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Richard Burton, architect with a ‘duty of care’ to residents

Prince Charles apologised for calling architect firm's work on the National Gallery a 'carbuncle'

27 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

RICHARD Burton, a Kentish Town-based architect who has died aged 84, was one of the partners at the celebrated ABK practice.

While renowned for its Modernist designs, the firm gained notoriety when in 1982 it won a commission for an ­extension to the National Gallery which Prince Charles likened to “a ­carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. ABK were stopped from proceeding, and the firm did not win any new work for 18 months.

But this allowed Mr Burton to concentrate on building a family home in Lady Margaret Road, which has become a ­celebrated landmark. Later, Prince Charles would apologise for his remarks and admired the firm’s environmentally friendly designs. Mr Burton was born in 1933 in Kensington and was a pupil at Dorset’s Bryanston School.

His mother, Vera, was for a time an actress who produced the first stage version of Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton and Hugh Griffiths. He met his namesake, who told him he should change his name: Mr Burton retorted that the Welsh thespian should alter his instead, as he was born Richard ­Jenkins.

Mr Burton’s father, Basil, ran a press agency and his family were from the newspaper dynasty of Lord Northcliffe. His mother remarried News Chronicle editor Gerald Barry, a key organiser of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He also co-owned the Academy Cinema in the West End, which specialised in showing foreign language films.

His influence helped Mr Burton decide to study architecture and gave him a love of French film. Mr Burton joined the Architectural Association in 1951 and studied with Paul Koralek and Peter Ahrends, who would go on to establish ABK. He worked for a time for the London County Council, building social housing – a passion he maintained for the rest of his life – and also ­practised at Powell and Moya before setting up his own practice with his AA colleagues.

He married Mireille Dernbach-Mayer in 1956. The pair had courted as they walked to work through Regent’s Park. They had four children, living for a time in St John’s Wood before ­heading to NW5 in 1979, partly due to Mr Burton’s wish to walk to work every day. He was influenced by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, and won commissions including building a new library for Trinity College Dublin and the British Embassy in Moscow.

Mr Burton was fascinated by how his designs worked, employing a social psychologist to interview people after they had moved in. He felt a duty of care and believed it was as easy to build decent homes as it was to put up poorly thought-out buildings.

Among Mr Burton’s many passions – he read Russian literature, played the clarinet, sang, painted and was an excellent dancer – he collected chairs, enjoying the simplicity of their design. For him, politics meant using his talents for all.

A conservative with a small c, he worked in a firm alongside socialists and felt that the wellbeing of all was his concern, spending time designing low-cost flats for public sector workers and lobbying Camden Council to take on schemes. His expertise was always on hand for the Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum, and he was a friend to the New ­Journal, offering advice on planning matters. He was awarded a CBE in 1996 for his services to British architecture.

Mr Burton spent many happy years with his ­family on holiday in the Swiss Alps, where he had bought a farmhouse ­dating from 1745. He leaves his wife Mireille, children Mark, Bim, Johnny and Kate, and eight grandchildren.

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