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My tour of Chicago with Gavin Stamp highlighted his inconsistencies

Paul Finch

The late critic stopped short of dancing on Mies’s grave but he drew the line at a visit to Farnsworth House, recalls Paul Finch

I spent a week in Gavin Stamp’s company when he led a Twentieth Century Society study tour to Chicago in the late 1990s (‘Do keep up at the back! You’re spoiling it for everybody!’) Gavin had to acknowledge that some of his pet hates (commercial development, tall buildings, America) might have to be reconsidered. Drinking late-night cocktails at the top of the John Hancock Building, Gavin gazed out over the illuminated grid and declared quietly: ‘It’s really rather impressive.’

When we visited Mies’s grave, Gavin marked the moment with respect rather than leaping up and down on it, as he had previously claimed he would do. However, his animus towards Mies was much in evidence, and he refused point blank to entertain a visit to the Farnsworth House, even though other out-of-town excursions were organised, for example to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax masterpiece.

Fellow critic Ken Powell took matters into his own hands and spoke to the house’s owner at the time, Peter Palumbo (with whom Gavin had a feud), who generously arranged for four of us to visit the house. On the due day, a limousine arrived at our hotel, and the Farnsworth Four clambered into it, having posed for a photograph taken by Gavin. We each received a Christmas card from him later that year: a print of the photograph, captioned: ‘In the pay of Palumbo!’

His adage that the only good Modernist is a dead one was the background to a set of unsought arbitrary feuds with living talented Modernists

Thinking about Gavin after his untimely death, I was struck as much by the inconsistencies as consistencies in his life as a critic and as the none-too-anonymous writer of the Nooks and Corners architectural column in Private Eye. Despite his general antipathy towards Modernism, he helped architect James Dunnett with an AA exhibition on the work of Ernö Goldfinger. He also had an interest in Richard Seifert. As a leading light in the Thirties Society, morphing effortlessly into the Twentieth Century Society, he found himself admiring and defending the new – provided it had a patina of time.

His adage that the only good Modernist is a dead one was the background to a set of unsought arbitrary feuds with living talented Modernists, particularly if they were knighted. This was a useful attitude only inasmuch as it generated an uninterrupted stream of criticism, sometimes bilious, via Private Eye. It should be said that he dished it out to Classicists as well, particularly Quinlan Terry, but it all seemed far too ad hominem.

In truth, Gavin was much better as a writer when using his own name. He was also good fun, an effective teacher and a loving father. It is no surprise that he disliked the idea of actually meeting people he was running a feud with. He knew that if he met them he wouldn’t be able to be nasty to them in print. His honesty in recording his admiration for the Rogers Stirk Harbour cancer ward at Guy’s Hospital, having attacked Rogers for decades, was admirable.

Stamp on terry hellman

Stamp on terry hellman

Source: Louis Hellman

There was an element of the English eccentric that Gavin cultivated. He once turned up, deliberately overdressed, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, prompting a letter to an architectural magazine saying he arrived ‘in full tweeds’. The response was a letter demanding to know what ‘full tweeds’ meant. The further response was ‘Tweeds full of Gavin Stamp’.

Gavin was one of four speakers I chaired at an RIBA debate in 1995, ‘British Architecture Can Only Get Better’, marking the centenary of the AJ. Two of the others, Katherine Shonfield and Martin Pawley, are also no longer with us. As it happens Jonathan Glancey and I performed a sketch at Gavin’s 50th birthday party, which concluded with Louis Hellman approaching Gavin wearing a sort of Richard Rogers fright mask. A vignette from happier times. 


Readers' comments (2)

  • Great tribute Paul, and a damn good read.

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  • I should have made it clear that Jonathan Glancey, happily still with us, was the fourth speaker at the AJ centenary debate.

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