I didn’t know Isi Metzstein as well as those who worked with and studied under him nor, of course, his family. Two days after his death now, there will be individuals he worked alongside at the Glasgow School of Art who will be remembering his insights and his put-downs – he was a master of both – in a way I never can.
Indeed I met him on only a handful of occasions in the later years of his life. I remember in passing the day I drove him around the central belt of Scotland for a design award in a mini-bus listening to him – in his mid 70s – besting John McAslan in their every exchange and giving harsh but fair criticism of the projects we saw.
However, growing into the world of architecture in Scotland in the early years of the century, the discovery of the work and teaching of Isi and his closest working partner Andy McMillan was, once unearthed, a life-changing discovery. If a German Jew who escaped on the kinder transport and a working class Scot could achieve as much as they did from evening classes and learning on the job; if they could improve not just the material culture of an often forgotten corner of Europe but in addition the quality of its critical discourse, then, well, we all needed to raise our aims.
The novelist Alasdair Gray popularised the quote, ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation'; a phrase that eventually was inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. However, in architectural terms, it is the work of Metzstein and MacMillan to whom the words best apply. Like Gray they saw the world around them as it was and as it could be. Like him though they were correctives to the vague aspirational culture, which couldn’t differentiate between the two, that dominated the late 20th century in Scotland like elsewhere in the UK.
And whilst Metzstein and MacMillan, like others of their generation, worked and studied nearly every hour they had, they were also clear about the importance of reading and debating about what they read in coffee bars as a means of furthering their understanding of architecture. Influenced hugely by the work of Alvar Aalto they learned about his work in magazines. When I hear people scoffing at the damaging effect of magazines have on the creative imagination, I always think of Metzstein and MacMillan pouring over an Aalto project in the AR in a Glasgow cafe and how an understanding of the logic at work there perhaps went into the striated brickwork of St. Bride’s in East Kilbride or the complex fenestration of Sacred Heart in Cumbernauld. How they took from Corbusier in a book the urgent logic of the plan and applied it to a small church in Bo’ness.
These designs were unique, brilliant, Scottish but engaged in a fascinating dialogue with the work of the greats of European Modernism. Not afforded the same chances as other architects at that time to work on civic projects they got a chance with the Church and in turn turned them into civic institutions operating within the new towns of the period. Through working for a Jack Coia at Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, a man who had friend in the Catholic Church, they were given an opportunity and they seized it with both hands.
Their masterpiece of course was St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross and visiting it in its dilapidated state was a pilgrimage for young Scots, only some of them architects. To understand how such a great building could be conceived and assembled, and then be left to crumble was a vital lesson for a whole generation. To study it changed the way you looked at architecture and a growing appreciation of of its worth created a bulwark against mediocrity and inferiority in Scottish cultural life at the beginning of this century.
Isi was reputedly a tough critic as a teacher and he may have made a few students cry. But I’m sure these students went on to realise that professional life was much harsher than a tough call on their academic work. He in turn took the harshness of the way his work was disregarded for a good two decades with equanimity and he never made much of the exacting way he learned his profession. He also urged many more on to higher and better things, making them laugh a great deal as well. His daughter Ruth found consolation in this after her father’s death. She said: ”I’m just so pleased that so many people really appreciated him and responded to his insatiable drive to stimulate and amuse.”
photograph by Jonathan Root.