Gavin Stamp 1948-2017
Jonathan Meades’s eulogy was read at Gavin Stamp's funeral in Camberwell on 25 January by Otto Saumarez Smith.
There are millions of people who feel deeply about the depredations of the construction industry; who feel deeply about architects wantonly exposing themselves like red-rumped macaques in the hope of attracting central Asian tyrants; who feel deeply about the environmental, social and aesthetic iniquities visited on this increasingly sick, increasingly corrupt little country.
But, as Thom Gunn noted, ‘Deep feeling doesn't make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of a help.’ Most of the millions do not have a way with language. Gavin did have. For poetry substitute polemic; substitute philippic; history; panegyric.
Gavin tirelessly articulated the discontents of the many whose lives are screwed by the cupidity of the few. Architecture and buildings are political. And Gavin was, among much else, a political writer – a political writer in disguise, but a supremely political writer.
Architecture is evidence by which our forebears and their civilisations can be assessed, evidence which the present whiggishly destroys because it believes that it will necessarily do better precisely because it has progressed to become the present. Gavin abhorred this fallacious smugness and fought it as it should be fought – ad hominem. For architecture is not some parthenogenetic miracle. It is the creation of humans – who are to be taken to task. Humans who hide behind wretched ishoos – a gambit by which they unwittingly reduce themselves to automata or even deny their being while at the same time loudly asserting themselves as tectonic Ubermenschen. He was aware that friendship is the greatest corruptor. He didn't care whether he was liked – which was one of the qualities that made him so likable. He had a duty to himself, a moral as much as an aesthetic duty, to get personal.
Gavin belonged to a school of one. Throughout most of his career – which was a vocation conducted on his own terms – it was evident to anyone of the slightest sentience that he was the eminent architectural writer of his generation. During much of that time architectural criticism in Ingerlandlandland was no such thing; it was a matter of giving great forelock to a few big names, it was fawning, anilingual sycophancy, a barely dissembled form of PR.
Gavin despised jobbery as abasement, a dereliction of pride. It is largely due to his example that this country now has a squad of architectural critics, a generation younger than Gavin, which is not cowed by ennobled prima donnas with thin skins, off the peg opinions and minatory lawyers.
Whatever the doxa, Gavin questioned it because it signified lazy acceptance – even if it was correct. He sought to vex rather than divert. As a young man he was conservative, lower case 'c'. He was even briefly Conservative, majuscule 'C', before it became apparent that Mrs Thatcher, having drowned the wets in a sack, had whelped a litter of pups whose slogans would be ‘Dog Eats Dog’ and ‘Every Mutt For Himself Gnasher!’ Her conservatism wasn't conservative, it was mutant Manchester liberalism. Gavin considered the rule of the market demeaning, the worship of Croesus spivs unseemly, and the absence of environmental dirigisme positively threatening. He came to disprove the maxim that ‘if you're not a socialist at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.’ He moved in quite the opposite direction, brain and heart intact, to the point where in his last year he was bemused by the gullible fools who voted to self-harm by leaving the European Union – a bastion of stability – and was disgusted by attention-craving pieces of ordure like the foreign minister who encouraged them to do so.
Forty years ago Gavin possessed the air of a young army officer sporting deafening tweeds at a point-to-point. Reminded of this some decades later he denied ever having worn bookies' checks. This is important for he was a dandy. Clothes were important to him. Appearances counted. Various people in his milieu then were never so happy as when they were dressed in a high celluloid collar so tight it caused weals and little blisters of blood to pulsate extracutaneously. Gavin eschewed such painful pleasure in favour of tab collars and on high days a pin collar. ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,’ says Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The young army officer was often to be seen storming out of the Architectural Press's offices after one article or another had been rejected – rejected of course on quasi ideological grounds.
Doctrinaire modernists armed with ancient progressive pieties were still just about in the ascendant in those days: to concern oneself, as Gavin did, with what a building actually looked like and what effect its presence might have on its surroundings was reckoned to be the height of frivolity, a sort of apostasy.
The doctrinaire see what they believe in, the latitudinarian believe in what they see. Gavin looked. He had no programme, no theory, no ideology, little interest in movements or taxonomies. According to Nabokov there is only one school of writing – the school of talent. That is what Gavin increasingly believed about architecture. He found merit in the neglected and the threadbare and the jokey as well as in monuments of high seriousness: his elegy The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme will endure as long as the great grave structure itself. It is as much a complement as a record.
Through his friendships with such architects as the Glasgow modernists Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan he came to appreciate that the welfarist programme of mainstream modernism had been morally laudable. The problems lay with the programme's physical expressions.
Gavin recognised that he was part of that programme. He was a child of welfarism, of Virol, cod liver oil and orange concentrate, and of the 1944 Education Act which enabled him to go to Dulwich College at the state's expense. A daily journey from Bromley and back. Under one of his pseudonyms – Brett Peacehaven or Royston Baldock – he wrote an autobiographical fragment entitled ‘Through Eden Park To Paradise’, a brief and touching hymn to southeast London, to its distinctiveness and its separation from the rest of the capital. The SE postcode was, is, will be, his home.
His voice remains. His literal voice is unforgettable. His figurative voice – the style, which is the man himself in Buffon's apothegm – is stalled but it is vitally there to be heeded so long as we retain an appetite for scholarship, an appreciation of justified indignation, and a taste for scrupulous adherence to the truth.