People not searching for words
Two years ago, the aj hailed Peter Murray as 'a leading advocate of contemporary design', following the impressive attendance figures achieved by the exhibition 'Living Bridges', which his company Wordsearch organised at the Royal Academy of Arts. This year, Wordsearch will be responsible for co-ordinating the British Pavilion at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennale on the theme of 'Less Aesthetics More Ethics', amongst other projects. Yet Murray does not have a very public persona and many outside the architectural establishment may well be unaware of who he is.
Murray's career goes back a long way. He established himself as a successful editor of a number of student magazines while studying architecture at Bristol and the aa. Until the mid-80s he was fully involved in architectural journalism, serving as editor of both Building Design (1974-1979) and the riba Journal (1979-1984). It was in 1983 that he conceived the idea of Blueprint magazine, which gave a unique voice to the design culture of the decade, and spawned not only a whole new area of magazine publishing now taken for granted, but also new public spending habits.
The venture was, he says, 'motivated by the whole new lifestyle move - the integration of architecture and design.' It was a cultural shift that was fuelled by the consumer boom, and this was reflected in the pages of Blueprint, celebrating desirable designer objects and aspirational interiors.
In a way, Blueprint seems a surprising product for somebody who had been very involved in publishing radical ideas during the previous decade, particularly in the areas of environmental design and communications. Yet there is also continuity between the worlds of Archigram and Peter Cook, of whom Murray was a declared fan, and the designer boom of the 1980s, insofar as both celebrated a culture of consumables and disposables and rapid change. Indeed Blueprint itself started out as a 'not-for-profit', co-operative venture, produced around a table in a borrowed studio on one day each month by a group of friends, including Deyan Sudjic, who subsequently became editor, and others such as Gillian Darley, Colin Amery and Jonathan Glancey.
Blueprint was eventually established on a business footing under the auspices of Wordsearch, which Murray now describes as a multi-media organisation specialising in architectural communications and is now no longer the publisher of Blueprint. Perhaps the most dramatic area of its growth in recent years has been that of the blockbuster exhibition, epitomised by 'Living Bridges', and for which the precedent was established by Murray himself back in 1986 with the Stirling Foster Rogers show at the Royal Academy. At this time the Prince of Wales was at the height of his influence, and 'no-one thought the public would be interested in contemporary architecture.' The 125,000 visitors far surpassed expectations, says Murray, and turned the tide of opinion.
At the outset, Wordsearch focused on the production of documents and brochures for the new breed of developers emerging in the 1980s - 'explaining architecture to the broader public', as Murray puts it. The first publication of this kind appeared in 1987: a document commissioned by Peter Palumbo to explain Stirling's scheme for No 1 Poultry to the planners at the Corporation of London, because 'they couldn't understand Stirling's worm's-eye drawings.' A little later, Stuart Lipton requested a booklet on Broadgate which would 'have the same vitality as Blueprint'.
Murray believes the climate for public appreciation of architecture has changed considerably since that time, partly because developers like Lipton 'changed the whole way the commercial sector looks at architecture'. Other factors are increased media coverage and the arrival of 'the most positive government we've ever had.' But he still thinks 'architects are hopeless' at explaining architecture to lay people. His doubt about architects' ability to articulate clearly what they do also informed the production of the recent book on young architects, which Murray hopes will help to bring new names to the attention of potential clients. However, he does concur that it is more difficult now to do 'experimental things' than it was in, say, the 1970s, whether in the realms of design or publishing. Thanks to new regulations requiring high levels of liability insurance, it has become almost unthinkable for young architects to win the type of commissions that Farrell and Grimshaw had in Sussex Gardens, or Powell and Moya in Churchill Gardens, immediately after graduating. Likewise, he says, 'I don't see a magazine producing that radical thinking. There is less philanthropy around . . . It is more difficult to survive without making money.' In this context, the aim at Wordsearch is to 'span the widest role - hard-edged property marketing on the one hand, and cultural adventures on the other'.
In terms of the way forward for architecture, Murray is sceptical about the value of competitions, which lay 'a huge burden on the profession'. He looks to Lipton, in his new political role, to 'influence the way government commissions buildings'. Examining pfi and construction procedures will, he believes, be Lipton's most important task, and this makes him the right person for the job, for 'someone more glamorous might not have been interested in the mechanics of architecture.' Running in parallel will be the fuelling of the public debate, in which Wordsearch's particular brand of exhibitions seems to have a significant contribution to make.
Murray is confident there can be no substitute for the ambience of an exhibition on a website, or in a book, and is planning the next big blockbuster for the Royal Academy on skyscrapers. In the meantime, the world tours of a number of others are in hand, including 'New Urban Environments in the Far East' and the 'Architecture of Democracy' (about to open in Ireland). It seems Murray's role as advocate may have already expanded into that of ambassador for British architecture abroad.