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Obituary – Gavin Stamp, architectural activist, professor at Glasgow School of Art and “Piloti” of Private Eye

Architectural historian and activist and professor at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architecture
Born: March 15, 1948;
Died: December 30, 2017

GAVIN Stamp, who has died of prostate cancer aged 69, was a historian who specialised in architecture and its preservation, a photographer, a Private Eye columnist (nom-de-plume Piloti), a Tory-turned socialist, a passionate pro-European and a charming TV presenter. He became the leading spokesperson for British architecture. Although a Londoner, he became much loved, respected and influential in Glasgow after being invited, in 1990, to become Professor of Architectural History at the Mackintosh School of Architecture (nicknamed The Mac) of the Glasgow School of Art.

In his 14 years at the School in Garnethill, Stamp spread his infectious enthusiasm to his students with passionate lectures and hundreds of images on slides. He railed against “architectural vandalism” – the tearing down of fine old buildings. In Glasgow, he put his money where his mouth was by buying and restoring a classical 1861 house, designed, built and first lived in by the neoclassical architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson, at 1, Moray Place, Strathbungo. Most of Stamp’s students at The Mac said they were inspired by his ideas but also encouraged, by him, to develop their own.

Stamp continued at The Mac and at Moray Place until 1993 when, he said, he became homesick for something most Londoners either ignore or despise – “the sight of the backs of London stockbrick houses, seen from the train.” Having split with his wife Alexandra (Artley), he returned to London to live alone in little more than a bedsit in unfashionable Forest Hill, South-East, London. Alexandra went on to become a successful columnist and writer.

Gavin Mark Stamp was born in the London borough of Bromley, in the south-eastern corner of Greater London, on March 15, 1948 – the Ides of March – where he developed an early love of architecture. After attending Dulwich College, an independent boy’s school, from 1959-67, he went up to Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge University where he became fiercely conservative in his politics – against the leftist trend of other universities at the time. He gained a PhD in 1978 with a thesis entitled George Gilbert Scott, junior, architect, 1839–1897.

From Cambridge, he moved back to London to work for the Architectural Press publishing house – which produced the influential Architects’ Journal and the Architectural Review – in Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster. He spent much of the time in the building’s private basement pub, the Bride of Denmark, a favourite watering hole for architects from all over the world from the American Frank Lloyd Wright to the Swiss-French Le Corbusier, as well as other artists and writers.
It was in the pub that he met his hero and one of his future best friends, Sir John Betjeman (future poet laureate), and the poet’s wife Penelope – both passionate about architectural conservation and concerned about “the wrecking of England.” Stamp and Sir John spent many a “wet” lunch at the Ritz hotel in London, sharing their passion for preserving endangered old buildings. It was also in the Bride of Denmark that Stamp met his future wife Alexandra Artley, who worked in the office of the Architectural Press upstairs and would later move with him to Glasgow.

Sir John had founded the Private Eye column Nooks and Corners, to expose those in all walks of life who, he said, were engaged in the “vandalism” of British architecture. He trusted and persuaded Stamp to take the column over, which he did, with the pseudonym Piloti, continuing it for the rest of his life. Before his move to Glasgow, Stamp had, in 1985, played a key role in saving the UK’s famous red telephone booths, at least in many areas, when they were being replaced by see-through monstrosities that are now on their way to the scrapheap of history.

He was a great defender of the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the old phone booths, and won national acclaim by lauding the booths in a 1985 article in The Spectator. “No vandalism meted out to a kiosk by an individual has equalled that practised systematically by British Telecom,” he wrote. These words, after a campaign by the Spectator, led to thousands of the old booths being “listed” as protected buildings. It is therefore largely through Stamp’s campaigning that you can still see the famous red booths which still attract millions of tourists’ photographs.

Fast-forwarding from his afore-mentioned Glasgow sojourn, Stamp, on his return to London in 2003, remained an architectural activist, a writer, lecturer, fine drawer and draughtsman and eventually a TV presenter on all things architectural. He was a keen member of the Victorian Society and a founder member of the 1930s Society which later morphed into the Twentieth Century Society.

He wrote several books, some with his own photographs or drawings, including The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which reflected his self-confessed obsession with the Great War and his sense of “the eternally tragic.” His other works included Telephone Boxes (1989) and his last work Gothic in the Steam Age (2015).

His expertise led him, somewhat against his inclination, to be asked to do many TV programmes, including a five-part architecture travel series titled Gavin Stamp’s Orient Express. He travelled by train along the original Orient Express route, stopping off on the way to look at architecture and to see how the history of Eastern Europe is told in its buildings. He was much sought-after as an interviewee on TV architect programmes including, in 1986, a six-part series for schools produced by Yorkshire Television, in which he taught school children about the link between their local buildings and local history. He also contributed to several TV programmes about the St Vincent Street Church in Glasgow, designed by “Greek” Thomson and a building close to Stamp’s heart.

After being diagnosed with prostate cancer last Spring, Stamp wrote in The Oldie magazine in favour of fasting to ease chemotherapy: “I like eating, and I very much like drinking. Giving up either is a challenge. But, for the past four months, I have succeeded in fasting, every three weeks, for almost four days. This means eating absolutely nothing at all and drinking only fizzy water or peppermint tea and the occasional mug of miso soup. The reason for this unaccustomed and unwelcome abstinence is medical rather than moral. Thanks to prostate cancer which wouldn’t go away, I am now undergoing a course of chemotherapy at the age of 69. Not much fun, but it could be much, much worse.

“So hooray for the National Health Service, which – whether for better or for worse – is doing its best to keep me alive, at great expense.”
Gavin Stamp is survived by his second wife Rosemary (Hill), his first wife Alex and his two daughters from the first marriage, Cecilia, a jewellery designer, and Agnes, a magazine writer.