Catherine Slessor reflects on Mavericks: Breaking the Mould of British Architecture, a new exhibition at the Royal Academy running until 20 April
I wonder if the RIBA could bring out an app that reboots my spell check programme. Because for years it’s kept doggedly insisting that ‘Zaha’ Hadid is actually ‘Haha’ Hadid. You’d think by now it would know better. Anyway, last week Zaha had the last laugh when she was garlanded with the Royal Gold Medal, architecture’s zenithal accolade, amid an orgiastic celebrathon of lectures, dinners and photo-ops.
Sifting through the torrents of Zaha encomia, certain epithets kept popping up. As an architect consistently challenging orthodoxy and as an Arab woman impinging on a cultural terrain that is overwhelmingly male and pale, Hadid is frequently described as a ‘maverick’. So it is perhaps inevitable that she has been chosen to feature in a new show at London’s Royal Academy cantering through 400 years of British architectural maverickdom.
She is joined by an assortment of strange bedfellows that includes John Soane, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Stirling and FAT (what a duvet party that would be), all yoked together under the rubric of colourful, misunderstood outliers pushing boundaries and sticking two fingers up to the establishment.
On paper it’s an attractive conceit, guaranteed to appeal to the RA’s constituency of gallery-goers who think it slightly daring to buy a Tracey Emin mug in the gift shop. But, as the legendary Jean Rook, self-styled ‘First Lady of Fleet Street’ and the original model for Private Eye’s Glenda Slagg, might have opined: ‘Mavericks. Aint’cha sick to death of them?’
We hear a lot about mavericks and it doesn’t stop with Zaha. Of how clever they are and how crucial they are to the trajectory of culture generally and architecture in particular, dragging the dull, common herd into sunny uplands and pastures new. Always defying received wisdom and thinking ex-buxis, they supply the impetus to human progress. We’d still be living in caves picking mammoth gristle out of our teeth if it weren’t for Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Steve Jobs.
The idea of the maverick has become a tedious cliché
Clearly, what unites the RA’s strange bedfellows is that they had a vision of how architecture might be seized by the scruff of the neck and radically reconceptualised for their respective eras. But latterly, the idea of the maverick has become a tedious cliché. There are maverick detectives, maverick pop stars, maverick businessmen, maverick florists, maverick footballers, maverick chefs and now maverick architects.
By definition, mavericks are the exception rather than the rule, the elusive seam of rare metals in the cavernous mineshaft of architecture. But their influence is disproportionately prodigious, be it on clients, the public, or your run-of-the-mill guy or girl in their one-person practice, impotently fantasising about being Jim or Zaha.
Architecture also needs the run-of-the-mill, the doughty, dependable chorus backing up the expressive but temperamental soprano. It’s worth recalling that private sector architectural practice, a necessary condition for incubating maverickdom, was not always so omniscient. In the 1950s, around three-quarters of British architects were employed in the public sector, diligently churning out housing, libraries, hospitals, schools, swimming pools and infrastructure. Back then, architecture was a seen as a genuinely social and socially improving art, practised by a largely unsung body of anonymous professionals, who, though they might have quietly perved Corb’s Oeuvres Complètes of an evening, were at their desks at nine on the dot, day in, day out, slogging for the greater good.
Architecture isn’t a disposable art form. We have to live with it. It shapes our existence and manifests wider social, political and cultural ambitions. Mavericks might still get all the attention, but in the face of the current challenges faced by the profession and the society it supposedly serves, there is also a need to recognise and rediscover a better kind of ordinary.