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Ancient Wisdom and Modern Knowhow

This scholar’s evident love for buildings is beautifully conveyed to his readers

Bob Maxwell plays the piano: occasionally after dinner when he’s in the mood – traditional blues – lightly, with nimble fingers. He also paints: watercolours with a hint of the St Ives School colouring and light translucent washes. He also writes on architecture: with an equally light touch, equally nimble phrasing and clear, transparent arguments. Rare is the critic who can be read as if spinning a story, illuminating and yet deeply thought, with an evident love of buildings as objects for understanding and a talent for letting his readers into the secret.

With an architect’s eye for space and form, and a scholar’s love of seeking meaning, Maxwell has produced three books of essays to date, each one building on the last in what one might call an extended narrative of an observer’s life in architecture. An observer who is also an active participant, first in practice with Douglas Stephen & Partners, and then as a teacher, at the Bartlett, Princeton and the Architectural Association.

His first collection of essays, the title of which, Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993) after a poem by Robert Herrick, set the tone for critical and theoretical observations on architecture that found its meaning as much in poetry and painting, literature and music, as within its own disciplinary boundaries. The result is a refreshing journey through the vicissitudes and debates in architectural culture over 20 years from 1971, the original publication date of the title essay. Maxwell claims to be neither historian nor scholar, a position, that as a trained architect-critic, releases him from the obligation to disciplinary or academic conventions, and permits his own version of disorderliness to subsume apparently lifeless objects within penumbra of potential interlocutors, from Auden to Bacon, Mozart to Roland Barthes.

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Tatlin’s Tower, also known as the Monument to the Third International (1919–20), was an unrealised design for a monumental building by the Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin

And it is to this last writer that Maxwell can properly be compared – unveiling the meaningful myths of contemporary architectural thought while avoiding the temptation of taking sides, of manifesto-like pronouncements, of entering into personal rivalries. This of course is itself something of a triumph in an era when Whites and Greys, Brutalists and Townscapists, Late Modernists and Postmodernists battled in the press and seemed to dominate all interpretations and assumed positions. Reading Maxwell you sense the murmur of these paper disputes in the background, but they are drowned out by wit, and a playfulness that is attuned more to the rhythms of ragtime than to the labelling of styles. Refusing to write about a building he hadn’t experienced, a painting he hadn’t seen, or a text he hasn’t read, it is the immediacy of his personal vision that runs through.

His second collection, A Few Years of Writing Interspersed with Some Facts of Life (London: Artifice, 2012) to which I contributed a Preface, as I wrote, similarly ‘upset any categorical imperatives of style or ideology’, intercalating the essays with excerpts from his and Celia Scott’s diary entries, that positioned his forays into theory and interpretation in time and space, and that gave the result a texture that comes close to the layering of his own beloved mannerism. A Few Years of Writing is a collection of critical responses to buildings and books written between 1994 and 2010, in which Maxwell displays a balanced melding of personal reflection and acute perception. In this sense, as he positions Reyner Banham and Colin Rowe as respectful opposite poles of a debate between Formalism and progressive Functionalism, Maxwell has consistently taken up the centre ground– respectful of, and always drawing on, both but resolutely independent.

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Peter Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory, with its 100m long and 15m tall glass and steel walls, is considered to be a revolutionary design of industrial architecture

Two poles, indeed, underlie the essays in the present volume, but they are to a certain extent conceptual rather than personal. Both are acknowledged and developed in many of the essays: ‘semiology’, as evoked in the writings of Roland Barthes, and ‘mannerism’ as launched into modernism by Colin Rowe. Here I deliberately avoid capitalisation, as reflecting Maxwell’s own, very personal, expansion of the concepts out of his inventive reading of the two authors and their figuration in his criticism.

In what he characterises as his ‘last’ lecture at the Architectural Association, that forms Chapter 7, Maxwell pays homage to Roland Barthes: ‘I gave up design and became a word man. And Roland Barthes wrote the words that I followed,’ as he explains his ‘love affair with sémiologie’ (AWMK, p104). Characteristic of his life-long dedication to teaching architecture, and its intractable difficulties, his search for meaning beyond the measurable led him to try to pin down that undefinable entity ‘culture’ (out of Raymond Williams) and Barthes’ demonstration of the ‘slipped systems’ of language fluctuating between direct and the indirect modes, the rhetoric of the image, and the multiplicity of discourses involved in the construction of mythologies. All of which come together in Maxwell’s own interpretative strategies for teasing out meaning in architecture. ‘Perhaps it is the realization of the mythic qualities of functionalism that underlies the current development of architecture, where form is no longer pursued for its immediate response to function but for its more general suggestiveness,’ he writes, going on to posit that the prime source of architectural form ‘comes from the imagination of the architect, as poetry comes from the imagination of the poet’. But, in a move that is characteristic of his own ironic uncertainty, he immediately undercuts the impression we might have that such a position is in any way reactionary, reminding us of Colin Rowe’s salutary warning that ‘the word tradition comes from the same root as the word treachery’, that the abandonment of a position through change is a form of treason.

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Durer’s engraving, ‘Melencholia 1’, has been subject to a series of interpretations such as ‘Melencholia Imaginativa’, where German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa has defined it as the condition when imagination predominates over reason

Which returns us to Rowe, but this time not to his opposition to Banham, but to that now canonical essay of 1950, ‘Mannerism and Modern Architecture’, a detailed consideration of which takes up Chapter 4 of the book, a chapter that might be seen as pivotal in Maxwell’s argument throughout. In an extended close reading of this essay, that is more often cited than read, Maxwell traces Rowe’s argument step by step leading to Rowe’s final comparison of the (supposedly) blank panel in the facade of Le Corbusier’s Villa Schwob at La Chaux-de-Fonds and the blank panel facing the visitor descending the stair of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, Florence. At which point Maxwell takes over, with a sweeping account of ‘mannerism’ in contemporary architecture from James Stirling, Peter Eisenman, Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, to Rem Koolhaas, perceptions that will be developed further in more detailed analyses in other chapters.

And if semiology and mannerism are the analytic keys to Maxwell’s progress, they serve to illuminate his central reflection on the architectural ambiguities redolent in this ‘age of uncertainty: – our own age, that is evidently named as a successor to Auden’s postwar “age of anxiety”.’ In this context the essays follow a more or less historical chronological order beginning with the first anxiety represented for Maxwell by Claude Perrault’s application of the linguistic analogy to the Orders; an analogy taken from Perrault’s friends at Port Royal, that characterises them and their proportions as ‘arbitrary’ in the same way as rhetorical forms themselves. For Maxwell, however, as opposed to other contemporary commentators who take a more nostalgic view, this was the key to a fresh and inventive opening; one that might not be tied to the Vitruvian rules, but that opened the way for modernity to construct its own culture of signs, some abstracted, some diagrammed, from what he calls the ‘archive’ of historic architectures.

This then is a book that revives faith in a living criticism, one not over-weighted with post-structural apparatus but one that is deeply indebted to the insights of literature and the arts, not to speak of poetry and painting. In one of the most insightful of the essays, Maxwell finds commonalty between the self-portraits of Francis Bacon, and the late works of James Stirling, where both artist and architect are engaged in a fundamental ‘critical act’. In an essay on the late Robin Evans he speaks of the critic’s writing seeming ‘to arrive directly from the author’s puzzlement, and to be the result of his own effort to understand a problem and to explain a situation to himself. As a result he explains it to us’ (AFYW, p70). It is this sense of the struggle of the architect as critic, both of architecture and of the times, that Maxwell so beautifully conveys through his own puzzlement, in a tone that is a pleasure to read – a spoken tone as if we were together in a room after dinner, in a wide-ranging conversation with the author, reluctant to ask him to play his mannerist rag-time until we had heard one more of his encomiums to uncertainty.

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Knowhow. Learning to Live with Uncertainty

Author: Robert Maxwell

Publisher: Artifice Books

Price: $39.95

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