Born: July 16, 1946; Died: September 29, 2013.
Professor Charles McKean, who has died aged 67, was a distinguished architectural historian, commentator and prolific author. One of the most influential Scottish historians of his era, he is also credited with revitalising the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and giving the organisation real relevance.
Prof McKean was an extraordinary enthusiast, an engaging companion and an architectural historian who was never afraid to challenge the received wisdom in his field. He also fundamentally influenced the lives of all those who worked alongside him and studied under him and can take credit for transforming Scotland's attitude to and understanding of, our nation's architecture.
Born in Glasgow, Charles McKean was the son of the civil engineer and proprietor of the family firm McKean and Co, John Laurie McKean and his wife, Nancy (née Lendrum) who worked as what would now be called a psychiatric social worker. His early years were spent in North Kelvinside until the family moved to Bearsden. A severe cleft palate required many periods of several months each in hospital in Oxford, for corrective surgery. These stays, aggregated up to years. His hospital stays and being sent, as a boarder, to a preparatory school in Angus he would later recall as circumstances which simply had to be endured. He took much the same survivalist view of his secondary education at Fettes College, Edinburgh. One teacher who helped to redeem the Fettes years was an English master who would read Dashiell Hammett's lively and humorous short stories to his classes, "breaking through educational boundaries".
After leaving school a six-month sojourn at the University of Poitiers was followed by a three-year degree, from 1965-68, at the University of Bristol. Prof McKean took a general honours BA in philosophy, English, history and French, which was gruelling and an experiment which the university would drop two years after he qualified. However, his time at university in a city which had "the same heart and beauty as Edinburgh" was an invigorating interlude.
His talent for organisation came to the fore. The General Society, GenSoc, which he founded, enabled him and a cohort of friends to fundraise. A showing of the movie of Nabokov's scandalous novel, Lolita, sold out, earning £1000, which he and his fellow GenSoc members then spent throughout the rest of that year, "going on trips around Somerset - with drink". The breadth of his degree precluded any close relationships with tutors, although one was fondly remembered for many interesting discussions on early Scottish poetry, particularly how it migrated to North America. A friend in Anglesey encouraged numerous visits to North Wales, further broadening his horizons.
Upon graduation, he realised that, for a Scot living in Bristol, amalgamating interviews in London and charging expenses as if from Glasgow was an excellent money-making wheeze. One such day included five interviews, the last of which, at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), effectively ended his interview expenses scam, by resulting in a job. He started as an administrative assistant in the membership department at 66 Portland Place and within six months, was the London regional secretary, gradually expanding his portfolio to take on the additional roles of Eastern Regional Secretary, Projects Officer, Community Architecture Officer and the responsibility for the RIBA evidence to the Greater London Development Plan enquiry.
Not content with his eve- expanding RIBA job, Prof McKean established the London Environment Group, which brought together a number of distinguished architects of the era who shared common concerns about the future of the metropolis. He embarked on the first of a long series of publications which, over a lifetime, would add up to a remarkable 30 books. London 1981 came out in 1970, ominously predicting the depopulation of a city increasingly preoccupied with the financial sector and the generation of wealth. A flurry of other publications followed, including Battle of Styles with David Atwell, Modern Architecture in London 1965-75 with Tom Jestico and Fight Blight, subtitled A Citizen's Guide to Urban Dereliction - And What They Can Do about It. He was a young man on a mission, passionate, enthusiastic, incredibly hard-working and producing books which galvanised much public and media interest.
In 1975 he married Margaret Yeo, a feisty, attractive and very bright Welsh woman who became a steadying lifelong influence in an extremely strong and mutually supportive marriage. In the summer of 1979, by which time the first of their two sons, Andrew, had been born, they were on holiday in Wales when McKean received an invitation to attend for interview at the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS). The interview panel included then RIAS president Larry Rolland, who had previously met Prof McKean through involvements with the RIBA and knew that he was exactly the sort of innovative enthusiast which the near moribund incorporation needed. Prof McKean was offered the job and although it was a wrench for the young family to give up their London life and, as he wryly recalled, with a salary of £7000, only paid £500 more, they made the move north.
Both the Incorporation's headquarters and the organisation itself were in a state of advanced dilapidation. As Prof McKean later recalled, "there were footsteps in the dust in the library - mine of five years earlier". He was determined, enthusiastic, bright and persuasive and the RIAS desperately needed an injection of vitality. Prof McKean and the RIAS were made for each other. From the outset he set himself three priorities, to promote architecture, to make it easier for architects to practise and to increase income for the profession and for the RIAS itself. Over the next 15 years he was singularly successful, gathering a talented staff which shared his enthusiasm and engagement. In successive years he reconstituted the RIAS Convention as a major, outward-facing, international event; he established RIAS Practice Services, providing technical advice to practitioners, launched a new publishing arm, set up numerous marketing initiatives including a widely-distributed directory of Scottish practices, opened a bookshop and developed an insurance company, an energy design advisory service and a consultancy service, organising competitions.
In between times, Prof McKean also delivered a major research study into the 1930s and the year-long celebratory Festival of Architecture in 1984, marking the 150th anniversary of the RIBA and a new positive relationship between the two autonomous organisations. He would always credit the late John Richards with the financial agreement which helped establish joint membership between the RIAS and its UK sister institute, helping to end a long running turf war.
Undoubtedly the most significant public facing endeavour of Prof McKean's 15 years at the RIAS was his series of Scottish architectural guides, which started with Edinburgh in 1982 and has steadily continued right up to the present day. In fact, one of the goals of the recently announced 2016 Year of Architecture is the completion of the last five volumes, in honour of Charles McKean. Online publication of all of the volumes will undoubtedly deliver Prof McKean's typically ambitious goal of Scotland's architecture being the best-promoted on planet earth. It is a goal which, according to many, he has already achieved.
In 1995 Prof McKean was head-hunted for the post of head of the Duncan of Jordanstone School of Architecture at the University of Dundee. Unfortunately the academic staff were reluctant to welcome a non-architect as the head of their school and the job was neither as challenging nor as enjoyable as he had anticipated. A deft move two years later saw him becoming Professor of Scottish Architectural History at Dundee, a role much more fitting to his talents and which allowed him to pursue his diverse research interests. The award-winning book, The Scottish Chateau, followed in 2001, winning the Nigel Tranter Memorial Award and being shortlisted for Scottish History Book of the Year.
Alongside his teaching and research at the university, Prof McKean was now in a position to take an active role in a number of organisations which are key to the preservation and promotion of Scotland's architectural heritage. He joined the Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland, played a very active role on the Scottish Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund and was elected to the Guildry of Dundee. His voluntary involvements were numerous, including the presidency, or chairmanship of the St Andrews Preservation Trust, the Scottish Castles Association, the New Glasgow Society, the Buildings Committee of the National Trust for Scotland and, perhaps most importantly, in his later years, the Unesco Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, which he chaired from 2006 on.
Prof McKean's honours and memberships were many. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an Honorary Member of the Saltire Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society and a Fellow of the Royal Historic Society. All of these and his innumerable involvements in heritage organisations and membership of the boards of many trusts are indicative of his life-long passionate engagement with public service, architecture and particularly the historic architecture of Scotland.
Prof McKean's service to Scotland, to the understanding of its built heritage and to engaging the public in the care and sharing of that heritage has been equalled by very few. He was a distinguished scholar and a polymathic adventurer in the realms of antiquity. He was an enthusiast whose legacy is a huge number of erudite and engaging publications and the transformation of architectural practice in Scotland and world understanding of our unique and precious architectural heritage.
His many friends and colleagues have lost a valued friend whose infectious enthusiasm, sense of mischief, kindness and wit enriched their lives. He is survived by his adored wife Margaret and sons Andrew and David.
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