Chambers of Memory, Richard England
Life and career, reflections and experiences, anecdotes and interests Kite Group (2018) www.kitegroup.com.mt 480 pages
Conrad Thake I have to confess that my first encounter with Richard England was with his architecture rather than with him as a person. It was way back in 1970, when my parents had engaged him as their architect to design our new house on a vacant plot of land in Marsascala that had been generously donated to them by my maternal grandfather. By the time that the house was completed and we moved in, I was then a 10-year-old child. Marsascala at that time was still a quaint and rather sleepy seaside-settlement still uncontaminated by the rampant speculative development that would sadly transform it into a labyrinthine-sprawl of nondescript buildings. I still harbour fond childhood memories of our house, spatially innovative and exciting with an internal concrete bridge crossing over a spacious doubleheight entrance hall and with a distinctive large circular window on the façade which commanded scenic views over the Marsascala Bay.
My first personal encounter with Richard England would be many years later, in 1987/88, when I was in my final year of the undergraduate degree course in Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Malta. England had just been appointed as dean of the Faculty of Architecture and would act as the principal examiner of our final-year projects. By then he was not only Malta’s leading and most sought-after architect but he had also acquired considerable international acclaim for his architectural projects. Although his tenure as dean of the faculty was unfortunately brief, he immediately embarked on various radical reforms that were intended to revitalize the architectural curriculum. His first initiative was very telling as he recruited an art historian, Prof. Mario Buhagiar and one of Malta’s leading artists, the late Alfred Chircop to join the department and contribute to widening the educational formation of architectural students beyond the conventional curriculum. Furthermore, he tapped into his extensive international network of architects to invite them to lecture in Malta and injected a new lease of life into what was previously a rather staid and insular state of affairs.
On a personal level, my friendship with Richard England matured from the mid- 1990s upon my return to Malta following postgraduate studies in North America. We became good friends, meeting on a regular basis and sharing our views and experiences on current architectural debates and periodically even collaborating on projects that were submitted for international architectural design competitions.
Richard England’s interests go well beyond the realm of architecture. He is an accomplished artist, poet, sculptor, photographer and writer. His erudite knowledge of various literary texts is complemented with his life-long passion for the opera, in particular Italian tenors. Richard is quintessentially a humanist, a modern-day uomo universale in the Renaissance tradition, embracing a wide spectrum of interests and artistic pursuits. However, it should be stressed that to him these endeavours do not have rigid boundaries, they are intrinsically fluid and permeable, all enriching in their own way. Still, in spite of his wide range of interests he considers himself to be first and foremost an architect. The British poet Samuel Butler once stated that “every man’s work, whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself”. And in this respect Richard, literally breathes and lives architecture.
There have been various international publications and monographs that provide extensive coverage of England’s architectural projects. It would have been pointless to reiterate and repeat what has already been widely disseminated. The latest title Chambers of Memory is about Richard England’s life and career experiences and his humanistic outlook. It is not intended to be an autobiography in the traditional sense of the word. It is not composed and presented as a chronological linear narrative of his life and experiences. Rather, it is disparate and fragmented in content and wide-ranging in scope. It focusses on various themes; on his favourite buildings, architects, works of art, literary texts, poetry, musical compositions, etc. It also includes various anecdotes as to his interactions with former teachers and educators, prime-ministers and politicians, popes and clergymen, fellow architects and students.
It took quite a lot of coaxing and armtwisting to convince Richard to put these memoires and reflections together. He was initially reluctant to embark upon this project perceiving it as being potentially self-serving or being misinterpreted as pretentious. Three individuals were instrumental in convincing him to undertake this mission, in this respect his beloved wife, Myriam, his son, Marc and the late architectural critic Charles Knevitt deserve all due credit. The latter had even conducted a series of informal interviews with him and collated several notes together. Sadly, his handwritten notes jotted down on scraps of paper have remained as such due to his untimely demise. In many ways, this volume continues along the same path initiated by our dear friend Charles. Chambers of Memory contains submissions from some of the leading international architects, architectural historians and critics who share a close friendship with Richard. This volume transcends national boundaries and provides the reader with unique insights as to the workings of the interna t iona l architectural fraternity. As one would expect given the architect’s extensive travels and participation in international projects there are various entertaining anecdotes from distant lands as far afield as Astana, Baghdad, Buenos Aries and Sofia. Chambers of Memory is intended for a wider readership than architects and architectural students. It is a rich and diverse mosaic of life experiences of Malta’s most esteemed architect with various tangential sources of influences and references. The text goes beyond the purely material considerations and delves into a humanistic and at times, even a spiritual dimension. Richard England dominated the architectural scene in Malta in the period from the mid-1960s to the beginning of the 21st century. This he did not only through various high-profile buildings but also through his numerous writings, publications, lectures and exhibitions. He has also over the years mentored and served as an inspirational father-figure to a younger generation of architects – a kind of architectural éminence grise, still influential and relevant. In the light of the rampant building development we have witnessed during the past couple of decades several of England’s architectural works mainly tourist hotels and villas have been lost. However, two of his most important works still survive, the iconic Manikata parish church and St James’ Centre for Creativity in Valletta. One hopes that they will be treasured for future generations to come. For as Julia Morgan once wrote “my buildings will be my legacy… they will speak for me long after I’m gone”. The book is available from leading bookstores. Signed copies from www.kitegroup.com.mt