Friday04 September 2015

Putting people first

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Robert Maguire and Keith Murray: Twentieth century architects

By Gerald Adler
RIBA Publishing, £20, 212pp

A new monograph shows Maguire & Murray’s humanist brutalism

St Paul’s Church in Bow Common, east London, was completed in 1960 before Robert Maguire was 30 years old, yet bec-ame the most important parish church in post-war Britain and immediately established the rep-utation of Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, leading to a succ-essful career for the partnership over the next three decades.

Externally the forms of the building are simple: low windowless blocks topped by a brick cube and crystalline lantern. Internally, however, a radical floor layout that brought laity closer to clergy by eschewing the traditional cross form in favour of a centralised plan is combined to remarkable effect with an architectural language that is practical and tough; cheap and industrial materials used in a no-nonsense manner. As the 1950s turned to 1960s, here was a church for the people and of the people, that rang true with the theological and cultural upheavals of the time.

Gerald Adler charts the practice’s progress from this early masterpiece through the following three decades with informative text, largely original photographs, and helpful plans and sections.

The book has been produced by RIBA Publishing with English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society as part of their excellent series filling in the gaps of the received canon of modern British architecture, charting practices whose reputations have been perhaps a little overshadowed by those of Stirling and the Smithsons. Adler’s book, along with the whole of the series, makes a very worthwhile addition to one’s library.

Following St Paul’s, a series of churches including St Matthew’s Church in Birmingham (1959-63), All Saints Church in Crewe (1962-7) and the Church of St Joseph the Worker in Northolt (1965-70), along with housing, and university and school buildings, reinforced and developed the practice’s ideas.

Works for the Benedictine community at West Malling (1962-6) and later for King’s School in Canterbury (1978-83) suggested a marriage of modern movement functionality with vernacular forms that remind one of the emphasis the early modern pioneers placed on the folk quality of the arts and crafts movement and its rejection of high architectural styles. In Oxford an underground reading room of cascading floor plates and coffered ceilings for Blackwells bookshop (1959-66) is located beneath a new quad and student accommodation for Trinity College in a sensitive piece of three-dimensional urban infill. Schools and university buildings such as Surrey University students’ union building (1971-74) appropriated the structure and forms of agricultural sheds as cheap, communal spaces.

Indeed if the book suggests one overriding motif in Maguire & Murray’s oeuvre it is the barn; romantic in conception and both practical and egalitarian in use, it was applied to religious and educational uses, urban and rural contexts, marrying constructional robustness with a sense of communal belonging. It was perhaps this that led the Architectural Review in 1983 to label the practice, with MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and Ted Cullinan, as “romantic pragmatists”; Adler uses the term “humanist brutalists”.

The overriding motif is the barn, romantic in conception and practical in use

I worked happily for the practice through my student holidays in the late 1980s and early 1990s, quite unaware of the liturgical significance or intrinsically democratic nature of their work, understanding simply that here was a practice that built well and cared deeply how people used their buildings. At the time the linguistic and structural gymnastics of deconstruction and hi-tech seemed to suggest these were the naive and antiquated concerns of a bygone time.

Two decades later they seem anything but. The creative engagement with extremely low budgets, the desire to enrich the language of modern architecture with recognisable and particular forms, and the prioritisation of human use and occupation ring thoroughly true with contemporary concerns.


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