Oregon-born, Camden-based Mather has joined the architectural superleague with his appointment to a high-profile project in the city he loves – London's South Bank Centre.
For the latest in A long line of architects chosen to masterplan the ailing South Bank Centre, Rick Mather is very laid-back. Failures by illustrious contemporaries Terry Farrell and Lord Rogers do not seem to have fazed him. The only detectable sign of strain is when he talks of the swaths of information he has had to absorb . “I don’t want to have to read another report. I spent my last holiday reading reports on the South Bank.” Mather’s appointment in May, ahead of an international shortlist including Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Michael Hopkins and Partners, was seen to mark his definitive rise into the architectural superleague.

Sitting in his Camden office, Mather, a youthful 61-year-old, jokes in his American drawl: “I think we should encourage those thoughts.” Mather, who set up his own practice in London 35 years ago, has waited a long time for such recognition. He adds: “We have done other urban design projects like the South Bank, not as big, but because this one is so high profile, everyone notices. It’s a bit like when we were doing universities – nobody noticed; but when we were doing restaurants in London, everyone took notice.” Mather, who is refreshingly reticent, seems genuinely interested in personal fulfilment and intellectual challenge. “I like to get recognition. I like anything that helps us get jobs, because I like building things and actually doing things.” Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Mather studied architecture at the University of Oregon in the small city of Eugene. He came to London in 1963 to study urban design at the Architectural Association and stayed.

What kept him from going home? “I liked Europe a lot,” he says. “I liked being in a big city, being able to walk to things. I grew up in an isolated city, in the suburbs, where you can’t walk anywhere. London is the nicest big city there is.” Mather has established a reputation for university estates, including masterplans for the University of East Anglia, Southampton University and Keble College, Oxford. He also won an RIBA award for the ARCO building at Keble. More recently, he has built up a name for the sensitive refurbishment and modern conversion of complex historic buildings. After coming second to Foster and Partners in the 1994 competition to carry out a £100m redevelopment of the British Museum, he won the £20m redevelopment of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

I like recognition. I like anything that helps us get jobs, because I like building things

His refurbishment of the museum’s Neptune Court, including a new 2500 m2 free-span glass roof, opened to wide acclaim in May. He is also working on restorations of Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection.

Mather says the generic challenges of gallery projects have informed his response to the South Bank brief. “It is interesting that the things the Hayward Gallery needs are the same things that the Dulwich and Wallace Collection galleries, which were built 100 or more years before, needed: cafés, meeting rooms, education spaces, good storage for reserve collections.” Mather has also won acclaim as a housing designer, nominated for the Stirling prize for his 1998 Klein House. “We are doing one private house in Holland Park, taking the old house out, building a new house within the shell and putting a new back on it. But we’re not taking most of the private jobs because the South Bank is keeping us pretty busy.” “Pretty busy” is an understatement. The South Bank Centre is determined to get it right this time. It has committed itself and Mather to unprecedented, exhaustive public consultation before embarking on a new plan of action. The Arts Council this month earmarked £25m of its £269m lottery budget until 2006 to Mather’s masterplan.

Personal effects

What book are you reading? I’ve just finished the biography of Talleyrand by Duff Cooper. It is very appropriate to what I am doing at the South Bank. Talleyrand was foreign minister to Napoleon and a whole series of French governments. He believed in consensus. What music do you like? Classical, opera and jazz. What car do you drive? A Renault Mégane Scenic. It’s ideal for going around London and for long trips as well. Make sure you put Scenic, because I don’t like the normal Méganes. Where do you live? I live in a house I converted in Belsize Park. I took the roof and the top floor off, and put in a roof garden. I live on my own, but I have a lot of visitors. What do you do to relax? I garden. I’m working on a house I recently got in the south of France, halfway between Nice and Marseilles. What is your favourite building? I like Sir John Soanes Museum a lot. I’m a great fan of Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin. And my favourite complex of buildings in England is at Greenwich – the Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum. They’re fabulous.