Using their marbles

Maverick voters have fun with follies

I’m amused, delighted and only slightly disappointed to have come second in a debate. A six-way debate, mind, and one on an utterly subjective matter: so-called Maverick Architecture. This was the conclusion of a season on this topic organised by Owen Hopkins, curator of the architecture programme at the Royal Academy. There’s been a book and an exhibition (which I reviewed in our March issue) and various events, culminating in this: ‘Britain’s Greatest Maverick Building’. 

 

'Vertebrate architecture': Hilda Besse building (1962-71) at St Antony’s College Oxford by Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis.
'Vertebrate architecture': Hilda Besse building (1962-71) at St Antony’s College Oxford by Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis.

How to choose just one building to somehow represent the whole of architectural maverickness in the UK, however you define that? This ticklish issue was decided in two ways: a first round in which the audience, lubricated by wine, cast their votes by dropping a marble into one of six cups provided, one per building. And then a second round of the three top-marble-scoring buildings/presenters, which was eventually decided by the audience holding up coloured cards, a different colour for each of the three. As you’ll have gathered, this was not entirely serious. 

But underlying the fun, we all had good reasons for our choices. Emily Gee, head of designation at Historic England, proposed the remarkable 16-sided 1796 house ‘A La Ronde’ in Devon as a building which – apart from its refreshing unorthodox layout – was a design for living by women for women. Chris Costelloe, director of the Victorian Society, gave himself the impossible task of championing the demolished 1883 Army and Navy Hotel in Victoria by one FT Pilkington. It was sinister and ill-proportioned but weirdly compelling. 

The audience, lubricated by wine, cast their votes by dropping a marble into one of six cups provided, one per building

Andrea Klettner, journalist and architecture PR, recounted her astonishment at first seeing the 1923 ‘House in the Clouds’ a water tower/family home, a house on a tall stalk, in the Strangeville of Thorpeness, Suffolk, by Frederick Forbes Glennie. A folly, yes, but a doubly practical one. Phin Harper, deputy director of the Architecture Foundation, proposed one particular house (and occupant) in the 1970s Walter Segal self-build enclave of Walter’s Way in Lewisham. Adam Nathaniel Furman, artist and almost-architect at present working for Farrells, gave us his boss’s cheap-as-chips conversion masterpiece from 1983, the TV-AM building in Camden, now fully de-PoMo-ised. 

Me? I chose the Hilda Besse building (1962-71) at St Antony’s College Oxford by Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis. This is the high point of HKPA’s ‘vertebrate architecture’ period, a glorification of pure structure that marries brutalism with surprising delicacy. 

It came down in the final round to Harper, Furman and me. Furman won with TV-AM and as far as we could tell from the shoals of coloured cards (nobody felt like counting), I came second with the Hilda Besse building. Well, at least my candidate still exists in its original form. But I think the audience was right. TV-AM was an astonishing moment in British architecture. Maximum architectural impact for minimum means. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for Roland Rat.