Martin Pawley: Radical, prescient architecture critic

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martin Pawley was the sharpest architectural critic of his generation; sharp in his perceptions of architects and their world, sharp in the way he dissected his targets. He savaged a range of victims from the Prince of Wales to Richard Seifert, Charles Jencks to the Royal Institute of British Architects, in a career that included stints as editor, academic, writer and designer; as a columnist he wrote for almost every one of the main design magazines including The Architects' Journal, for whom he delivered an unbroken run of 505 weekly contributions.

Pawley was born in 1938 in Borehamwood, where his father was a sound engineer working for the Crown Film Unit. He trained as an architect at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) before moving to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. On his return to England he joined The Architects' Journal as assistant news editor and moonlighted for the rival Architectural Design under the pseudonym of Rupert Spade. The latter allowed him to vent his radical views as part of a loose group that included people like David Wild, far-left editor of ARse magazine, Brian Anson, who led the campaign against GLC plans to demolish Covent Garden, and Sam Webb, who campaigned tirelessly in Private Eye to bring to light the reasons for the collapse of the Ronan Point flats.

Pawley was fascinated by the student riots of 1968 in Paris and regretted that similar action had not taken place on the streets of London. He edited a special issue of Architectural Design in 1971 in which he investigated the impact that the student action had had on architectural education in the French capital.

It was through contacts of the Chilean-born editor of Architectural Design, Monica Pidgeon, that Pawley was invited to advise the government of the socialist president of Chile Salvador Allende, on an emergency low-cost housing programme. Pawley proposed a system of moulded-steel panels based on car-manufacturing technology. However, the assassination of Allende and fall of the Popular Front in 1973 brought the experiment to a premature end.

That year he published one of his most prescient books – The Private Future – which describes a world awash with advanced communications technology, which yet fails to communicate with itself. The book was written before the invention of the Walkman, the mobile phone or the iPod, yet the cover photograph of an isolated, earphoned figure is frighteningly familiar to us today. His next book also picked up a theme which is surfacing once again – the idea that industrial products could be recycled rather than thrown away. Garbage Housing (1975) was both an attack on the financing and construction of housing at the time and a proposition that bottles, tins and car panels be reused to build homes for people.

In 1974 he started a weekly broadsheet entitled Ghost Dance Times for the Architectural Association, at the invitation of its chairman Alvin Boyarsky. The AA was in ferment; having rejected plans to link up with Imperial College at the end of the Sixties, it was attempting to survive independently. As factions jockeyed for position, the same debates that had occurred in the Unité Pédagogiques in Paris were re-enacted in the studios of 36 Bedford Square. The broadsheet was planned by Boyarsky as a medium through which he could communicate with the school's turbulent community, but Pawley used his position as editor to attack the chairman's policies on a regular basis. After 20 issues, Boyarsky had had enough and closed the magazine down.

There followed a period of teaching in the United States, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and then Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. In 1979 Pawley moved to Los Angeles to the School of Urban Planning at UCLA, where he continued his work on new ways of building mass housing.

He returned to the UK in 1980 and a year later took over as editor of the weekly architects' newspaper Building Design. The job ended after two years, when he once again fell foul of the publisher – this time over the acceptance of advertising from the manufacturers of asbestos-based products. He then moved back to the The Architects' Journal as news editor while writing regularly for The Guardian; it was a period when there was plenty for him to write about. The continuing popularity of post-modernism irritated Pawley, as did the intervention of the Prince of Wales in the architectural debate. The prince represented the antithesis of everything that Pawley believed in. Writing in The Architectural Review in 1990 he famously compared the impact of Prince Charles to that of Adolf Hitler: "It can be seen that in both theory and practice there are strong parallels between the system of aesthetic and planning control in architecture that is evolving under Prince Charles' influence, and that which existed in the Third Reich."

As the threat from the traditionalists faded in the 1990s, Pawley was able to relax with mild swipes at architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid; his book Buckminster Fuller (1990) in the appropriately named "Design Heroes" series reflected a lifelong fascination with the work of the engineer/philosopher. He edited a series of books on the work of Norman Foster, an architect whose work he continued to admire since it embodied a respect of scientific endeavour, a love of the future and of the benefits of technology.

He wrote regularly for The Architects' Journal until April 2005 when he retired, having been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia. As the terrible disease took hold, he worked with David Jenkins on his last book The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism (2007), which brings together his essays as testament to his significance as a perceptive chronicler of his times.

Peter Murray

Martin Edward Pawley, architectural writer and critic: born Borehamwood, Hertfordshire 21 March 1938; assistant news editor, Architects' Journal 1967-69; editor, Ghost Dance Times 1974-75; Visiting Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 1975-76; Visiting Professor, Florida A&M University 1977-79; Visiting Professor, University of California, Los Angeles 1979-80; editor, Building Design 1981-83; architecture critic, The Guardian 1984-91; three times married (three sons); died Somerton, Oxfordshire 9 March 2008.

Comments