The cover of British architect and journalist Peter Murray’s gripping page-turner, A Passion to Build, says it all. Bright red lingerie lies over a copy of Rykwerts’ The Seduction of Place and a Pevsner guide to a place called Frampton-on-Tees. An iPad screen shows an athlete competing in the Euro games planned for this fictional north of England city, while a sketchbook shows an “Indigo James” design for a classical stadium favored by the local Duke of Frampton. Other images portray the Sienese Palio that inspired the designer of the opening event of the novel. While the story of the planning of the games is quite pedestrian and sad, with all the usual British complications of class and caste, the fun is in Murray’s mischievous eye for detail, gossip, style, and ambition. Few escape his eagle eye as they press on to success and fulfillment in this charming and wry narrative of Anglo-architectural glitterati.
The cast of characters is a witty amalgam of well-known and easy-to-identify personalities: the bicycle-mad global architectural titan; his ex-partner, Harry Jamb, the detail-obsessed reformed alcoholic; the lady architect who Has Not Built in Britain; and the journalist whose romantic liaisons bring on the headlines. Murray cleverly shifts the voice of the narrator as the story unfolds, writing from the point of view of the mayor, his planner, his two main male architectural protagonists, and their wives, children, clients, colleagues, critics, lovers, and rivals.
This efficient literary conceit enables Murray to describe the production of a building and urban event in all its complexity. It also sadly reduces all the characters to stereotypical ciphers in a monstrous machine, losing critical distance. It was especially disappointing that everyone lives happily ever after, heading to Buckingham Palace to be knighted or made a lord. A more subversive ending could have further spiced up Murray’s rich and saucy parody.
Many architects have tried their hand at fiction. Alison Smithson, for instance, wrote A Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl (1966) and left several unpublished novels at her death. Barry Maitland, after studying architecture at Cambridge and practicing in Britain, became the successful author of ten Brock and Kolla crime novels in Australia, winning the Ned Kelly Award three times. Does Murray’s happy ending indicate that he too has further literary ambitions, a sequel or prequel, extending back from architecture to ornament and crime? Stay tuned for the next “Harry Jamb”!