(2nd September 1951 – 25th July 2016)

 

It is with great sadness that CivicArts must announce the sudden death of its principal and founder, Eric R. Kuhne, at the age of just 64.

 

Architect, orator and master planner, Eric made his reputation in the world of retail design, bringing his unique blend of art and architecture to bear on a long succession of public spaces that continue to touch millions of lives.

 

The son of a WW2 USAF master navigator, Eric’s love of architecture began at the tender age of seven, when his father inducted him into the art of perspective drawing. Educated in an era before computer-aided design, Eric’s innate ability to visualise his ideas with no more than pen and a sheet of Mylar was arguably the cornerstone of his success. It would help him gain entry to the schools of architecture at the prestigious universities of Rice and Princeton, where he was tutored and mentored by such Post-Modern giants as Philip Johnson and Michael Graves.

 

It was Graves, with his canny diversification into product and interior design that proved most influential, having recruited the young graduate to work through the summer before enrolling on his MA course at Princeton. Long hours spent reading in the office library after work, or arguing the applications of perspective geometry to its decor, helped hone Eric’s aptitude for architectural theory and discourse, laying the foundations of his own design philosophy.

 

Having been embraced by this pillar of Post-Modernism, it was unsurprising that Eric should set out to right his perceived failings of Modern movement. Aiming to reverse what he described as ‘the anonymous sterility of international modernism’, he advocated passionately for pattern and colour, sculpture and inscription. His was to be a narrative approach, ‘restoring the story-telling qualities of architecture’ by make every facade a canvas for celebrating the culture and communities that surrounded them.

 

Author of a very personal lexicon, Eric’s prose was pithy, provocative and frequently profound, distilling insights gathered over decades into memorable phrases that resonated with audiences. His ability to communicate with both word and image made for a compelling spectacle, with him narrating each pen mark upon his overhead projector, as a plan or cosmic diagram unfolded before your eyes. Pictures flowed from his pen as fast as the ideas that drove them: Each beautifully titled with a chisel-tipped script.

 

Having founded his own practice in 1981, while still a student at Princeton, Eric initially worked in both Indiana and New York, but a visit to his sister in Australia in 1990 was to prove the catalyst for his life and career overseas. Already known for his lively illustrated lectures, Eric had been invited to speak at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, where his talk entitled ‘Civic Vs Public’ caught the attention of a director of the Lend Lease Corporation. His subsequent introduction to the chairman, Stuart Hornery, (who became a life-long friend) led directly to work on Lend Lease’s Darling Park and Cockle Bay Wharf, which remain some of Sydney’s most successful waterfront developments. Here he created his first ‘Great Room’: The Star Court, with its twinkling celestial ceiling of contemporary constellations, ringed by carved plaster friezes of Australia’s founding story.

 

With his ideas incubated Down Under, Eric’s shifted hemisphere in 1994 when Lend Lease asked him to lead the design of what was to become his most famous retail scheme: Bluewater Park in Kent. The transformation of an abandoned chalk quarry into the largest out-of-town shopping centre in southern England was not without its critics, but the scheme’s unqualified commercial success was underpinned by Eric’s elegant triangular masterplan, and the quality of the naturally-lit arcades he designed. Weaving tales of the Thames, the Trade Guilds and ‘Garden of England’ into the fabric of the building, the fit-out of Bluewater was one of the most ambitious programmes of public art ever applied to a retail environment, with many of the figurative elements issuing from Eric’s own pen as he translated his cultural research into narrative architecture.

 

Both Anglophile and bibliophile, Eric was to make London his home, and the office he crafted in Clerkenwell was as individual as its owner. A labyrinth of warm American cherry cabinetry, its beating heart was a library of 14,000 books which fed the imagination of the design teams, and any guest fortunate enough to spend time waiting in its deep leather armchairs, beneath the suspended model aeroplanes. Doubled-sided glass cabinets divided the studios, each filled with objects collected in the course of projects on four continents. Like the home of Sir John Soane which inspired it, the office was part stage craft, part resource. The keen observer could pinpoint the origins of the architecture: A roofline derived from the wing of a Russian folk toy, or a city masterplan projected from the tracery of an Arabian astrolabe. Every journey overseas brought a fresh influx of tomes and treasures. This was architecture’s Diagon Alley.

 

The warm hospitality of his office embodied Eric’s attitude to architecture and urban design. ‘Reciprocity of spirit’ was his creed. A generous man, he encouraged developers to adopt the same mind set, and treat shoppers and visitors as honoured guests. They in turn would reward the client’s investment in the quality of the public realm by increasing the time and money they spent there. It was as simple as it was mutually advantageous, and Eric dedicated much of his energy to fighting for the comfort of the man and woman in the street. He cared deeply about distances between restrooms, and access to open spaces; about the ratios of cafes to retail units, and the convenient placing of drop-off points. When laying out his masterplans, his bold formal geometry made navigation intuitive, creating clear mental maps for easy circulation without excessive signage.

 

Above all, he wanted to open up the public realm and break down the barriers between buildings. He spoke frequently about ‘the democratisation of waterfronts’, a typology at which he excelled. Always seeking to maximise public access when redeveloping a post-industrial site, his plans brought people back to the water’s edge where once only private business held sway. Nowhere was this more apparent than on Belfast’s Queen’s Island, where the masterplan for the Titanic Quarter was a model of permeability, and the famous slipways were left open, to be treated as ‘hallowed ground’.

 

Eric appreciated the power of words more than most in his profession. Few architects are given to verbalise their ideas as much as he. His project summaries were prefaced by grand ‘Charters’ of intent. Official openings preceded by the reading of specially composed sonnets. He was a man with a sense of how history is made.

 

The opening of the Titanic Belfast in 2012 was just such a piece of history. Standing in the grand ballroom before the recreation of the liner’s famous staircase, Eric addressed politicians and dignitaries presenting a stirring story of a city united in its spirit of industry. Their applause endorsed his message. The building he designed has become the permanent home for that story, vindicating his assertion that ‘Architecture is the New Diplomacy’.

 

Though an imposing figure, it was not Eric’s physical presence but his personality that commanded a room. There was no occasion to which he could not rise, delivering each soaring address like a senior statesman to audiences that included presidents and princes, as often as ordinary members of the public. Ever the egalitarian, his approach was always the same: ‘I want to tell you a story….’

 

His distinctive voice may now be silent, but his stories will endure.

 

Per his wishes, Eric requested that there be no formal funeral or wake.  However, as a true lover of life who was in so many ways larger than life, his family, friends, colleagues, clients, collaborators, acolytes, advocates and admirers will be conceiving and concocting appropriate celebrations of Eric’s extraordinary life and lifework in the fall, with plans to be announced in the near future.

Paul Cattermole

Eric Robert Kuhne 1951 - 2016