Margaret Maxwell

Architect and landscape designer


Margaret Howell, architect: born Bromley, Kent 11 August 1924; MBE 1996; married 1951 Robert Maxwell (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1971), 1974 Bernard Lewis; died Stanton St Bernard, Wiltshire 3 November 2005.

Margaret Maxwell was a craftsman architect whose work sits as quietly and purposefully in the landscape as she herself did within her profession. In much of her work, she actually created the landscape, for she was also a distinguished and respected landscape architect, whose tree- plantings created a sense of place and character within the otherwise bleak early landscapes of Warwick University, Newcastle Airport and Milton Keynes.

She was born Margaret Howell, the daughter of a chartered accountant who died when she was eight. Her early interests included gardening, music and historic buildings, all of which came to influence her work in later life. When Margaret was 14, she lost her mother, finding her dead in bed one afternoon after school, and having to usher her younger sister gently away from the scene. The two sisters were then distributed to live with aunts. Such baleful events over which she had no control gave Margaret the insularity and strength of character that she needed to succeed in a tough and unforgiving profession.

While working as a cartographer for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in the latter years of the Second World War, she studied architecture at night school in the Regent Street Polytechnic, going on to win a scholarship to the School of Architecture at Liverpool University. She met her first husband, the architect Bob Maxwell, in Liverpool, and in 1951 they were married.

During her early professional career she worked with Bob in his private practice, later with the architects Bridgwater and Shepheard. Commissions included work on the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain, and the landscaping of the London Zoo Aviary designed by Lord Snowdon. Over this same period she had her three children, two of whom, Amanda Wheeler and Robert Maxwell, became architects; the third is the oboist Melinda Maxwell.

Margaret Maxwell had gone into private practice on her own account in London in 1966, and her career began to develop in three allied directions: landscape design and the teaching of the subject with Hugh Casson at the Royal College of Art; the conservation and adaptation of historic buildings; and the creation of contemporary environments within historic architectural settings. Among these last were her scheme for the Giant Steps and Viewing Platform at Greenwich (1971), and the Michael Sobell Pavilion for Apes at London Zoo. For this, she won a Civic Trust award in 1973.

Her work on historic buildings, which expanded when she moved her practice to Pewsey, Wiltshire, included the restoration and refurbishment of 2, 3 and 4 High Street, Marlborough (1981), a series of workshops at the Home Farm at Mildenhall, near Marlborough (mid-1980s), and a community centre in formerly derelict buildings at Calne (1988).

Maxwell's lifelong passion for music expressed itself when she was a student at Liverpool, where she sang in the Hallé choir, and at the Royal College of Art, where she produced in 1969 the first English stage performance of Mozart's singspiel Zaide, with Norma Burrows in the title role. Subsequently she sang regularly with the Alexandra Choir, and attended summer music camps. At one of these she met the violinist Bernard Lewis, whom she married in 1974. (She and Bob Maxwell had divorced in 1971.)

Her instinct for building preservation brought her the task of repairing and renewing many Wiltshire churches, notably the highly complex restoration of St John's, Mildenhall, described by John Betjeman as "the church of a Jane Austen novel . . . a forest of magnificent oak joinery". For this work, in 1986 she became the first recipient in 127 years of the King of Prussia Gold Medal for Architecture.

Margaret Maxwell was the Salisbury Diocesan Architect, and the architect to the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust, and in 1983 was appointed Master of the Art Workers Guild.

As a teacher and as an architect, she had a profound influence. One colleague remembered his real pleasure when she approved of his work: "I particularly enjoyed her no-nonsense and sharp intellect. I always felt I had to perform."

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