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.