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Kathryn Findlay

Architect

Architect

Born: January 26, 1953; Died: January 10, 2014

The architect Kathryn Findlay, who has died aged 60, managed to build a career in the predominantly male profession of architecture, and left behind her a small but innovative legacy of buildings characterised by their fusion of creativity and practicality.

She both taught and built, first in Japan and then in Scotland and London, and her works include the Soft and Hairy House and the Truss Wall House, both in Tokyo and both sci-fi visions of what homes can be.

Her practice also played a key part in realising the architectural elements of the artist Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit, the spiralling tower that rose up beside the Olympic Stadium in London.

Her death from a brain tumour was announced just hours after it was revealed she had been given the Jane Drew Prize "for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture".

Born in Forfar, it was a trip to the Glasgow School of Art that inspired her to pursue architecture as a career. "It was an alchemy of space, light, shadow and materials," she told The Observer last year. "I loved the idea of combining something poetic with something practical."

She studied in London, graduating from the Architectural Association in 1979 before departing for Japan where she spent 20 years teaching and working, becoming the first female academic in the department of architecture at Tokyo University and the first foreigner to teach there since Londoner Josiah Conder, known as "the father of Japanese modern architecture", in the 19th century.

While in Japan, she worked with Arata Isozaki, the architect behind the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Shenzhen Cultural Center in China, before founding Ushida Findlay Architects with her then-husband Eisaku Ushida. Their buildings were original and expressionist in design.

The Soft and Hairy House (1994), which from the exterior looked like an alien spoor had landed in a Japanese courtyard, was inspired by their client's fascination with Salvador Dali, while the earlier Truss Wall House (1993) was a continuous curved-form building more than a decade before that idea became fashionable in architecture.

Ms Findlay once described her design process as the equivalent of a worm eating through an apple.

"The shape is an outcome of the spaces and movement inside," she said.

She returned to Scotland in 1999 shortly before she separated from her husband, to teach at Dundee University. Ushida Findlay continued to design though, and their architectural originality was recognised when plans for a starfish-shaped home in Cheshire won a Riba competition. But the practice went out of business in 2004 before it was built.

Undaunted, Ms Findlay returned to architecture after relocating in London. "The Scottish architecture world is quite macho," she said in 2009. "You find you get overlooked by your peers ... I think it makes a massive difference, but one isn't supposed to say that."

The reconvened Ushida Findlay practice worked in Japan, the UK and the Middle East on projects ranging from a Teletubby Museum in Stratford to a state school in south London, a culture and amenity hall in the Gifu Prefecture, Japan (another of the practice's curved buildings), to a beach palace for the wife of the Emir in Doha.

But it was a 2009 poolhouse that combined glass walls and a thatched roof (a former tutor described the approach as "digi-thatch") that was hailed as the practice's comeback project. As is often the way in architecture, Poolhouse 2, as it was called, took eight years to work its way through the planning process.

Ms Findlay's architectural success was ultimately the fact she achieved her desire to "mix poetry and pragmatism" in the buildings she made, despite the profession's demands on time and energy, especially on women. "The advantage we have as women is we are natural mediators between people and man and nature," she once said.

Zaha Hadid, who was a fellow student with Ms Findlay at the Architectural Association, has praised Ms Findlay's hard work and enthusiasm. "Like myself, in the early days Kathryn struggled as a woman in architecture but she persevered."

That perseverance eventually was recognised. She was invited to the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004, became Associate Professor of Architecture at Tokyo University and was a Visiting Professor of Architecture at UCLA in 1999, and at Technical University in Vienna in 2011.

She was also made an Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee and received a fellowship from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland in Edinburgh which was presented to her last September in London.

"She was an extraordinary, feisty, witty Scot who went out to take on the world," her friend Neil Baxter, secretary and treasurer of the RIAS, said. "Sadly she wasn't given some of the opportunities she deserved, but in everything she did she was a great innovator."

She is survived by her daughter Miya, her son Hugo and her former husband Eisaku Ushida.

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