Martin Pawley

A critic who pushed architects into the modern, technological world.

Martin Pawley (right) with the author in Troy, N.Y., 1978. Click image to expand.
Martin Pawley (right) with the author in Troy, N.Y., 1978

The British architectural writer, critic, broadcaster, and teacher Martin Pawley, 69, died on March 9. He is best-known to Americans for a series of provocative, iconoclastic books, beginning in 1970 with Architecture Versus Housing and including The Private Future, Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age, and Terminal Architecture. His last work, a collection of writings titled The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism, was published last year.

Pawley was an accomplished and prolific journalist. After studying architecture at the Oxford School of Architecture, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the Architectural Association in London, he burst on the scene in the 1970s as a contributing editor to Architectural Design when it was the liveliest and most influential architectural periodical in the English-speaking world. Over the years he served as editor of Building Design and World Architecture, as news editor and columnist of Architects’ Journal, and, for seven years, as architecture critic of the Guardian. Pawley’s was a sharp, take-no-prisoners style of journalism, and his writing, when he was in top form, recalled Evelyn Waugh, though he shared none of Waugh’s reactionary views, on architecture or anything else. Pawley once called Modernism a “magnificent mutiny against historicism” whose “presence has been central to the fortunes of architecture, whether as an avant-garde tendency, a rising star, a revolutionary challenge, a global orthodoxy, an unmitigated evil, a fallen giant or (perhaps) as a resurgent force that is even now gathering strength.” The perhaps is pure Pawley.

I knew Martin well in the 1970s when he was a visiting professor at a number of American universities. He had developed an idea that he called “garbage housing” using industrial and consumer wastes and by-products as inexpensive building materials. Together with enthusiastic architecture students at Cornell University, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Florida A&M University, he experimented with structures built out of soft-drink cans, rubber tires, and cardboard cartons. At Rensselaer, we collaborated on a full-size house with walls made out of bottles and cans, roof trusses made from cardboard tubes (discarded newsprint cores), and roofing shingles made out of neoprene rubber waste.

We both moved on from garbage housing, but that heady decade of idealistic tinkering was emblematic of my friend’s hopes for architecture. He was suspicious of architectural Postmodernists, starchitects, and conservationists, and he disdained architectural traditionalists such as the Prince of Wales and his “country house crowd.” Martin revered Buckminster Fuller and championed the work of Norman Foster. I think that of all architects, he admired Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the most, not only for aesthetic reasons but for his phlegmatic consistency and refusal to be swayed by the tides of change. Martin, too, was happiest standing alone against the crowd.

In 1974, Pawley founded a weekly newspaper at the Architectural Association. He called the tabloid TheGhost Dance Times, referring to an ill-fated religious movement that grew up in the late 19th century among American Plains Indians, promising a restoration of the past glories and the creation of a paradise on earth. The title was his sardonic comment on the insularity that affected—and still affects—schools of architecture and, in his opinion, architecture itself. Pushing his fellow architects into the modern, technological world was Martin Pawley’s mission—although, with a characteristic chuckle, he would have pooh-poohed such a lofty word.