Robert Millar Maxwell 1922 – 2020

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Architect, teacher and writer active in the UK and USA who was still writing at the age of 97

Robert (Bob) Maxwell, architect, academic and occasional jazz pianist, died suddenly on 2 January in his beloved Aix-en-Provence, basking in the sun, having been on good form during the Christmas/New Year run of parties and having just finished a chapter he was contributing to a book. He was 97, and had been closely involved with the development and interpretation of architecture throughout the entire post-war period and well into the 21st century.

Maxwell was born and raised in in Downpatrick, in the year that Northern Ireland was created.  From there, at the start of the Second World War, he went to the Liverpool School of Architecture, finally graduating  in 1949 after war service in the army. As an Ulsterman he had not been conscripted, but had volunteered in 1944 in the hope, he said, of getting to see the baroque churches of southern Germany as part of the army of occupation. Instead, he was posted to India, on his way to fight the Japanese. Atom bombs having suddenly terminated the war in the east, Captain Maxwell instead immersed himself in the culture and history of India, developing a lasting respect for the country and its people. 

  • Thinking about remodelling the Royal Festival Hall in 1958 - this was not the finished design.
    Thinking about remodelling the Royal Festival Hall in 1958 - this was not the finished design. Credit: Maxwell family
  • Robert Maxwell at Le Corbusier's Unite in Marseilles in 2003.
    Robert Maxwell at Le Corbusier's Unite in Marseilles in 2003. Credit: Maxwell family
  • Maxwell was introduced to the works of Le Corbusier by Colin Rowe at Liverpool architecture school in the 1940's.
    Maxwell was introduced to the works of Le Corbusier by Colin Rowe at Liverpool architecture school in the 1940's. Credit: Maxwell family
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At Liverpool he had met and made friends with Colin Rowe, a huge academic influence; James Stirling, who asked for Maxwell’s help with his thesis drawings; and Douglas Stephen. There he also met his first wife, fellow architect Margaret Howell. Beginning his working career with Hugh Casson on the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, he was later sacked by Casson’s partner Neville Conder for ‘undue formalism’ and moved to the practice of William Holford.

He also did private house commissions but teaching and practice were intertwined: he became a year master at the Architectural Association in 1958, moving after four years to the Bartlett where he taught for 20 years. From senior lecturer, he moved on to reader and professor. 

In the early 1960s he had joined the London County Council’s celebrated architects’ department, where he was in charge of a group designing the extensions to the Royal Festival Hall. Then it was back to private practice; as a partner with Douglas Stephen he participated in the design of the silvery Brunel Centre in Swindon, apartments in Highgate and a hangar for Concorde in Bristol. 

He made the transatlantic leap with four stints as a visiting professor at Princeton, after which he became dean in 1982, remaining there for 11 years. He returned to London, teaching the history of modern architecture at the AA from 1994 to 2006. Officially retired that year, he continued to lecture internationally as well as at the Royal Academy where he was part of the Architectural Forum group devoted to increasing the profile and knowledge of architecture there. 

A great essayist, reviewer, contributor to books and collator of architectural criticism, and noted for his Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless published by Princeton in 1997, he was a writer of clarity, avoiding jargon. He also wrote monographs on two of the AA circle of architects, James Stirling and Rick Mather. In 2016 came his autobiography The Time of My Life in Architecture. ‘After all,’ he wrote, ‘I knew whatever there was to know about me.’  But he framed this with contributions from friends and colleagues, offering different viewpoints of the same periods in his life. This framing of one part by another was to him not just architectural: it was ‘the essential ingredient of mannerism’, the acknowledgment of doubt and ambiguity. 

Maxwell is survived by his three children by his first wife Margaret (marriage annulled 1973), Melinda, Amanda and Robert, by five grandchildren and by his second wife, architect Celia Scott.