Review by Travis Diehl
Robert Maxwell is a critic for whom the architecture of David Chipperfield might come to express “a more tragic sense of the human situation” (on page 15), or for whom, in Mies, “Structure has a gravitas… It has an eschatological weight” (17). On page 16 we also learn that in February of 1994, the 4th or 5th, Maxwell went “to IKEA with Eleanor for bookcases and bedside units, and a new desk chair.” The structure of the present volume, titled A Few Years of Writing Interspersed with Some Facts of Life, is—like Maxwell’s beloved Aix-En-Provence, half medieval and half 17th-century hotels—dual, dialectic: a significant collection of his published writing and short speeches, separated by diaristic lists of dinners, public appearances, commissions, vacations, and occasional shopping trips.
The idea is to fashion an autobiography from an oeuvre, to present an account of the architect and critic’s life as both quotidian and grand—to contrast Maxwell’s romantic prose with the dryness of the daily grind. The “facts of life,” however, in this case amount to an impressive social calendar—one we might expect of a venerated critic whose peers and subjects have reached the height of their chosen field. There is structure here too: a framework of lectures and articles, awards given and received—a professional architecture—which is inhabited in turn by riverside barbecues and birthday parties, lunches and hotel stays. This is true even if Maxwell and his wife’s friends are famous architects, or if their vacations are spent not in buildings but in architecture. The IKEA moments take on an air of tragedy.
Late in the book, Maxwell’s friends are dying; he reads and writes obituaries; he watches his circle erode. Yet life, like architecture, persists, and on page 148 we find this entry: “We spend a week in the Aix apartment; staying at first with Martin, buy furniture at IKEA. It’s like living all over again as students, Easter 04.” In Maxwell’s world, there is Leadership; there is Importance; there is Progress. There are clear lines. And there are romantic ruptures, where the “contradictions of the human animal” (page 31) pour in, where a book of absorbed criticism contains the image of an aging English architect and critic and his wife furnishing their vacation flat with laminated wood-substitute, wheeling an absurd cart through labyrinthine concrete aisles beneath dirty exposed girders that mock the innovations of High-Tech, standing exhaustedly in the same queue at the same register that you or I stand in wherever our IKEA may be, in Burbank or Charlotte or Paris, the universal IKEA, and perhaps now when in that pathetic queue we might recall the words used on page 29 to describe the industrial architecture of James Stirling by Robert Maxwell, for whom, “The lucky ones will be the customers, who will come upon something out of the ordinary during their ordinary pursuits.”
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Robert Maxwell, A Few Years of Writing Interspersed with Some Facts of Life, (Artifice Books on Architecture, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior images from A Few Years of Writing Interspersed with Some Facts of Life.