Mark Cousins: Architectural theorist who captivated experts and enthusiasts alike

The charismatic academic’s insight was an influential factor in Architectural Association graduates becoming leading figures in the industry

Cousins was widely recognised as one of the best minds amongst his contemporaries (Pichan Sujaritsatit)
Cousins was widely recognised as one of the best minds amongst his contemporaries (Pichan Sujaritsatit)

For more than 30 years, Mark Cousins’s Friday evening lectures at the Architectural Association were the place to be, not only for those who worked and studied at the school in London, but for people from all walks of life. An intellectual and theoretician, he was much loved by students and staff alike; a constant presence in the spaces of the AA and always ready to engage in or instigate an impromptu conversation.

The AA has produced some of the most forward-thinking and influential architects, many of whom sought out Cousins’s critical analysis. His insight and willingness to discuss topics, projects and arguments at a moment’s notice, and for as long as required, was an influential factor in the graduates of the school becoming leading figures, not only within architectural education and practice, but also in the arts, film, theatre, music and literature; giving the AA its international reputation as an avant-garde cultural centre.

Cousins, who died from illnesses of the heart on the eve of his 73rd birthday, was an avid reader of philosophy, politics, art history, novels and much more. Like others of his generation, he read Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser. He loved analysing the politics of the day – his first wife, Jane Mills, worked as a researcher for former prime minister Harold Wilson – which he did with insights laced with a caustic dismissal of the lack of seriousness that most practitioners of the political arts provided.

Cousins was widely recognised as one of the best minds amongst his contemporaries, and a brilliant speaker, whether sitting around a dinner table or standing behind a lectern delivering countless talks and lectures. Despite co-authoring (with Athar Hussein) Michel Foucault (1984), his only completed book, he was mostly unable to translate the copious notes he took on every book read, nor his own research and thinking into anything more than the occasional article.

In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon model of the intellectual and university teacher that is based on written output, Cousins functioned more like the academic French masters, who delivered talks to groups of students who were tasked with the recording and transcribing of speeches into printed texts suitable for distribution. His intellectual contribution lay in la parole, not la page ecrite. Like his Oxford contemporary and friend, Christopher Hitchens, Cousins was better known for his wit and fluent pause-less deconstruction of modernity rather than doorstop bricks of many pages.

Cousins, born in Bristol, was the son of Constance “Connie” Chapman, who was one of Lindsay Anderson’s favourite actors at the Royal Court. Influenced by his mother, he loved the world of theatre and dressed in his very own colourful style. As such he was once stopped in the street by a stranger and asked whether he would be willing to be photographed in his “get-up”, which he obliged with style and a smile.

After studying at Christ’s Hospital, and then at Merton College, Oxford, where he received a first in history during the heady days of the 1968 student upheavals, Cousins studied art history at the Warburg Institute and started a PhD. His scorn for his academic superiors, and a willingness to show them that his voracious desire for reading and deep understanding of complex texts far exceeded his elders, may have denied him academic preferment at top universities during the 1970s. However, he would go on to find his perfect home at the AA from 1980 until his death.

Cousins was invited to lecture in Europe, the United States and Asia. He could deliver a stunning semiotics lecture on “Odysseus and Make-up” at The Berlage and still have the energy and care to help revise a student’s PhD afterwards.

He spent the last 45 years with Parveen Adams, a feminist and psychoanalytic art critic. As he felt his heart closing down and his days coming towards an end, he refused to die in hospital and went home to be with her.

Mark Cousins, architectural theorist, born 8 October 1947, died 26 September 2020