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Tributes paid to Robert Maxwell (1922-2020)

Robert Maxwell (left) at an exhibition of Cedric Price's work at the RIBA in 1975
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Figures on both sides of the Atlantic have paid tribute to academic and architect Bob Maxwell, who has died at the age of 97

Maxwell, who was born in County Down in Northern Ireland in 1922, died earlier this month in Aix-en-Provence in France.

A friend of Colin Rowe, James Stirling and Douglas Stephen, Maxwell spent most of his career in academia, becoming a professor at the Bartlett and Dean of Architecture at Princeton.

In his earlier career he worked in practice for London County Council – where he worked on the extension of the Royal Festival Hall – and later, as a partner in Douglas Stephen & Partners, where he participated in schemes such as the Brunel Centre in Swindon.

Professor of urban studies at the LSE Ricky Burdett said Maxwell had ‘shaped and enlightened generations of architects, critics and thinkers’.

‘Bob could be John Summerson, Claude Levi-Strauss and Woody Allen in one sentence,’ Burdett said. ‘He brought social and cultural depth to any discussion about architecture and modernism, often wrapped in personal anecdote with a strong dose of irony, humour and cutting wit. He enjoyed dismantling the sacred cows of architecture, never taking anyone at face value.’

Peter Murray, curator-in-chief of New London Architecture, said: ‘Bob’s death is one more star fading in the twilight of the great post-war generation of architectural thinkers, historians and critics like Reyner Banham, Colin Rowe, Sam Stevens, Dalibor Veseley, Charles Jencks, Ken Frampton and Joseph Rykwert – the last two thankfully still with us.

‘Bob’s perceptive comments, given with a light touch and mischievous tone, will be sorely missed. He was also a lovely piano player with a large repertoire of ragtime and R&B tunes that enlivened many an Architecture Club party.’

Bob Maxwell on the piano

Bob Maxwell on the piano

Bob Maxwell on the piano

Adrian Forty, Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture at the Bartlett, also paid tribute to Maxwell.

Forty said: ‘He was most unusual in that he was deeply passionate about architecture, without ever being dogmatic. He hated dogma. This was a rare quality, especially amongst architects of his generation.’

Mónica Ponce de León, Dean of Architecture at Princeton, called him a ‘remarkable educator whose legacy is still felt in the field of architecture at large.’

She said: ‘With an illustrious career that bridged across the Atlantic…he infused American pedagogy with a fresh point of view.’

Anthony Vidler, a professor at Cooper Union in New York City and professor of architecture at Princeton from 1965-93, called Maxwell an exception among professional architects.

‘[He was] a polymath whose knowledge of literature, anthropology and the arts was primary for his own practice and teaching,’ he said.

Maxwell graduated in architecture at Liverpool University in 1949, his education there having been interrupted by a stint in the British Army, when he was posted to India. There he developed a life-long affection for the country but avoided having to fight the Japanese following the dropping of atom bombs by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From 1958-62, he became a Year Master at the AA before joining the Bartlett, where he taught for two decades. At Princeton, he had four stints as a Visiting Professor before becoming Dean for 11 years from 1982.

He then returned to the AA, where he taught the history of modern architecture for over a decade.

Following Maxwell’s retirement in 2006, he lectured around the world and at the Royal Academy in London.

Robert Maxwell died on January 2. He is survived by his wife, the architect and artist Celia Scott; and three children by his first wife Margaret (née Howell), Melinda, an oboist, Amanda, an architect at Mathewson Waters Architects and Robert, a partner at Allies and Morrison. He also leaves behind five grandchildren. 

Tribute from Ricky Burdett

I met Bob when I was student at the Bartlett in the late 70s, before he went to the USA – a part of the British diaspora with Frampton, Vidler and Colin Rowe – and kept in touch ever since. Any conversation with Bob was memorable, enriched by a mellifluous voice, an erudite but unpretentious use of language that I found mesmerising.

Bob could be John Summerson, Claude Levi-Strauss and Woody Allen in one sentence! He brought social and cultural depth to any discussion about Architecture and Modernism, often wrapped in personal anecdote with a strong dose of irony, humour and cutting wit. He enjoyed dismantling the sacred cows of Architecture, never taking anyone at face value.

Any social occasion with Bob and a piano in the room, ended with him on the keyboards. A few years ago, when he was well into his 90s I sent him a video of him playing As long as I had you to his old friends in the south of France. He responded “thanks for the video – but it must be my worst performance ever! I play much better on the Athenaeum club Steinway, where I`’ll be giving a short performance later this week on St Cecilia’s day.”

A tribute, no doubt to Celia who accompanied him in this extraordinary life journey that shaped and enlightened generations of architects, critics and thinkers.

Tribute from Terry Farrell

I always remember his looking around for a piano at an event. To entertain us I assumed, and it did just that. Whether at a reception like the one in the Reform, fifteen years ago, which was full of architects in a fine architectural setting. Or in my former studio home where we held a New Year’s party every year for twenty years .

He had found our electronic piano and played ragtime and jazz on it so wonderfully. I first met him in 1969 when he was writing a book about British architecture and wrote that Farrell and Grimshaw were ones to watch!

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