Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (with SMBW), Richmond, Virginia, 2010

Rick Mather’s death on April 20 from mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos) was especially unexpected because, although approaching his 76th birthday, he always had a youthful air about him. Born in Portland, Oregon, a distant descendant of Puritan minister Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials notoriety, he moved to London in 1963 to study urban design and stayed. Having a strong interest in history, he found himself attracted to studying and working in the older European urban environment. And London in the 1960s was a swinging place, a natural destination for an adventurous, young architect.

He worked for Lyons Israel Ellis and the London Borough of Southwark for ten years before he set up his own practice in 1973. It took another decade before he began to make serious headway as a practitioner, teaching in the meantime at London’s Architectural Association and other schools. Thus he was seen as an “emerging architect” in the 1980s alongside others a generation younger than himself. But if he was a relatively late bloomer in this regard, he made up for it with a remarkable run of mature work: houses, restaurants, office buildings, universities, and museums. Persuasive and witty, the urbane urbanist par excellence, he proved a perfect fit, especially for Oxford University, where he undertook work ranging from college residence halls to his highest-profile work in the UK – the challenging rebuilding of the historic Ashmolean Museum [Record, June 2010, page 140], shortlisted in 2010 for the Stirling Prize.

He was to our British eyes always suavely, preppily American, and he was excellent company. I got to know him at the start of the 1990s when I took on the job of writing the first monograph on him and his practice. At the time he was known mainly for interiors, especially restaurants and loft-style domestic conversions (and the re-ordering of the Architectural Association itself), but he was just starting to tackle new-build: for example, the ceramic-clad Schools of Education and Information Studies at the University of East Anglia (completed in 1982) and a medium-sized, richly modelled office building in East London’s Wapping (completed in 1992), which later became part of Rupert Murdoch’s News International. But his breakthrough really came with a run of London museum competition wins, including the very delicate task of extending one of architecture’s touchstones: his hero John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery [Record, October 2001, page 98].

His career at first did not suggest this trajectory. Having designed a pair of timber houses as a student in Oregon, as well as converting a Washington, DC rowhouse for his parents, his first job on moving to London was to design schools at the well-regarded Brutalist firm of Lyons Israel Ellis; for his second job, he moved to the public sector, designing social housing blocks for the London Borough of Southwark. Winning third prize with a fellow Oregonian, Don Genasci, for the new town of Espoo in Finland in 1967 provided some capital for his own first house and studio.

At college in Oregon he had been introduced to Camillo Sitte’s The Art of Building a City, and often spoke of Rasmussen’s London: the Unique City. He first met architecture teacher Alvin Boyarsky in Oregon, an enthusiast for European architecture who later became head of the AA in London. 

Mather’s competition success in the influential worlds of London museums and Oxford colleges gave him his calling-card to those power-broking people he referred to as the “G and Gs”: the Great and the Good. His subtle, contextual modernism—highly crafted, never showy—was increasingly appreciated. Currently, London’s South Bank cultural centre is being rebuilt to his 2000 masterplan. Finally, he made the transatlantic back-flip by winning the commission for the ambitious expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, completed in 2010 and delivered with SMBW Architects [Record, December 2010, page 81].

Many other projects are under way—including a 175,000-square-foot addition to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and an extension to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith—and his colleagues will continue his practice retaining his name. Mather had long been a quietly authoritative presence in British architecture; one hopes his influence will persist. He leaves a partner, David Scrase.

Hugh Pearman is the architecture critic of The Sunday Times and the editor of the RIBA Journal