Obituary: Alan Reiach
Saturday 22 August 1992
JOHN KAY, a barber, miniaturist and social commentator, was a notable figure during Edinburgh's Golden Age. Between 1785 and 1820 this self-taught artist produced etchings which have since been an invaluable record of the city's social history of the time. Some of us were discussing recently who would be among the Kay's Portraits of today. There is no doubt in all our view that Alan Reiach, one of the city's most distinguished architects, was among those at the top of our list.
From 1946, when he returned to Edinburgh, Reiach was immediately identifiable as one of the city's colourful characters. For years, his jauntily worn beret and bow tie were his hallmark.
Many architectural students of my generation were inspired by Reiach's vitality, knowledge and incisive critical ability when we moved into our final year at Edinburgh College of Art in the post-war decade. He was by all standards a great teacher. We were continually impressed by his ability to recognise precedents to solutions we were seeking: he would appear an hour after discussing our projects with us bearing an issue of Werk magazine - several years old - which aptly illustrated the point he had been making. It is interesting to consider the number of architects whose subsequently eminent careers in teaching or practice have been profoundly influenced by him.
Reiach was educated at Edinburgh Academy, which he left in 1928 to become an articled pupil in Sir Robert Lorimer's practice, where he contributed to work on the Edinburgh University's new science campus at King's Buildings and to St Peter's Church in Morningside. In 1933 he moved to complete his studies at Edinburgh College of Art, where he won three national prizes, including the RIBA Silver Medal. EA Rouse, formerly from the Architectural Association School in London, was a dynamic Head of the School of Architecture at this time and Reiach was particularly fired by visits from Eric Mendelson and Walter Gropius which Rouse arranged.
After a further year of postgraduate study in the recently created Town Planning Course, in 1935 Reiach was awarded an Andrew Grant Travelling Scholarship and for nine months travelled in the US, the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Scandinavia. This experience and subsequent travel informed his work and his teaching. In retrospect he considered that he was most influenced by Scandinavia, where the northern masters of 20th-century architecture - Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto - inspired understanding of form, textures, materials and craftsmanship, and an appreciation of the northern quality of light. These factors have become part of a heritage which continue to influence the work of Reiach and Hall.
When Reiach returned to the UK he worked in the offices of Robert Atkinson & Partners and Grey Wornum before returning to Edinburgh in 1938 to take up a Research and Teaching Fellowship at the College of Art.
Research study produced an extensive and beautifully photographed record of the native buildings of Scottish small towns and countryside which Reiach used as a significant source for a seminal book of its time, Building Scotland, first published in 1942 and written with Robert Hurd. It illustrated a sensitive way forward for post-war Scotland with examples of appropriate European and Scandinavian projects in a straightforward comparison of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Reiach and Robert Matthew (later of the LCC and an eminent practitioner) had become close colleagues and had entered several architectural competitions together. In 1938 they were successful in winning first prize with their submission for the Community Centre (then a fashionable social subject), including swimming baths and gymnasium, for Ilkeston, in Derbyshire, but the outbreak of war meant the project was never built.
From 1940 to 1946 Alan Reiach was with the Scottish Office and a member of the team responsible for the Clyde Valley Plan. One of Reiach's particular responsibilities, built on his research experience, dealt with regional architecture. Many of his exquisite drawings appear in the report.
When Reiach returned to Edinburgh he set up a small practice to complement his teaching work. One of the earliest commissions was for a pace-setting project at Whitemoss, East Kilbride, probably this new town's first commission. There followed in 1949 the new College of Agriculture, for which he was appointed with Ralph Cowan. It remains a building of sensitive human scale with admirable detailing evolving out of Scandinavian influence.
The practice grew on a diet of churches, schools, veterinary research buildings, university buildings and hospitals, mostly quite large projects for a compact office. George Macnab and I became partners in 1959 and, in 1965, following an initiative by Eric Hall, two practices came together to create Reiach and Hall. In the larger organisation Reiach's role changed. He chose the projects he could best influence. One of these - and one he particularly enjoyed - was the New Club in Princes Street, Edinburgh, for which he was commissioned in 1964. It involved replacing a William Burn building which the club had decided could no longer serve them and the challenge of incorporating panelling, furniture and works of art was exciting. The design, which is contained within the rather extraordinary constraints of the Princes Street Panel, is recognised as one of the best of this period and the principal interior spaces have an exciting relationship to the three-storey heart - the first modern atrium in the city.
Reiach became a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland in 1966 and served until 1980. Professor Sir Robert Grieve, who chaired the commission during the latter years, remembers Reiach's sharp, precise and sometimes explosive thoughts and opinions and his reluctance to suffer academic, intellectual or aesthetic vagueness. He considered Reiach a kind of benchmark by which many environmental and architectural matters could be judged. Reiach was appointed OBE in 1964, elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1969 and an Academician in 1986.
From his schooldays Reiach was an accomplished draughtsman and water- colour painter and many of his friends cherish his drawings or paintings in their collections. One of his close friends, Robert Scott Morton, tells of an important pencil drawing of Reiach's which he did of the Forum Romanum on a short study-tour after winning the Title Prize, which hung in the RSA in 1934 and sold. When it turned up at a Phillips fine art auction in 1989, Reiach bought it. It is one of his finest, delicate and apparently effortless.
In all his endeavours, Alan Reiach by example reminded us, and this is particularly true in times that hardly seem propitious for our profession, to have the strength of character to hold on to inspiration when productive use of imagination and our fundamental standards are under threat.
Those of us who had the privilege of knowing him as a friend and colleague cannot fail to have been constantly re-energised by his zest for life. Surely this was evidence of a happy man, fully supported in his endeavours by his wife Pat with her calm presence and occasional wry smile. We remember with great affection her charming hospitality and delightful parties at the Reiachs' house, as students, office colleagues and as friends.
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