and a wonderful motivator who has left a lasting legacy of heavyweight, thick-skinned devotees, building all over the world."
Metzstein and MacMillan won the Royal Scottish Academy Gold Medal for Architecture in 1975 and in 2008, the pair were awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Annie Spink award for excellence in architectural education and the first ever Royal Incorporation of British Architects Lifetime Achievement Award.
Metzstein met his wife, Dany, at a cocktail party where the two had been set up. They married in 1967 and had three children. The family travelled extensively together, Metzstein sharing his tireless enthusiasm for buildings, cities and, especially, people.
Valued for his clarity of thought and stimulating insights, among numerous official appointments, Metzstein was Treasurer of the Royal Scottish Academy, Member of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council, as well as consultant and adviser to many who appreciated his warmth and quick wit. As one tribute put it, "If there is a God, he'd better have his wits about him now."
Metzstein is survived by his wife, children (Mark, Saul and Ruth) and grandson Eli, as well as his twin sister Jenny and brother Leo.
Isi Israel Metzstein, architect and teacher: born Berlin 7 July 1928; married 1967 Danielle Kahn (two sons, one daughter); died Glasgow 10 January 2012.
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