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Peter Davey (1940-2018): ‘a critical acumen of exceptional range and scope’

Peter Davey, who died in March aged 78, was the AR’s 11th and second longest-serving editor

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With a tenure that extended from 1980 to 2005, he was AR’s second longest-serving helmsman after JM Richards. Over the course of an era that began with copy written in longhand and ended with the irresistible rise of digital media, Davey was a dogged survivor of architectural fashion and corporate regime change, seeing off a succession of inept and indifferent publishers while keeping the AR on track, both critically and commercially.  

As the AR’s last ‘gentleman editor’, he affected the manner and props of a Victorian actor manager – three-piece suit, hat, cravat, cigarette holder, expansive drinking habits and a chaise longue in the office. Yet underneath was a core of steel. ‘Scugs’ was his view of Robert Maxwell’s goon squad, who ejected the Architectural Press from its cherished offices in Queen Anne’s Gate and dismantled the Bride of Denmark, the famous basement watering hole. For Davey it was like being expelled from Eden. Exiled to ungentrified Clerkenwell, sans chaise longue, things were never quite the same.

Like many in the trade, Davey set out to become an architect but was diverted into writing about buildings rather than building them. Before studying architecture at Edinburgh he spent a couple of years in Norway, where during the war his father had been part of the Allied forces receiving the Nazi surrender. His time in Oslo inculcated a love of things Scandinavian – buildings, food, landscape, light, social structures and general Nordic broodiness – which were manifest in regular AR special issues on Norway, Denmark and especially Finland. The ‘other Modernism’ of Aalto et al struck a deep and romantic chord, reciprocated when the Finns gave him a knighthood, involving periodic bacchanales at the Finnish ambassador’s residence in London. 

Before he defected to architectural journalism, he was briefly in practice with RMJM, working on what was then the new Czech Embassy in Bayswater. If you seek his monument, he designed its doors. In 1968 he traversed the portals of Queen Anne’s Gate, initially as a technical editor on the AR’s sister magazine The Architects’ Journal. Legend has it that he spent his honeymoon translating the Danish building regulations for a technical article. From this initiation he progressed through the ranks, eventually assuming control of the AR in December 1980. His first issue as editor featured the lurid green tumescences of Grimshaw’s Castle Park warehouse on the cover, reflecting the tenor of those High-Tech times. It was to become a regular theme as the twin titans of Foster and Rogers bestrode the globe with their tensile wires and yachting details. Yet underscoring Davey’s proclivity for English techno-fetishism was his inveterate belief in the social purpose of architecture. He was also a devout scholar of the Arts and Crafts – he even looked a bit like William Morris – and his book on the movement, published as an expanded and lavishly illustrated second edition by Phaidon in 1995, is still considered the key canonical survey.

Compared with the editorial eclecticism of previous AR eras, when Hunstanton School might sit next to the ruins of Nineveh, the Davey formula relied on more rigorously themed issues. Certain preoccupations emerged, notably a prescient concern for ecology, materiality, housing and architecture as a participative process. Urbanism, especially the post-unification reconstruction of Berlin, was another important topic. In 1994 he persuaded the AR’s publisher of the time to set up a proper refereed journal for architecture, Architectural Research Quarterly, now under the wing of Cambridge University Press. Two years later, he presided over the AR’s centenary jamboree with revels in the Architectural Association library. 

Another conspicuous initiative was the introduction of the AR’s popular annual award for emerging architects. Inaugurated in 1999 as a riposte to the prevailing penchant for dutifully doling out gongs for lifetime achievement, it was an instant success and is still a crucial part of the magazine’s extracurricular activities. Such enthusiasms were countered by Davey’s vigorous disdain for mediocre philistinism, corporate capitalism (both in architecture and publishing) and ‘fads’, a favourite epithet regularly employed to dismiss anything he considered pretentious. Consigned to this broad church were paper architects, Po-Mo, amorphous blobitecture (‘Moebius writhings’) and the wilder shores of theory. 

Always in demand for lectures and juries, he travelled extensively, from Peru to Pakistan. At successive Venice Biennales he did a plausible impersonation of Gustav von Aschenbach in cream linen suit and Panama hat. And as generations of AR collaborators and co-conspirators can testify, he enjoyed prandial conviviality and was appalled by the relentless creep of the al-desko lunch.

At the time of Davey’s retirement, Kenneth Frampton wrote: ‘One comes to see that the somewhat dandified, detached form of the editor was always a mask that served to conceal a critical acumen of exceptional range and scope’. His final issue of March 2005 was a cri-de-coeur in a world succumbing to the pernicious cult of starchitecture and neoliberal excess. ‘Architecture cannot help being a commentary on human life’, he wrote, ‘but a large number of architects seem determined to demonstrate how indifferent to ordinary concerns they are.’ As well as being a deeply personal loss for his family and friends, his death extinguishes yet another point of light in a generational constellation of critics who illuminated their times. ‘Ave atque vale’ read the invitations to his retirement party at the Royal Academy. Now, sadly, he’s gone for good. Hail and farewell.