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RA debate: What is Britain's greatest maverick building?

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Lloyd’s, Trellick Tower… Stonehenge? On 18 April an RA debate will decide what building should be declared the UK’s most unorthodox

Over the last few months the Royal Academy has been examining the phenomenon – and implications – of maverick architects. We’ve heard about the need for going against the grain and resisting the pressure to conform. In these pages in particular, we’ve also been warned about the dangers of the cult of the maverick, and the fetishisation of the original or outlandish over the everyday but indisputably essential.

One thing that has been agreed on is that mavericks are by definition the exception, and marked perhaps counterintuitively by the consistency of their maverickness. It’s not enough to be maverick ‘some of the time’ – it has to be something you live and breathe. But while only a few architects can be truly maverick, any architect, I would suggest, is capable of designing a maverick building, a building that resolutely stands apart – whether in scale, appearance, programme or sheer bloody-mindedness – from its peers.

Predictably we got a healthy contingent of Brutalism

In anticipation of a debate on 18 April that will see six architecture experts making a case for their choice as Britain’s ‘greatest maverick building’, we’ve been asking the public to nominate their own favourite maverick buildings. Predictably we got a healthy contingent of Brutalism, reflecting the fashionable revival the style is currently enjoying while also acknowledging that Brutalism is the maverick style par excellence.

What could be more maverick – or megalomaniacal – than the distended sculpted trays of Preston Bus Station, or the raw geometries of Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower? But Brutalism had its softer, more refined side, of which there is no greater example that Howell Killick Partridge & Amis’ Hilda Besse building at St Antony’s College, Oxford. It is a masterwork of concrete and light – and pitched for by Hugh Pearman in the debate.

Preston Bus Station by BDP, 1969

Preston Bus Station by BDP, 1969

Source: User:Dr Greg / Wikimedia Commons

Preston Bus Station by BDP, 1969

There were some more surprising inclusions in the public’s list, notably Stonehenge (does it even qualify as a building? Maybe that’s the point) and St Paul’s Cathedral, whose familiarity has perhaps overshadowed how deeply strange a building it is. One structure for whom familiarity has done little to blunt its radical edge is Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building, which was also nominated by the public. Few buildings manage to combine that sheer abrasiveness from a distance with such delicacy up close. Whenever I pass it, I always marvel at its exacting punched aluminium ducts with their rivets all neatly lined up.

Because they generally stand out, maverick buildings aren’t always liked, let alone loved, and as a result they are arguably more prone to demolition than their conforming peers. How soon will popular opinion come to lament the loss of Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon’s Trinity Square car park in Gateshead, immortalised by Michael Caine in Get Carter (1971)? The site of this maverick monument to the sculptural possibilities of reinforced concrete is now, alas, occupied by a try-hard but ultimately banal Tesco.

TV-am building, Camden by Terry Farrell, 1983

TV-am building, Camden by Terry Farrell, 1983

Source: User: Oxyman / Wikimedia Commons

TV-am building, Camden by Terry Farrell, 1983

This attitude to maverick buildings is nothing new, with Chris Costelloe, director of the Victorian Society, arguing in the debate for the demolished, and frankly quite weird, Army & Navy Hotel in Westminster by the little-known Victorian architect FT Pilkington. Maverick buildings remain at risk and Adam Nathaniel Furman will be extolling the virtues of a Pomo classic: Terry Farrell’s already heavily mutilated TV-am building in Camden.

So as the Mavericks season comes to a close, and we assess the role of the original and unorthodox in architecture, perhaps the most fitting conclusion is actually that we don’t need more maverick architects. But we could always do with more maverick buildings.

Britain’s Greatest Maverick Building – The Debate, featuring Chris Costelloe, Adam Nathaniel Furman, Emily Gee, Phin Harper, Andrea Klettner and Hugh Pearman, takes place at the Royal Academy of Arts on 18 April. Click here for more information and tickets. 


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