With a dwelling called the Soft and Hairy House regarded as her best building, and a series of thatched swimming pools and an unrealised starfish-shaped country pile as her most interesting UK works, Kathryn Findlay was never quite going to be a mainstream architect. Yet despite a career that appeared mired in a treacle of financial and professional obstacles at least as complex as her extraordinary designs, she was one of the (still few) great women architects of the modern age.
The self-deprecating and witty Findlay, who has died aged 60 of a brain tumour, lacked the arrogance architects seem to require to become stars. But she had the talent and tenacity that could have merited greater success and wider acclaim.
Born on January 26 1953 in Forfar, Scotland, where her father was a sheep farmer, Findlay – like many architects of her generation – found her success abroad. Tokyo, with its tradition of innovative one-off houses and its radically modern cityscape, would prove far more receptive to her enquiring, often eccentric and occasionally brilliant architecture.
She studied at the Architectural Association, a London hotbed of architectural radicalism and visionary self-indulgence, graduating in 1979, two years after Zaha Hadid, who went on to become the world’s most successful female architect.
It was a poor period for the UK profession, in which even established names could find work more readily elsewhere – Ms Hadid herself built nothing in Britain for decades. So Findlay left for Japan, where she would spend the following 20 years. She married Eisaku Ushida in 1983 and, in 1986, they established Ushida Findlay, which became a kind of cult practice. Their houses in particular were a sensuous cocktail of science fiction and crafted organicism, looking like structures grown or cultivated rather than constructed.
Their first acclaimed building was the Truss Wall House (1993) in Tokyo, in which a complex carapace of walls, like an eroded sea shell, enveloped a cluster of womblike rooms. Stairs, handrails, roof terrace and walls were conceived as a continuous surface in an almost unsettlingly seamless form; interior melded into exterior and detail segued into structure. It prefigured a fluid aesthetic enabled by advances in computer software.
The following year brought the Tokyo building whose name came from Salvador Dali’s suggestion that the future of architecture would be “soft and hairy”. Partly submerged on a sloping site, it was covered by a grass roof (its “hairiness”) and built around a small courtyard. Findlay compared the design to a “worm working its way through an apple”. The interior was a theatrical (or “soft”) melange of pleated drapes, curves and porthole windows. From the courtyard poked a blue blob, like some exotic sea urchin, which enclosed a bathroom, its envelope punctured with myriad round openings, which evoked the domes of Ottoman public baths and paid homage to the centrality of bathing culture to Japanese domestic ritual.
Findlay also became the first woman professional employed at the architecture department of Tokyo University and the first foreigner in a century to be allowed to teach there. But the 1990s proved a struggle after the country’s economic crisis set in. Separating from Mr Ushida, she relocated to Edinburgh. Findlay is survived by her children Miya (also an architect) and Hugo.
Among a few successes of the time were two thatched poolhouses where the blending of her futuristic aesthetic and a long thatched roof referring to the neighbouring farmhouses gave a glimpse into a manner of building that combined past and future, crafts and high technology. There was also an exuberantly sculptural community centre in Japan’s central Gifu prefecture (2006).
She won a Royal Institute of British Architects competition to build a country house (a rarity under England’s planning laws) but the starfish-like result, its arms reaching into the landscape, was abandoned in favour of a more conventional idea. A commission for Qatar’s culture minister was demolished before completion, to make way for a railway line. The collapse of two other Qatari projects was enough to bankrupt her office in 2004.
Findlay made the architectural and circulation spaces for Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit at the London Olympic Park and her remodelling of York’s art gallery is scheduled to open this year. If it is more common to see successful women architects now than it was 20 years ago, Findlay and her generation cleared the ground. But it was tough going.
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