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Exclusive extract of 'A Passion to Build' by Peter Murray

Read chapter 2 of Peter Murray’s archtectural bonkbuster

‘It was a chilly November evening as Harry, in his last year as a student, and Eleanor made their way across Gibberd Square, drawn to the thumping music which was already shaking the sash windows of the surrounding buildings. The  London Academy of Architecture building was bathed in a red glow. Suspended above the concrete structure were six-foot high helium-filled inflatable letters spelling out the word SEX and picked out by spotlights hidden amongst the foliage in the square gardens.

Even before she arrived at the school, Eleanor had heard lots of tales about the Academy’s Winter Fiesta and its reputation as the most dissolute of London’s student parties. New arrivals at the school were regaled by hardened veterans with tales of drink, drugs, group sex and compromised staff. The decoration of the building was a major feature. It was done by the Second Year students and was the first real project many of the students would deliver. The transformation of lecture theatres and studios into Roman Temples, Rococo grottoes or velveteen cocktail lounges was viewed by tutors as a real test of their charges’ architectural skills.

The event itself was traditionally organised by the Student Union, a group of hard-partying public schools boys who formed the focus of the Academy’s social life and whose aim was to make each Fiesta more extreme and radical than the last.

Harry had bought two tickets. They were expensive, since they covered the cost of unlimited alcohol as well as a selection of several good and upcoming bands; but there was no shortage of takers – once the Academy students had bought the tickets they needed, they were put on sale to students at the other architecture and art schools – the Slade, Bartlett, Central Poly and the RCA – who snapped them up.

Inside, the Second Year students had developed the theme for the night with interpretations of the bordello through history. From the seraglios of the Turks to specially-designed quarters to serve oil men in the Arabian desert, the architects-to-be created seductive interiors which provided the ideal environment in which guests could act out the planned debauchery.

Harry and Eleanor wandered through the various rooms, admiring the handiwork of their fellow students, cardboard painted columns, swags of fabric, painted views and lewd Pompeii-style murals had taken the place of the drawing boards and lecture room seating which occupied the rooms for the rest of the year.

The place was filling up fast and in some of the rooms there was an uncomfortable crush, made worse by the number of couches and beds that had been provided to create the appropriate atmosphere. These were already occupied by kissing couples or younger students who had already succumbed to the copious supply of alcohol.

Eleanor complained of claustrophobia and Harry steered her into the staff room where things were a lot quieter. A group of tutors, unconcerned at the intervention, propped up the bar. They had clearly been there for some time; Jim Bragg the history professor with his purple, whisky-ravaged nose was holding court on the subject of Colin Rowe, Collage City and Camillo Sitte to half a dozen or so other drinkers who nodded blankly as he spoke.

A baggy-suited figure slowly raised his hand in salute to Harry. Frank Cummins was thought by many to be one of the best architects in the land and the prestigious Architectural Review had recently published a whole issue devoted to his university buildings and high-density housing. Harry had worked for Cummins during his ‘year out’, when he had learnt more about architecture and how to do it than in the three previous years at the Academy.

Cummins taught one day a week, partly because he enjoyed the intellectual stimulus, but largely so that he could scout for talent. The best students were cultivated, given temporary jobs while at college and then invited to join Cummins and Partners, generally on a subsistence wage, when they graduated.

As one of the brightest in his year, Harry had been invited for an interview at Cummins’s South Kensington offices, housed in a magnificent Regency terrace. Only a modest brass plate defined the house as the home of a major architectural practice, for this was before the days that architects were permitted to promote themselves. They were expected to get new clients only by recommendation or through entering competitions. Almost anything that today goes under the heading of ‘marketing’ would then have been described as ‘touting’ and the architect doing so could be struck off the register of architects and sacked from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Harry pushed the shiny black door and walked into the spacious entrance hall. Exquisite boxwood models of Cummins’s projects and buildings were displayed on minimal white plinths spread generously across the pale polished wood floor.

“Mr Cummins has been expecting you.” The forty-something secretary led the way to a large office with three drawing boards on stands. Wagner wafted from the sound system as Cummins sketched on a roll of yellow tracing paper, seemingly unaware of Harry’s presence.

Behind the great man sat two others, ignoring their drawing boards they worked at office desks. Harry was to discover these were the less well known partners, one of whose responsibilities was to run the office – to make sure costs (that is,  staff) were kept low and the partners’ fees high – and the other was to run the projects, while Cummins focused on design.

As he waited, Harry’s gaze wandered around the room. The walls were covered with framed drawings in the practice’s signature style of hard lines and soft crayons. There were also certificates of the many awards won and a framed letter of congratulations signed by The Queen following the opening of the Oxford Medical Research Laboratory.

Cummins looked up from his board “I’ve been watching your work – you produced some really mature designs in Third Year”. He was a man of few words – except when he was presenting one of his own projects – and went straight to the point. “Why don’t you come and do your year out here? You won’t get paid much but you’ll learn a lot. Dorothy will sort out the details and give you a quick tour of the office.”

Harry realised the question was rhetorical. No one turned down a job with Cummins. Dorothy came up behind him.

“Let me show you where the others work,” she said briskly, as Cummins went back to his sketching. Harry followed as the grand stairs narrowed and he was shown into a smaller room packed with drawing boards where a dozen men, and one woman, were busy drawing with pen or pencil. Large drawings of current projects were pinned around the walls and product catalogues of the latest bricks and drainage systems were scattered round the room. Harry recognised some of the people from the Academy, bright students who, like him, were being fast tracked through Cummins’ own form of practical training.

“This is Harry Jamb everyone,” announced Dorothy “and he’ll be joining us for his ‘year out’ next month.” Some of group looked up and nodded, others were so engrossed in their work they didn’t seem to hear. “We’ll find you a board when you get here,” she added.

And that was it. As Harry left the office he realised he could learn a lot in a year with Cummins – but he had no intention of making a career there. He would try a different practice when he finished his training to get the broadest experience, and then set up on his own as soon as he could.

Harry watched how Cummins ran the office, observing the things they didn’t teach you at architecture school. First of all there was Dorothy, Cummins’s PA, who it turned out was a power behind the throne; she ran the great man’s life for him, juggling professional and personal commitments, a go-between linking staff and partners, and a confidante.

Cummins had organised the office so that he could concentrate on what he liked to do most, which was designing. His two other partners took on the admin chores inside and outside the office. He would study the brief of all the new jobs that came in and do a series of sketches and notes on how the office should approach the problem. It would then be passed down to one of the job architects to start drawing it out more accurately.

Cummins would tour the office looking over the architects’ shoulders, frequently leaning over to draw in suggestions with a soft 6B pencil. He was invariably right. That was his genius. He could look at a drawing and immediately see where the problems and possibilities would be in the finished building. He could see the building in three dimensions in his mind.

As the drawings developed he would sit down with the job architect and go through every detail, marking up the changes he wanted made. He never missed any mistakes, even when he had been drinking.

And that was often. Cummins was a bon viveur, he enjoyed a good meal and a good wine even better and luckily he had the constitution of an ox. As his drinking chums from the Academy staff room gradually succumbed to the depredations of Bacchus, Cummins would continue to down two bottles of claret over lunch.

Harry joined him one day at Chanterelle, a classic French restaurant in the Old Brompton Road, and as the great architect shovelled a dripping Camembert into his mouth, the young man marvelled how, , flushed and rotund though his boss appeared, he did not collapse into the cheese with a coronary. But entertaining was important to the business. Cummins entertained clients, critics, editors, and journalists as well as colleagues. Before the days when public relations consultants were permitted, he had few equals when it came to self-promotion.

“It’s essential,” he once lectured Harry “if people don’t know you’re out there they won’t give you any work. If you don’t have work you don’t have a business. We’re not like artists – they can go off and do a painting – we need a client to pay for the job first. So the three essentials of running a successful practice are ‘get the job, get the job, get the job’. Without a job you’ve got nothing.”

“Look at Vitruvius, Palladio, Corbusier – they all knew the power of the publication – Corb would never have had the massive influence he did without the books he published.”

Harry listened and learnt. Indeed, the first job he was given when he arrived for his ‘year out’ was to redraw plans so that they would reproduce clearly in magazines and books.

“As an architect, you’ve got to be both a charmer and a shit.” Cummins continued. “Once you’ve won the job then the battles start. You’ve got to fight the client to get the sort of building you want, fight the neighbours, fight the planners to get it through, fight the contractor to get him to build it properly, fight the suppliers to get the quality you want, fight the lawyers who try to sue you and then fight the client again over the final fees. People often think architects are arrogant. They need to be, to hold onto their vision through years, sometimes decades, of battles.”

Harry watched Cummins in meetings. Yes, he was arrogant, and yes he could be totally stubborn, but he also had a charisma that helped him convince doubters that he was right, or at least there was no point in them continuing any resistance. And then a strange thing happened. Even as a student, at meetings, people started to speak to Harry as though he was an avatar of the master. And in turn he found it came easily to take on some of the characteristics that he had seen in Cummins. He became expert at sticking his heels in where he knew Cummins would have done so.

“Arrogant little fucker” he heard a contractor say to his colleague as they left one of Harry’s meetings having lost an argument over the choice of a material.

And he knew he was learning important lessons that would set him in good stead for the future.

The noise of The Fiesta subsided as Harry let the Staff Room door shut. He walked over to the bar and shook Cummins’s hand.

“Aren’t you joining the party? It’s heaving out there.”

“Not my scene, old boy, this is as close as I want to get.”

“Can I introduce Eleanor Marsoni, who’s just joined the First Year.”

“Yes, I’d heard Riccardo’s daughter was at the school. Thor keeps going on about a big Marsoni endowment. Do tell Daddy to make his mind up, the school needs the money!”

Eleanor bridled at the reminder that she owed her place at the school to her father.

“Tell him yourself – he’s more likely to take notice of you!”

“I think you’re right!” Cummins laughed not at all bothered by her response. “I’m just about to buy 250 very expensive chairs from him for a new university hall of residence. I’ll use that to twist his arm!”

***

 “That man is so arrogant!” complained Eleanor as they slipped out of the room.

“It goes with the territory, you’d better get used to it” chuckled Harry.

A roar rose from the ground floor lecture room.

“Get ‘em off! get ‘em off!” came the repeated chant.

Harry and Eleanor squeezed in through the door and could just make out the half naked figure of a young girl writhing provocatively to the music of a modern jazz quartet squeezed into the corner of the room. Around her neck was draped an enormous boa constrictor. Following the drunken instructions of the almost totally male crowd she expertly removed her knickers and then grasped the tail of the snake and waved it provocatively at the crowd.

“Put it in! Put it in!” the chant changed.

“My god, she can’t be serious!” exclaimed Eleanor as the reptile slid down the girl’s stomach.

“What the hell is going on?” Thor’s powerful voice rang out. The quartet stopped mid-bar and the girl let the snake’s tail drop. Open mouthed, the students turned to see what the clearly incandescent head of the school was about to do. Thor ignored the stripper but made his way to the group of Student Union reps who had been orchestrating the event.

“You bloody idiots! Not only is what was about to happen disgusting, it is also illegal. What do you think this sort of thing will do for the school? I don’t mind you all getting pissed out of your minds but this sort of obscenity is another matter! That’s it! I’m closing down the party, you can all go home!”

Thor had been pretty relaxed about the debauched nature of the event, but after a worried member of staff had let on what was planned and warned him that in England zoophilia was an imprisonable offence, he had no option but to take action.

As the stripper sulkily put her clothes on and the deflated students shuffled out into the night, Thor shuddered as he imagined the possible headlines in the next day’s tabloids.

“For god’s sake don’t mention this to your father,” Thor said rather nervously to Eleanor, “I can’t see him funding us if this gets out.”

The next day the tabloids lead on the latest IRA bombing and, luckily for Thor, there was less space for tittle-tattle. A few weeks later Cummins and Partners confirmed their order for 500 chairs with the Marsoni Furniture Company, and not long after the Academy of Architecture received a substantial endowment for the Marsoni Student Scholarship Fund.

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