Architecture critic Jonathan Glancey pays tribute to his friend and colleague Gavin Stamp, who passed away last week
‘The one thing you need to know,’ Gavin Stamp told me in a bibulous crush in The Bride of Denmark days after my joining the Architectural Press, ‘is that the only good architect is a dead architect.’ Coming from an architectural historian, this was both funny and true. The work of dead architects can be discussed openly and criticised. Live architects can be unforgiving and litigious.
Gavin was famously outspoken, and even savagely indignant, yet never, I think, personally unkind in lacerating judgements made of buildings he thought second-rate or worse. In his ‘Young Fogey’ prime in the 1980s, he was expected to tilt his critical lance at ‘philistine’ designs by, among other ultra-moderns, Richard Rogers. And, yet, here he is at his unforgiving best, in The Spectator, skewering Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson College at Downing College, Cambridge:
Great Classical architects, like Greek Thomson or Lutyens, acknowledged the transcendent importance of the continuous horizontal line. For Quinlan Terry to have pushed his conventional Georgian sashes into the level of the architrave between his front tetrastyle Doric portico based on the Portico of Augustus in Athens and his lateral projection copied from the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus is not a piece of mannerism, a purposeful breaking of the rules; it is just an example of sheer incompetence which undermines the essential concept of Classicism as a controlling visual grammar.
Gavin’s fierceness in argument was founded on an ever-deepening arsenal of knowledge. An architect might disagree with him, but he knew his stuff. And how happily he shared this treasure trove. Gavin was the first person, beyond a habit of earnest Benedictine monks, I could talk to about Pugin, over whiskies, and as we talked, he offered exciting insights into the work of fellow Gothic Revivalists – the high, the low and middling – and this long before we talked about India, ‘Greek’ Thomson or steam railways.
Hugely enjoyable company, always willing to help, adored by the students he taught, funny and as kind privately as his public demeanour could seem belligerent in Cobbett-like ways, Gavin was equally happy working as a journalist as he was researching, exploring and writing in the guise of the distinguished historian he undoubtedly was.
What was so typical of Gavin, at the very end of his life, was the witty way in which he wrote, in The Oldie, of his sudden realisation that the cancer treatment centre he attended at Guy’s Hospital was in a new building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners: ‘that is, by the firm about whom I have long been very rude. But it is a building that works, and has, I think, made both staff and patients happier – as good architecture should. So hooray for the National Health Service, which – whether for better or for worse – is doing its best to keep me alive, at great expense.’