Richard Paxton

Architect of the Jerwood Space and Soho Theatre - as well as houses striking for their use of natural light

Kenneth Powell
Friday 24 March 2006 01:00

Richard Lauderdale Paxton, architect: born Cosford, Shropshire 21 May 1956; married 1987 Heidi Locher (one son, one daughter); died London 20 March 2006.

From the mid-1980s, the architect Richard Paxton created a series of striking houses and apartments for a distinguished list of clients, many of whom became personal friends. Among his most notable projects was a succession of homes where he lived and worked with his wife and family, including one of the great London houses of the late 20th century, part of a mixed-use scheme in Clerkenwell. The latest family home, a mews house in Primrose Hill, was receiving the final touches at the time of his death - Paxton's 50th birthday party was to have been held there in May.

Like other architects of his generation, Paxton was preoccupied with the issue of how new and old could be made to work together to regenerate the city. He was adept at realising the potential of difficult sites that would have defeated the typical developer. His early death means that we shall never know how these talents might have been put into practice on a larger canvas.

Richard Lauderdale Paxton - Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace, was a relation - was the only son, and one of four children, of a Royal Air Force officer. His parents, John and Pam, moved frequently on foreign postings during his childhood and Paxton, born on an RAF base in Shropshire, acquired a taste for travel and exotic places, Malaysia in particular. He was educated, however, at Brighton and Hove Grammar School, from where he entered the architecture school of Kingston University (then Polytechnic).

After qualifying, Paxton went to work for the London practice of Ahrends, Burton & Koralek, which was then engaged on the (eventually abortive) scheme for extending the National Gallery. In his five years with ABK - which was the only practice he ever wanted to work for - he was involved with major projects for the Cummins Diesel factory in Scotland and the Sainsbury's supermarket in Canterbury, for which he was project architect.

In 1985 Paxton established the practice of Paxton Locher, with Heidi Locher - who had trained at Kingston and the Royal College of Art, and had previously worked for Terence Conran - as his professional partner. The couple had met while still at school and married in 1987. Leaving ABK was a bold move and part-time teaching (at Kingston and the Bartlett School in London) initially underpinned the practice.

A breakthrough came with a commission from the writer Douglas Adams for a radical revamp of a Georgian house in Islington, close to the first house that Paxton created for his family in a converted coach house off Upper Street. (Griff Rhys Jones was another early client, as was the chief executive of Cable and Wireless, for a new-build house in Highgate.) Within a few years, now with two young children, Caitlin and Freddie, they had uprooted and moved into a warehouse conversion nearby, where Paxton and Locher's penthouse featured the private swimming pool that is also a key feature of the Primrose Hill house.

With more private house commissions in hand and the prospect of significant projects in the arts field, the couple were able to secure a narrow site - a "missing tooth" as Locher describes it - on Clerkenwell Green. Here, acting as developer as well as architect, they created an internationally acclaimed house, as part of a mixed scheme incorporating offices for the practice as well as apartments for sale. Demonstrating Paxton's remarkable expertise at working within constrained urban sites, the living spaces of the family house at the rear of the site, disposed around a central atrium, with sliding glass roof, were compared by the Architect's Journal to "a small piece of California . . . come to London".

The Clerkenwell site had initially been considered by the Jerwood Foundation for its proposed development of theatre and dance studios and gallery but proved too small for the purpose. An alternative site in Southwark, south of the river, was secured and Paxton Locher's scheme, including both conversion (of a Victorian school) and new build, was completed there in 1998. The Jerwood Space is notable for its inspired use of natural light, something that became a hallmark of the firm's work.

In 1996, with no previous experience of theatre design, the practice won the commission for the new Soho Theatre, a radical but far from extravagant conversion of a 1960s block in Dean Street, incorporating a redundant synagogue that was recast as the auditorium. The theatre opened in 2000.

Ever in need of a fresh challenge, Paxton acquired the mews site in Primrose Hill in 2002, where he created a house, as well as offices, as remarkable as anything he had done. Focused on a top-lit central living space as its social hub, the house contained mini-apartments for his teenage children (his daughter Caitie is to train as an architect) and a studio for his wife, who was increasingly concentrating on her painting. In 2004, the practice was renamed Richard Paxton Architects, reflecting Locher's reduced role. At the time of his death, Paxton was completing yet another new base for his practice and family in Hampstead, a house designed (with the engineer Max Fordham) to a rigorous low-energy, sustainable agenda.

Richard Paxton was a man of prodigious energy and genuine charm, and was personally involved in every project. Although his practice did undertake a number of small office schemes, he was reluctant to run a large studio, preferring a team of no more than half a dozen with which he could run a hands-on operation. Hugely sociable, Paxton loved entertaining friends and had a passion for the cinema - his friends included prominent figures in the film world.

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