Charles Rattray on the life of a distinguished architect, writer and teacher
Ivor Richards, who has died aged 77, was the architect of a church and a number of distinguished houses in Cambridgeshire, author of a number of books and essays and, with his long-time colleague and mentor Sir Leslie Martin, designer among other things of the Gallery of Modern Art in Lisbon, which won the RIBA trustees’ medal in 1992. For half of his working life Richards not only practised architecture but also taught it, as professor at the universities of Cardiff then Newcastle and as a visiting professor at universities in the USA.
At his funeral service one of his favourite blues tracks – Elmore James’ version of ‘Dust my Broom’ – was played. One of the couplets – "I’m going to write a letter, / telephone every town I know" – seems apposite, for Richards was a man who wrote and talked a lot about architecture. His letters were short and precise, his lectures intended to give a "clear and reasoned account". By contrast his telephone calls were expansive, colourful and digressive (though no matter how lengthy the digression, he’d return to his main point as if the previous five minutes were all in parenthesis).
Top: Ivor Richards worked with Leslie Martin on many projects including West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (1978) and the Centre of Modern Art, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon (1984, ph: Andrew Mcmillan)
Above: Elevation of Richards' house at Barr Hill, Cambridge (1983)
Nevertheless there was one thing of which Richards was convinced: "When all is said and done", he reflected "someone has to draw the line". That was the job of the architect. And in that area he was without peer: he drew lines spectacularly well, especially with his beloved drawing board instruments of a Faber-Castell propelling pencil loaded with a 2mm H-lead (and sharpened after every line), a worn six-inch scale, and a rather lovely T-square, where the wood and the Perspex edge were seamlessly joined. The results were an object-lesson in unambiguous clarity: a letter to the contractor as some would say, but they had a beauty all of their own.
Plan of Richards' house at Barr Hill, Cambridge (1983)
Ivor Richards was born in Chelmsford and brought up in the village of Exning, near Newmarket where his parents were in service at the local estate. Both were passionate about education. His father was the butler and let his son earn pocket-money (and learn the importance of detail) by painstakingly polishing the family’s hand-made shoes and riding boots; his mother, one of eight children and who had left school aged nine, lived to see him awarded a Chair.
Ecumenical Church, Barr Hill, Cambridge, 1992 (ph: Keith Choda)
Richards studied architecture at Southend but in his final year would make trips to London for informal tuition from Cedric Price. After winning the thesis design prize he worked for the distinguished practice of Stillman and Eastwick-Field before joining Leslie Martin’s studio in the Kings Mill at Great Shelford in 1969. He took up residence in a flat there, a part of the mill buildings that was subsequently occupied by the Martins’ friend Ben Nicholson whom Richards admired and would visit. On one such occasion he recalled mentioning that he’d read a review of a Nicholson exhibition in Country Life and not understood it; Nicholson replied "Neither did I". So much for explication. Drawing was always the crux.
Richards was extremely strong-minded; he knew that producing good architecture was tough – and he could be a toughie"
Richards was extremely strong-minded; he knew that producing good architecture was tough – and he could be a toughie. I once pointed out the location of a column that a structural engineer wanted to add. The engineer had the bad luck of being there. Richards turned to him and said in his unforgettable drawl: "That column [pause]... it’s gone [long pause]... Forever". And so it was. He could be an immoveable force in making things better.
The blues he loved tell of the pain of existence and in recent years Richards had his own share with ongoing ill-health. But he never lost his strong character and fearless opinions. So it was that when, a couple of years ago, I turned up to visit at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, the nurse’s reaction when I said I was a ‘friend’ of Ivor Richards was a picture of surprise. Apparently he was being rather ’difficult’. No change there, then. How we laughed when I told him!
He is survived by his daughter, also an architect, his son and two grand-children, one born just a few days before his death.
Ivor Richards, architect, writer and teacher: born Chelmsford 1 May 1943; Associate, Leslie Martin Studio 1969-84; Professor, Cardiff University 1984- 90; Professor, University of Newcastle, 1990–2008; married 1978 Anne Rostas (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1996): died Cambridge 15 September 2020.