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The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture

Event Review | Keith Williams FRIBA MRIAI FRSA

Monday 2 October 2023

The Architecture Club’s inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture was delivered by the eminent architects Sir Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones CBE. Such was the anticipation of the event that it was sold out within hours.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Photo © Sandra Lousada

Introduced by Mike Stiff the Club’s chairman, the lecture programme revives the lapsed tradition of the club inviting leading figures in architecture and the arts to deliver an annual address to Club members. In its new form, it has been named after the educator, critic, architect, Architecture Club stalwart and gifted jazz pianist the late Bob Maxwell. During his long career, Bob became one of the most respected and influential figures in architecture and the club is enormously grateful to Bob’s wife, architect, and sculptor Celia Scott, for her kind permission to allow the lecture programme to bear his name.

Turn and turnabout, first Jeremy and then Ed, took us on an extraordinary journey of friendship and creativity beginning with their early days as AA students in the 1960s. Racing through a vast body of work, whether realised or not, we were reminded of the immense contribution that the two have made to architecture, and of their influence both on their peers and on the architectural generations that followed, this writer included.

Though the night was about Ed and Jeremy, they were generous in acknowledging many others. Bob Maxwell, Colin Rowe, Chris Cross, David Wild, Alan Colquhoun, Douglas Stephen, Fenella Dixon, Michael Gold, Christopher Woodward, and Margot Griffin (Ed’s wife) were among those who were cited as important contributors, friends and influencers at one time or another.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Northamptonshire County Offices, 1973

At the outset, Jeremy reminded us of the Smithsons’ maxim that you “style the project not the practice”, guidance that allowed the two to explore many formal typologies and compositional techniques over the decades that followed. Their early success in winning the architectural competition for Northampton County Hall, though unexecuted, undoubtedly launched their careers. A powerful singular pyramid, it demonstrated a deep concern for primary architectural form which would come to prominence in their later oeuvre.

Early projects as diverse as Netherfield Housing, Milton Keynes and Jeremy’s project for the construction of a huge steel scale model of the Tatlin Tower for the Hayward Gallery were shared. Necessarily scaled down from Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealised 400m high vision for St Petersburg, (taller than the Eiffel Tower), Ed &Jeremy made real a famous project which to that point had only existed on paper.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Tatlin Tower, 1971 - 2017 (L) general view / (R) St Petersburg

Small, beautifully conceived works at the Tate, such as the Whistler Room showed a fascination with detail and the deployment of artificial light to simulate daylight. A social housing project at St Marks Road in North Kensington, the first of two which explored a similar typology, used the form of the semi-detached mid-Victorian villa, and recast it to provide an exemplar new social housing model, a kind of architectural trickle-down effect, which at the same time reinforced the urban parti.

Obvious now as Jeremy acknowledged, but radical at the time.

Then a huge leap in scale as Jeremy and Ed were asked to work with Bill Jack of BDP on the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House, a project that through stops and starts would occupy near two decades of their lives. Contemporaneously, the Study Centre at Darwin College, Cambridge bracketed over the River Cam, demonstrated an innate sensitivity to historic context along with muscular timber detailing.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Royal Opera House, 1984-2000

Then a step change. Ed won the competition for Mississauga City Hall in Canada, a project that perfectly captured the mid-1980s aesthetic zeitgeist. James Stirling was a key juror. Moving to Ontario, Ed executed the project at remarkable speed and had it all done in just over three years opening in 1987, before returning to London to resume the collaboration with Jeremy on the Royal Opera House, which was by then in full flow.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Missauga City Hall, Ontario

Their work seemed to enter a new phase of formalism and scale which synthesised many of their early concerns of axis, platonic form, context, history, the promenade architecturale and landscape, into a new rationale, perhaps influenced as many of us were, by Rob and Leon Krier, James Stirling and Schinkel. Never shy of the boldest moves, the winning entry for the Piazzale Roma Bus Station competition of 1990 where Stirling was again a judge, slotted a highly pragmatic yet beautifully conceived circular colonnaded form into a messy backland piece of Venice’s historic city gifting great clarity and rationally ordered public space to the city. Frustratingly it was never realised. Again, bold moves, this time realised. The singular, beautifully handled black polished granite facade at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds’ historic centre still exhibits a starkly bleak and powerful contrasting presence in the city.

Insertions in the National Portrait Gallery, the monumental steps at Wembley Stadium, the Saïd Business School, Oxford, and the transformation of Exhibition Road demonstrate a deft handling of scale, material and public space, all perfectly judged whilst Ed’s Villa Jones with Margot in Bergamon, France continued to explore light, vista and the relationship between architecture and landscape.

The Inaugural Bob Maxwell Lecture
Venice Bus Station, 1990

With more than 100 projects undertaken during their long careers, and much earlier than any of us would have wished, Dixon Jones closed its doors for the final time in 2020 bringing down the curtain on two exceptional architectural careers. An immense achievement warmly applauded by the audience.

The ensuing discussion was expertly moderated by former Royal Academy of Arts supremo, Charles Saumarez-Smith who closed out with an elegant testament to two of our finest architects.

Watch the full lecture here: