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Handling history

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Richard Murphy Architects: Ten Years of Practice At the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until 17 November, with an accompanying book (164pp, £25)

Richard Murphy is not at ease with history. For his mentor, Carlo Scarpa, history in the form of its remnants and fragments was a dance partner for his Modernity. He seemed to know history's every swing, twist and turn and - with magical timing - flowed and ebbed in apparent perfect harmony.

History is not Murphy's partner but an opponent in a game. It is therefore possible to understand the battered, vanquished brick shed, all trussed up in the Dundee Centre for Contemporary Art, the collapsed walls of the Graham Square Hotel which - after being nursed back into pastiche existence - are soundly put in their place, and to recognise the proliferating extensions as offspring bursting out of the Edinburgh stone-house mainstream.

Sometimes Murphy pretends to echo the prevailing tradition, as in his housing, close to the new Scottish Parliament on Canongate, but only to advocate not the prevailing, but the rejected past. At other times he clusters his anarchic architectural ensemble, as at nearby Dublin Street, or - in a relatively recent work - dreams of escape, as in the hang-glider house suspended between two stone barns in Broomhill, West Lothian.

He plays the game with considerable skill.

Murphy's world of possible moves is huge.

He claims to have never had an original idea, but neither has the chess grand master, which does not preclude the exquisite beauty of a well constructed move. Murphy's moves are in light; his light even moves in the form of dissolving planes that fly above the older walls below. Picture after picture in this book records the seemingly endless variations on this theme.

So, to what end this book and exhibition? While I prefer polemic to propaganda, it must be said that the book makes especially good propaganda. It is, indeed, a manifesto of the minimal-words kind.

A call to action, to underline and sanction the idea of 'decontextualising context'.

Furiously, Murphy seeks to defuse the true origin of places. Most architects' actions are shaped by context; for Murphy, context is first and foremost shaped by action. Walls become not sacred memories before which to genuflect admiringly, but objects on which to perpetrate outrageous things. These walls, he 'deliberately ruins' in rages against those who seek to stop, defeat or doubt him.

I think that there are those who admire his brilliance but fear his influence and the resulting diminished authority of the residual history in his projects. Curiously, he needs (and feeds on) their defiance, because in the midst of their historical belligerence he finds his place. In a global context he would simply be a travelling entertainer, but in the Edinburgh of closed rooms and affectionate societies, he finds the perfect foil.

Their world is fuelled by memories, his by cold forgetfulness.

I had hoped that in his introduction to the book, Richard Weston might have probed more deeply into the psyche of the maker, as he did so marvellously in the case of Aalto, but, locked in Murphy's arm, he obviously got, and gives, the official tour.

Omitted are profounder insights into Murphy's technique and approach. In the context of his playfulness, for instance, there is a need to consider the morality of such enthusiasm for structures 'growing out of the wreckage'.

For Murphy, there are no rules of engagement. History is not an overlay of age-value, embodied memory or reputation. It simply exists now, in the present, a contestant in the wrestling bout, in which Murphy takes on all comers.

This comes across beautifully in the book, but the show brings a surprise. At the Fruitmarket, Murphy does not revel in the freedom he himself created 10 years before, but constructs a new context - a zig-zag procession under a low sepulchral vault to a terminating sombre cell. There, on film, his hand creates before your eyes.

Even in his own context, Murphy finds himself reshaping it - being now monumental in a demonumentalised building. Where he might confirm his world view, he substitutes another.Which is, of course, his genius: ever moving, dancing on the spot, awaiting the next challenger.

David Page is an architect in Glasgow

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