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Obituary: Robert Maguire (1931-2019)

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Gerry Adler remembers influential post-war church and education sector architect Robert Maguire, of Maguire and Murray, who has died, aged 87

Bob maguire in his retirement in the borders

I first got to know the architecture of Robert Maguire and his practice partner Keith Murray as an undergraduate at Sheffield University in the mid-1970s. As a first-year student at the School of Architecture, I’d won an internal competition to design a maze to be built in the grounds of the University of Hull, where the RIBA was convening that summer in 1976 for its annual conference.

I had the privilege of hearing Maguire give one of the keynote lectures, and then have him present our team with our liquid prize. The following year I visited Maguire’s ground-breaking church of St Paul, Bow Common, and its accompanying school, designed with his partner, Murray.

Maguire, who became head of the Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) School of Architecture was a leading light in the liturgical reform movement within the Church of England. The partnership of Maguire and Murray stood for the best in British architectural practice in the mid to late-20th century and made outstanding and original contributions to design culture. Buildings for religious practice, for education and for student living formed the particular locus of invention in terms of building type.

Bob Maguire was born in 1931, in Paddington, London. His primary education was at one of a handful of London County Council (LCC) schools which experimented in using arts and ‘handicrafts’ in its general pedagogy, akin to the teaching methods in Rudolf Steiner’s system.

The experience of his father’s cabinet-maker workshop and his progressive education would stay with the young Maguire, informing both his choice of future career, as well as his involvement with it. He won an LCC scholarship to Bancroft’s School, Woodford Green, where he did woodwork under the tutelage of a Bauhaus-oriented master, and was able to build on the craft skills learnt from his father.

By his late teens Maguire realised that only one school of architecture would do for him: the Architectural Association in London. The only way he could possibly attend was by winning the one annual scholarship – the Leverhulme – which he duly did, thanks to his drawing skills, and his rapidly developing interest in, and knowledge of, Modernism. He proved to be a precocious student at the AA, and was awarded the Howard Colls Travelling Studentship for his First Year portfolio.

Ever the keen cyclist, he decided to undertake a grand tour of selected districts of England and Wales, producing on his return the report 8 Districts, an elegant collation of notes and observations, illustrated by photographs and simple line drawings with applied colour-wash. It convincingly related building form to topography and geology, and was precise and accurate about building material, form, and junctions.

After graduating from the AA Maguire had a four-year stint working for the Architectural Press, as buildings editor for The Architects’ Journal and occasional contributor to The Architectural Review in its column on technical innovations. He got this job after Lance Wright, then technical editor of the AJ, recognised Maguire’s clarity of drawings for the book The Design and Practice of Joinery by John Eastwick-Field and John Stillman. This led to Maguire coming into the orbit of Colin Boyne, then editor of the AJ, from whom he won the commission for his first house design, for the Boynes and their young family in a wood outside Sevenoaks.

This was an essay in the fashionable timber-framed Scandinavian modern vernacular, and stands in stark contrast to the building that was to make Maguire’s name, St Paul’s church, Bow Common, in the East End of London, and was to launch the practice with his friend, Keith Murray.

Murray was a designer, principally of fine silver, but when the two men got to know each other he was working at Watts & Co, the country’s leading ecclesiastical outfitters, based in Westminster. The two men became instant friends, not least because of their passionate interest in Christianity, especially of the reforming variety. They soon became core members of the New Churches Reform Group, centred on the groundbreaking ideas of the theologian Peter Hammond.

Maguire had just won the commission for rebuilding the Bow Common church after extensive war damage. This was a scheme he developed from a project of his at the AA for a centralised plan, and was the initial exemplar of a liturgically reformed church that Hammond and the NCRG promoted. It remains to this day a place of pilgrimage for students of architecture and of theology.

It is also striking as an essay in Brutalism, for its deployment of plain materials: concrete paving slabs internally, blue engineering brick walls and standard steel flats and sections for the hanging corona above the altar, yet it has an artistic agenda at odds at first sight with its core industrial aesthetic. Murray had designed a striking series of mosaics (executed by Charles Lutyens, the great-nephew of Sir Edwin) in the spandrel panels beneath the cranked concrete roof of the ambulatory and the base of the brick cube above the altar. Brutalist, certainly, but with a heart.

Kentlands, house for colin and rosemary boyne, near sevenoaks, kent, 1958

Kentlands, house for Colin and Rosemary Boyne, near Sevenoaks, Kent, 1958

Kentlands, house for Colin and Rosemary Boyne, near Sevenoaks, Kent, 1958

The partnership with Murray extended into their domestic arrangements. Maguire had been introduced to a charismatic teacher of existential psychotherapy, Catherine Ginsberg, through his friend Joseph Rykwert, who would go on to have a distinguished career in architectural academia. Ginsberg founded a quasi-religious community in West London which Murray and Maguire and their then wives joined (Maguire had married his first wife, Robina, who had been one of Colin Boyne’s secretaries at the Architectural Press).

When the community outgrew its cramped premises Maguire and another friend from the AA, Peter Whitely, found appropriate accommodation for the Families By Choice (FABYC) community by negotiating the purchase of four Victorian villas in Kew, and knocking them together in a novel manner that paired families around shared kitchen/dining rooms.

With FABYC and the Bow Common church, two vital strands in Maguire’s architectural ethos found expression, and would lead to a string of outstanding churches and housing projects. The churches were not necessarily new-builds; the re-ordering of Medieval and Gothic Revival churches, the replacement of long naves inimical to a centred celebration of the Mass, was something undertaken by Maguire & Murray with as much alacrity as they would apply to their new church commissions. The essential idea was to create a single space for priest and congregant, without the spatial and hierarchical separation of nave and chancel.

Here the NCRG, in its Anglican home, prefigured many of the liberalising tendencies of Vatican II that would change the form and function of Roman Catholic churches in the decades that followed. The Mass, in both versions of Christianity, should no longer be a performance viewed from afar, but should be at the centre of the religious community.

Following St Paul’s Bow Common (1955-60) came St Matthew’s, Perry Beeches, Birmingham (1959-63), the monastic church at St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent (1962-66), All Saints Church, Crewe (1962-67) and St Joseph the Worker, Northolt (1965-70). In each of these modest masterpieces, geometric and constructional ingenuity abounded. In terms of housing, the practice developed a particular expertise in de-institutionalising student housing.

Their lived experience of the FABYC community guided their highly sympathetic attitude to student needs, with the best example of this being Stag Hill Court at the University of Surrey (1967-70). Out went regimented study bedrooms ranged along endless corridors, in came the concept of the large house, 10-bedroomed villas with generous kitchen/dining rooms. It was very much a case of Modernism, but with a human face,

The third building typology Maguire excelled at, and innovated, was the school. The ‘great barn’ of the primary school next to St Paul’s, Bow Common (1969-71) rethought the very idea of children’s education, and was an inspired architectural response to the Plowden Report of 1967. Similar to the wholesale rethinking of institutional housing, out went serried ranks of classrooms, in came shared areas and the flexibility that was the hallmark of the radical education policies of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

By the late 1970s and into the following decade the practice became known for its astute and sensitive approach to working with historic structures. Its work at Trinity (1959-66) and Magdalen Colleges, Oxford (1975 and 1986-88), and the King’s School, Canterbury Cathedral Precinct (1977-81 and 1978-83) is testimony to their growing reputation in this field, one that stems directly from their ecclesiastical work on re-ordering. Ingeniously Maguire slotted the vast Blackwell’s bookshop beneath Trinity’s Cumberbatch quads.

By the 1980s the practice had carved out a new reputation for itself, as leading proponents of what the architectural critic Peter Davey termed ‘Romantic Pragmatism’ in 1983.

St Paul’s Church, London by Maguire & Murray (1960)

St Paul’s Church, London by Maguire & Murray (1960)

Source: Steve Cadman

St Paul’s Church, London by Maguire & Murray (1960)

In 1976 Maguire was offered the headship of the Oxford School of Architecture. Here he was popular with staff and students alike as a youthful, committed practitioner. He abolished marks in first year, in a bid to focus students’ attention on the quality of their work, rather than chasing grades; encouraged group working in the studios, a way of learning inherited from the AA in the early 1950s; finally, he transformed the first degree into a diagnostic one, with much more competitive entry to the Postgraduate Diploma course.

He left the school in excellent shape: by the mid-1990s it was the strongest amongst those in the ‘new universities’ (former polytechnics) of the 1992 higher education reforms, and is a centre of excellence to this day. It provided the practice with a steady stream of young architects eager to begin professional life with them. One of the particular strengths and specialisms of the school, developed under Maguire’s headship, was environmentally responsive architecture, and Maguire’s practical interest in developing modern design enriched by an understanding of local traditions.

Two years later the Maguires – Bob had married for a second time, and now had the responsibility of two young step-sons – moved to a small village near Oxford, and in 1986 the practice opened a second office at Thame, to supplement their base at Richmond in south-west London.

Various strains had developed between the two partners, not least of which were the practical difficulties of running two offices, each becoming distinct from the other. A new practice, Maguire & Co, was set up, which would eventually be run exclusively from Thame. This practice continued with much the same work, and Maguire could devote himself exclusively to running this office, having resigned from the Oxford one in 1985.

Highlights from this final episode of Maguire’s professional engagement are his work for Worcester College, Oxford (1988-90), Radley College, Abingdon (1995-96 and 97-98) and the theatre, art gallery and sports hall at Dormston Comprehensive School, Sedgley (1997-2000). In addition to these, the series of sensitive church re-orderings continued unabated.

In the new millennium Maguire retired from practice and designed Hopewater House in Ettrickbridge, in the Scottish Borders. Even here he challenged received ideas. It is what he termed a ‘three-generation’ house; a double house for him and Alison, joined to an apartment for his stepson and young family, facing onto a shared courtyard. Cross this courtyard and you would find Bob in his workshop, happily constructing mobiles, furniture and other artefacts that expressed his love of well-made things.

Maguire had metastatic prostate cancer and suffered from ischaemic heart disease. For the last two months of his life he had congestive cardiac failure. 

He is survived by Robina, Bob’s first wife, his daughters Martha, Rebecca Joanna and Susan Kate from his first marriage, and by Alison whom he married in 1982 and his two stepsons, Edward and Mathew.

Gerry Adler is deputy head at Kent School of Architecture and author of the book Robert Maguire & Keith Murray (20th Century Architects)

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