John McKean studied and practiced architecture; he studied architecture’s history and theory and for some years ran the history and theory unit at North London (later London Met) University. He was an architectural journalist and editor. Mainly he has taught design for architecture and interiors, and from 1996 for 11 years he was Professor of Architecture at Brighton.
McKean is insatiably curious about the built environment and how we inhabit it. While this has led him to avoid being pigeon-holed, it has not restricted his looking deeply and precisely at the architecture of widely diverse times and places. His portfolio of publication is thus quite unusually varied, and published work across this range has attracted both research awards at early stages and accolades on publication. His books have been translated into French, German and Japanese, his articles have appeared in Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian. With this background, McKean was invited, earlier in the millennium, to produce a completely new text and approach to the magisterial Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture.
McKean helped shape and appeared on camera in Channel 4’s programme centred on The Crystal Palace (in their The Shock of the New series); similarly he was consulted on and appeared on BBC2’s long programme on the Royal Festival Hall (reused, edited rather differently, and broadcast on BBC4). He was most recently on camera in BBC4’s 90 minute film on Daniel Libeskind broadcast in 2007 (later on BBC2).
McKean has lectured widely in Europe (particularly Scandinavia and Italy) and in Singapore. He has addressed The 20th Century Society a number of times, and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, both in Glasgow twice and around England. He gave a paper on the Crystal Palace at an Institution of Civil Engineers’ international conference on Glass and Iron in 2001 and addressed DoCoMoMo on De Carlo’s concrete in 2007.
The required introduction to an academic research submission a few years ago began rather defiantly: “John McKean considers himself as much a student of architecture as an academic researcher,” he wrote. “As a generalist, he is fascinated by subjects across the wide range of the study of architecture.”
Working so hard to avoid pigeon-holing may not enhance the shape and swerves of his career path(s). It may even suggest, as they say, that John would rather know fuck all about everything than everything about fuck all. (This latter being the happy fate of so many academics today.) But it indicates a blessing whose mix he has enjoyed, despite the inevitable carping from one-trick ponies.
It also suggests his attraction to anarchism since student days, leading to lifelong friendship with Colin Ward, Walter Segal and Giancarlo De Carlo – as well as sharing all that trio’s enthusiasms for Patrick Geddes.
As a young teenager he won an Amateur Photographer competition and had his first photograph published, thereafter going on to publish photographs and win competitions over a couple of decades, and very recently returning to focus on photography once more. As a student John made 16mm films (one embarrassing effort made while still at school is now in the Scottish Film Archive) and reviewed real films for his university’s TV station. A student drawing won a competition and others were accepted by The Architectural Review. He has since published many architectural/ topographical drawings and recently exhibited life studies during the Brighton Festival. Through 2016 he plans to publish one new life study on the web every day.
He wrote regular musical criticism as a student, later played spinet/piano in amateur baroque and chamber music groups, and then accompanied his daughter (violin), nephew (cello) and son (euphonium/tuba) until they got far too good for him. He represented his university on University Challenge – and a couple of decades later was runner up in the national Architectural Mastermind competition.
Academically John McKean missed the plot, just scraping two A-levels (one actually with the pass mark) and then, after five full-time years’ architecture study, gaining a Third Class degree. Rumour was that the external examiner wanted his thesis (a long theoretical study and then sketch housing design scheme based on its conclusions) to be failed, the Professor wanted it be a First, and the invisible tutor didn’t understand or care one way or the other.
After a couple of year’s architectural practice, his education began when Joseph Rykwert, despite John’s dismal academic record, accepted him with extraordinary generosity as a graduate student at Essex University to join a tiny cohort which included Daniel Libeskind, their minds to be blown wide by Rykwert and Dalibor Vesely.