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Intellectual independence set Gavin Stamp apart from other critics

Ellis Woodman
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Erudite, principled and unencumbered by relationships with practising architects, Gavin Stamp was always his own man, writes Ellis Woodman

At the risk of inviting an impression of my home-life as resembling that of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, I venture to acknowledge that my husband is also a critic. Rupert has been writing about opera for more than 20 years, although you might struggle to guess so if you met his friends. These are drawn from many walks of life but singers and musicians are notable by their absence. The maintenance of that Chinese Wall between his private and professional lives represents a very deliberate choice, freeing him of any personal engagement with those on stage. When he writes, his only obligation is to the reader who is considering whether to buy a ticket. 

The conditions under which architecture criticism is performed are rarely so chaste. Many of us who write about buildings professionally do so have formerly worked in practice and we have made little conscious effort to sever the entanglement of friendships – sometimes even romantic attachments – that developed during that period of our lives. Among my own circle, I can think of a good many people who have helped me hone my critical faculties and often voice ideas that I cheerfully co-opt. I can’t deny that most of my friends are architects and – rather to Rupert’s exasperation – we talk about the subject constantly.

Architecture was also the prime topic of conversation whenever I had the privilege of spending time with Gavin Stamp. I realise, now that he has gone, that this probably wasn’t of Gavin’s choosing but he nonetheless always indulged my eagerness to tap his encyclopaedic knowledge of architectural history.

Gavin wore a number of hats – journalist, historian, conservationist, tour guide, critic – but the defining characteristic that he brought to all of these roles was the passion of a born educator. Inevitably, I left our dinners with the note of an unfamiliar name and the assurance that I didn’t know what I had been missing. The Finnish architect Lars Sonck was the takeaway from our last meeting and, yes, you really should Google him now. 

Gavin’s vast reserve of historical knowledge may have been one quality that set him apart from the rest of us who try to write about contemporary architecture in this country, but another was surely his intellectual independence. Having trained as a historian he was largely unencumbered by relationships with practising architects and he certainly didn’t seek to cultivate any. 

Looking through the past winners of the Sir Hugh Casson Award, Private Eye’s annual prize for the worst building of the year, it is clear that Gavin was always his own man. Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building won it in 1985, but eight years later it went to Quinlan Terry for the Maitland Robinson Library at Downing College in Cambridge. He may have been given to wearing three-piece suits and a pocket watch but Gavin’s position was never readily definable in terms of the vacuous polarities of the 1980s style wars.

Gavin’s position was never readily definable in terms of the vacuous polarities of the 1980s style wars

If the Eye’s Nooks and Corners column served as a platform for his outrage, it was in his monthly columns for Apollo that he occasionally took the opportunity to acknowledge his admiration of new buildings. Peter Zumthor’s museum in Cologne and Caruso St John’s gallery in Walsall both met with approval, as did the work of the Classical architect Craig Hamilton, in which he recognised a level of invention that Terry’s work never approached. 

The intellectual freedom that Gavin prized undoubtedly came at some personal cost, not least financial. Making a living from writing about architecture is hard enough without being burdened by unfashionable convictions. He was a dear man of fantastic principle and a daunting model for any architecture critic to follow.

This column appears in the 11 January issue

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