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Martin Pawley, 'our most admired architectural commentator', remembered

Typical. Just days before an evening at the Architectural Association to celebrate the life of our most admired architectural commentator, he dies. How rude. Yet for those who knew Martin Pawley, worked with him, or read with astonishment the ruthless prose he seemed so effortlessly to produce over four decades, it seems appropriate somehow.

He once boasted that he’d never resigned from a job in his life. He’d always been sacked. Now, with an orderly exit strategy in place, architecture’s best-loved heretic has had his contract terminated by Upstairs. Not that Pawley believed in deities. His voice would occasionally take on a reverential tone when talking dreamily about Buckminster Fuller, say, or Marie Helvin. But he was drawn to the supercilious rather than the supernatural. Explaining once that cathedrals were high-tech buildings – stained glass is essentially ‘information technology’ – he assigned to all religions the role of mere content management. He was agnostic about nothing. Conservationists, the Prince of Wales, the RIBA, anyone he labelled a ‘windbag’ – all got it in the neck.

His journalistic career began on the AJ in the ’60s and ended here three years ago. In between he wrote for every major design magazine. He was architecture correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. His parallel careers as academic and consultant took him to the United States and to Chile in the 1970s, advising on low-cost housing. Decades before the reuse of materials became stylish he published Garbage Housing, which described the construction of housing from scrapped car parts. Private Future, written during the oil crisis of the early ’70s, is both
a fascinating snapshot of a now-antique world in panic and a prescient discourse on the inexorable drift towards societal atomisation.

His many subsequent publications, from Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age to Terminal Architecture, reveal the passion of a futurist. A proper one, with neither the soppy utopianism of an optimist, nor the Luddite miserabilism we now associate with the bad-weather brigade. Pawley was coolly detached and oppositional, writing scathingly about a neurotic architectural profession paralysed by its own cognitive dissonance. In 2002, writing on cars and cities, he pointed out the discrepancy between what architects ‘knew’ (cars are good) and what they were obliged to confess (they’re bad). ‘This will be a war to the death that will only end when – in the case of London – the M25 becomes a neo-medieval city wall within which cars are no longer allowed.’ Writing in 2000: ‘There are no more examples of “sustainable development” in our solar system than there is a mandate for it… Nothing in the universe goes on for ever, so how can human society be organised to enable it to go on for ever? The RIBA is promoting sustainability as “a duty for architects”… Before long, “sustainability” will no longer be a meaningless word, but a matter of regulation that will constrain designers.’

David Jenkins, who has put together a definitive anthology of Pawley’s writings, said: ‘Martin living in the sticks seemed like a First World War general – remote from the front. He always wanted to hear the latest news and gossip… We devised ever more cunning plans for shooting the rooks that were nesting in the tree outside his window and crapping everywhere. Silly stuff like that. He was always full of mischief.’

Exactly. Mischief. He was by some distance the most unscrupulous journalist I ever worked with. He wrote headlines first, then retrofitted the story. He made things up. He even invented an inventor, who used to pop up now and then with some new building material when there was an awkward space
to fill in the AJ news section. I can still hear Pawley chuckling now, at all of us.

Send your tributes to Martin Pawley to comment@architectsjournal.co.uk

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