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Tributes pour in for ‘elegant and opinionated’ Gavin Stamp

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Leading figures have paid tribute to architectural writer and historian Gavin Stamp, who has died from prostate cancer aged 69  

Stamp wrote numerous books, appeared on television and, under the pseudonym Piloti, penned the Nooks & Corners architecture criticism column in Private Eye.

He went to school at Dulwich College in south London between 1959 and 1967 and then studied at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in 1978 with a thesis reassessing the work of George Gilbert Scott, junior.

Stamp taught at Mackintosh School of Architecture from 1990 to 2003 and was an active heritage campaigner. He founded the Alexander Thomson Society in 1991 and was also a long-standing trustee and former chair (1983-2007) of the Twentieth Century Society.

Charles Jencks, the architectural historian and co-founder of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres, described Stamp as one of the few ‘independent voices on the architectural scene who could be relied on to say what he felt’ even though it might ‘not always be to my or other people’s liking.’

He added: ’[Stamp] was always worth listening to, or reading, partly because he stated his beliefs with such conviction. He had a distinctive writing style, rather like the man we both knew well and admired, John Summerson.

‘Pithy, succinct, elegant, opinionated and analytical with a strong sense and knowledge of history. He campaigned to save large parts of the British cities. He didn’t like the work of Stirling, Rogers and for instance Steven Holl, partly because it offended his taste for understatement and British reserve. We argued over this. Perhaps influenced by the Peterhouse historians such as David Watkin, his work could be polemical and also surprising – especially when he defended Modernists.

‘[Together we] did some ad-hoc work on our garden in Scotland, collecting discarded railroad parts to make a little white line in the woods. I shall always remember him with great affection.’

Stamp had been writing for Private Eye since 1978 and its editor Ian Hislop told the AJ that Stamp’s death was a ‘huge loss’ for the magazine.

‘I inherited Gavin – it was fantastic for a new editor to have someone like that,’ Hislop said. ’He was extraordinarily dedicated, never missing an issue even right at the end when he was ill. He wrote so well, had held academic posts and sat on so many societies but he also liked to create trouble. He genuinely devoted himself to this column – it was a life and a belief and an attitude.

‘He had an incredibly devoted readership and we always had letters about his column. When he wrote a piece about the Biggin Hill memorial chapel, we got the largest postbag we’d had for ages. The truth was that people went with him. If Gavin was interested then the reader would be. We also got plenty of legal threats as he was quite rude about many much-vaunted architects. He’ll be very hard to replace but I hope that we can do something in his spirit.’

Otto Saumarez Smith, architectural and urban historian, said on Twitter: ’What a terrible thing for the world to have lost Gavin Stamp. I was immensely privileged to have been taught by him and he was always supportive and generous. There is no better model for combining architectural scholarship and passionate activism.’

Former AJ editor and current chief executive of Open City Rory Olcayto said: ’Stamp is one of Glasgow’s great heroes – he sang the city’s praises when that great victorian city needed it most: during the 1980s as it sought to redefine itself after decades of post-War gloom.

’During his time living there, his spotlighting of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson – revealing the genius and beauty in his work – reminded us that there was way more than Mackintosh making up Glasgow’s rich architectural heritage. If the world was fair, there’d be plans being drawn up now for his friend Sandy Stoddart to create a sculpture of Stamp for George Square. He wasn’t a young man, but this is a loss to the profession and our culture, for sure.’

Glasgow-based architect and academic Alan Dunlop said: ’Gavin was a man of conviction and a true scholar with extensive knowledge of architectural history. He fought hard to have the work of Greek Thomson, especially, recognised for its artistic worth at a time when it was not considered sophisticated to do so. Whilst we did not always agree, I was happy to support and to underwrite the Alexander Thomson Tomb Memorial in the Southern Necropolis of Glasgow.

’I will miss the quality of his writing and his rare, oblique wit.’

Stamp’s books included Telephone Boxes (1989), Edwin Lutyens: Country Houses (2001), Britain’s Lost Cities (2007) and Gothic in the Steam Age (2015).

Tributes

Elain Harwood, architectural historian at Historic England

Gavin had a wonderful ability to give powerful lectures that combined erudition with entertainment, which belied the fact that he could also be a shy man. I was always touched by his generosity and all the events he organised for the Twentieth Century Society, especially his annual foreign trips from Paris in 1989 to Havana in 2007 – as well as obvious architectural masterpieces we got to see so many unlikely places: power stations in Budapest, Ceausescu’s palaces in Bucharest and a roller coaster outside Copenhagen.

Catherine Croft, director of Twentieth Century Society

Gavin paid a pivotal role in the Society— a founder member of the Thirties Society in 1979, he was a very active long-term Chairman and continued to be involved right up to his death, contributing to our most recent books (both 100 Buildings and 100 Houses), where his pithy judgements combined the wit and deep knowledge of his best journalism. Although some of our more recent casework (such as the listing of Richard Rogers Lloyd’s building, and Stirling’s No 1 Poultry) called for the protection of buildings which themselves replaced ones he had previously championed, he was always willing to assess the architectural qualities of a building without prejudice.

He led an amazing series of international tours of Twentieth Century architecture for our members, to destinations including Budapest, New York and Ljubljana, at a blistering pace and with an energy and critical eye that always ensured fresh insights. The notes of his five Twentieth Society Society tours of war cemeteries across France, Belgium and Italy which has never been published can be downloaded here.

Cathy Slessor, former editor of the Architectural Review

Gavin first swung into my eyeline when I was working on The Architectural Review in the early 1990s. He contributed book reviews and longer pieces of criticism, distinguished by their eloquence and erudition.‎ Peter Davey, the then editor, used to refer to him as ’Sir Gawain’, alluding perhaps, to his initial incarnation as a Young Fogey, though Davey himself was no slouch in this respect, regularly sporting a cravat and three piece suit. A photograph of a young Stamp similarly attired, posing in front of the National Theatre, suggests that Modernism is about to come in for a damn good thrashing. Yet there was more to Stamp than a veneer of fogeyism and a pettifogging obsession with the past.

His book reviews and longer pieces of criticism were distinguished by their eloquence and erudition

Like Dan Cruickshank, who during the 1970s squatted a Georgian terrace in Spitalfields to prevent it being demolished, Stamp was a militant historian, indignant at the municipal and corporate follies of neglect and destruction, which formed the basis of his regular ’Piloti’ column in Private Eye. As well as his beloved ‘Greek’ Thompson, Glasgow’s Presbyterian antidote to the sybaritic excesses of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Stamp took up cudgels on behalf of many less well-known figures. He was especially fond of the doughty, jobbing architects of the 18th and 19th centuries, quick to alert the world to the travesties of redevelopment and always pressing for survival and re-use.

Latterly, in the context of changing attitudes to Modernism and the emergence of younger writers in a more democratised critical milieu, his scholarly style and preoccupations might be seen as a bit remote and dogmatic, yet there is still the sense that he was held in regard by his successors. His death follows those of AR fellow travellers Peter Blundell Jones and Martin Meade, extinguishing yet another point of light in a generational constellation of architectural critics and historians.

Ben Derbyshire, RIBA President

Private Eye has always been my reading matter of choice on trains and planes and I have for years habitually turned first to Piloti to find the latest unsung treasures of our heritage Gavin Stamp was defending. I have no idea how Hislop will find a replacement as sensitive to the qualities of churches, pubs, council offices under threat and as fearless in his excoriation of philistinism. He was unique, and we were proud to have him as an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA.

Gavin stamp 1948 201702012018

Gavin stamp 1948 201702012018

Twitter tributes

 

 

 

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Readers' comments (7)

  • Richard Griffiths

    Sad to hear of the death of Gavin Stamp. I went on his wonderful trip to Llubljana to see the work of Plecnik, the architectural hero most expressive of Stamp's personal interests (apart from Greek Thompson of course), where his knowledge, contacts and charisma opened doors eveywhere - even managing to get the two rival Plecnik experts in the same room at the same time. I'm glad he approved of our work at St Pancras hotel by his third (fallible) hero, GGScott.
    Richard Griffiths

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  • Very sad indeed to hear the news of Gavin Stamp. He had a remarkably individual voice and strong convictions, and was generally a great force for good.

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  • Fierce but emotionally alert, seemingly traditional but with creative and open-minded wit with a disarming sensibility that would take us in all kinds of unexpected directions... Impossible to forget being taught by Gavin Stamp at the Mack.

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  • chris Dyson

    A real gent who will be sadly missed...an intellectual tour de force, who made a great impression at the Mac in Glasgow.

    I remember hauling him into a bar in London after a Stirling remembrance at the RA, with a colleague and quizzing him about his position on James Stirling... Gavin was open, honest and passionate.

    I admired that, as indeed did most of the Stirling office during my time there.

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  • When few heritage heroes or scholars appear in the New Year Honours List, we know the World is run by morons. But also that true experts like Gavin are sadly only praised in death. I reached out for his help via Piloti to save buildings in Stockport, and he delivered every time.

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  • Sad to hear of Gavin's death, he and I are of the same age - I had the privilege of working closely with Dick Gilbert Scott on the London Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre Project back in the late 1980s during which Gavin lent his passionate support at the Public Enquiry - he was a true gent and I have much admired his contributions to the Gilbert Scott and Greek Thompson bibliography. I hadn't realised I also shared his love of Plecnik (ref Griffiths above), who I came to appreciate during 5 years in Prague, where his work on Prague Castle is delightful. He will be much missed.

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  • So very sad to hear of Gavin's death. We spent many a happy hour chortling, over a glass of read, at the awfulness of the Garden Bridge along with Colin Amery. His wit and wisdom will be much missed.

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