In 1936, the leading British journal Architectural Review reconsidered its medium and its message by punching holes out of one of its thick interior sheets, displaying round sections of an image on the following page, to readers’ delight. Playfully revealing and concealing, and connecting word, image, and magazine design for a 1930s audience, these well-placed holes reminded readers that even a robust and established critical voice could have a little fun. Mavericks: Breaking the Mould of British Architecture, at the Royal Academy, was also shaped by the spirited circle. The cover of its catalogue used the same circular trick as the 1930s AR issue. It was, too, an exhibition based on revealing and concealing, and it played fast and loose not only with the academy's interior ground floor Architecture Space and café rooms but also with the idea of an exhibition itself.
This was an exhibition without any exhibits, but it was no mere display either. Curated by Owen Hopkins, who is also the author of the accompanying yet arguably stand-alone book, Mavericks pulled together the career highlights of twelve architects across three hundred years of building and designing in Britain. Four were eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century classicists, and seven were from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; there was only one woman. That woman was Zaha Hadid, and the chronological exhibition concluded with her work. In the wake of Hadid's untimely death in March 2016, all corners of the architectural press have emphasized her gravity-defying designs, relentless ambition, and vision. Like many of her maverick companions in the Royal Academy's exhibition, such as John Vanbrugh and James Wyatt, Hadid was occasionally at odds with authorities and critics owing to her tireless pursuit of a particular path.
The exhibition's working definition of an architectural “maverick” was compelling: an individual who refuses to conform, who harnesses design (and perhaps more than a touch of personal) eccentricity to push stylistic and material boundaries, and thus runs the risk of having limited opportunities to build despite the wealth of paper architecture produced. Strong imagination and bold form did not, for Hopkins, necessarily indicate genius. The twelve architects in this exhibition might or might not fall into a “lone genius” mythology, but each was a risk taker who marshaled a unique type of architectural shock and awe in her or his own time. The principle of outré architecture that might oscillate between the margins and the mainstream center of architectural culture is reminiscent of the ideas recently published by Timothy Brittain-Catlin in Bleak Houses, a maverick book of its own that charts failure and architectural subcultures, setting out an architectural conflict across hundreds of years between the built environment's “bullies” and “sissies.”1 Mavericks at the Royal Academy took up this gauntlet to an extent, valuing design not wholly for its fame or commercial success but for its daring innovation.
There were notable pitfalls, however, to this approach. It was refreshing and stimulating to explore John Soane's projects alongside FAT's and Cedric Price's utopian fantasies. The collaborative architecture firm FAT, which stands for Fashion Architecture Taste, is well known for its striking combinations of styles, ornament, and materials, riding the line between seriousness and fun without derailing into the territory of frivolity. The Royal Academy exhibition also highlighted the work of many architects outside the chosen twelve by including their names on colorful circles swirling throughout the building, perhaps prompting the curious to find out more (Figure 1). (Temple Moore's name even appeared twice, perhaps as a double maverick for the early twentieth-century Gothic Revival.) Although there was acknowledgment of the maverick in relation to women in architecture, the Pritzker-winning Hadid was only one twelfth of the exhibition, and women's names were few and far between on the accompanying circles. By the exhibition's own definition, nearly any woman venturing into the lion's den of British architecture across the past 150 years could be described as a maverick. The Women in Architecture Awards, founded by Christine Murray, will see many more designers justly lauded in the years ahead. May they all push the boundaries and stimulate new possibilities in the architectural wilderness. In 2017, the Architectural Association will celebrate 100 years of women at the AA, and the programming leading up to this celebration has highlighted many new ways of understanding how and why women's presence in architecture is as significant and innovative as it is—still, tragically—ignored and suppressed. The definition of “maverick” adopted in the Royal Academy exhibition did not allow for those whose risks in architecture took place not only at the drawing board but also in their very selves.
The exhibition's principal aim, however, was to open up discussion of what constitutes exciting architecture and how tough it can be to produce such architecture, and at this it succeeded admirably. The design at the Royal Academy took hefty buildings like Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel's St Olaf House and Charles Holden's Senate House, both bold interwar gems for central London now listed and broadly admired, and transformed their bulk into bubbles, with an array of circles arranged to form fragmentary renderings of these buildings’ striking façades. George Aitchison, master of Queen Anne splendor and Islamophilic fantasy for Frederic Leighton, the prolific Gothic Revival polemicist A. W. N. Pugin, and the visionary Victorian castle crafter William Burges were present too, although their names in aquamarine bubbles floating around a sign indicating where exhibition visitors could find coffee and sandwiches did not do them justice. The need to assemble a large cohort of British architectural maverickhood within a challengingly tight space no doubt gave birth to this exhibition design idea, and the range of colors and summaries of selected radical designers and their projects made for pleasurable viewing.
Ultimately, however, even within the restrictions of budget and space, just one object per architect—a plan, an elevation, a model, a swift sketch on a cocktail napkin, a witty telegram—would have brought this exhibition to life and drawn out many of the strong points regarding surprise, innovation, and resilience that Hopkins makes in the accompanying book. As it was, the exhibition served as an eye-catching spur for the curious to seek out the nearest (or, even better, most eccentric) building by one of the show's many mavericks, burst the bubble of the exhibition's jaunty floating design, and journey out into the streets to see this risky architecture firsthand.