Very sadly, Professor Kenneth Murta died on Wednesday 13. August 2104. He will be very fondly remembered by many in the School.
Emeritus Professor Bryan Lawson has written the following obituary…
The School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield was formed initially to serve the needs of the local profession and community. Under the guidance of its second professor, John Needham it became firmly recognised as one of the UK’s significant schools. During the time of Ken Murta, only the fifth person to hold the title of professor, it steadily grew into the international school it is today. But Ken’s contribution to architectural education was on a far wider scale than his achievements at Sheffield.
Ken Murta studied at King’s College, Durham and had initially practised in the northeast and worked for a period in Nigeria. In 1962 he took a post at the Sheffield School, where he was to spend the rest of his career. By 1974 he had risen to be a professor and Dean of the Faculty that had formed in 1965 including departments of Building Science, Town and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture. After the retirement of Professor Sir George Grenfell Baines, Ken became Head of School, a post that he was to hold in rotation with David Gosling until 1991.
But Ken simultaneously played much wider roles in the profession and overseas. Indeed a defining characteristic of his career was an abiding interest in the complex and sometimes problematic relationship between practice and education. Before arriving in Sheffield he had been part of the team that came fourth in the Sydney Opera House competition. He continued to practice throughout his career, often with his long-standing friend and colleague Jim Hall. In the mid sixties Ken began to work with John Needham, designing and building a local church. His interest in ecclesiastical architecture was to last a lifetime and, as well as completing many commissions, he became a leading light in the Ecclesiological Society. He edited the society’s journal for many years strongly supported by his long-standing and dedicated secretary Doreen Spurr.
Ken also played major roles in professional affairs initially leading the Yorkshire region of the RIBA. For many years he chaired the Board of Architectural Education at ARUCK. This body preceded the current ARB in administering the Act of Parliament that protected the title ‘architect’, maintained a register of qualified members and examined and recognised the courses run at Universities. In the early seventies representatives of all the British schools met at Nottingham University and formed a standing committee of the heads (SCHOSA) to debate and promote the interests of the schools. It was not long before Ken became chairman. He even persuaded British Gas to host their meetings and sponsor activities, recognising the growing importance of developing students with an informed approach to creating sustainable architecture.
At Sheffield, Ken drove forward a new route through the degree courses that reduced the students’ time at university from five to four years substituting an extra year in practice. This involved close co-operation between the host practice and the school, a cause that remained close to Ken’s heart. He also enthusiastically supported the Sheffield innovation of a ‘design teaching practice’ originated by his predecessor as head, George Grenfell-Baines.
On the international stage Ken lead the formation of a new course run jointly between northern British schools and universities in Malaysia. For many years both staff and students moved between the two locations. Eventually, as planned, the Malaysians became self-sufficient but Sheffield’s influence in Malaysia persists to this day. Ken assisted many overseas universities in the development of their architectural departments and simultaneously did much to promote RIBA recognition as an international ‘gold standard’. I have been fortunate to work at many universities in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Wherever I went people would remember Ken with affection and respect and insist that I carry their regards back to him. His passing will be felt well beyond our shores. Ken supervised countless students now distributed around the world who frequently express their gratitude for his tuition and guidance and many have been sending their condolences.
It has not been unusual for heads of schools of architecture to struggle with their host universities and sometimes this has lead to a dangerous degree of isolation. This was never the case for Ken Murta at Sheffield. He was well-known throughout the university and through his efforts both the school and the faculty remained highly regarded. I observed Ken over many years successfully steering causes both within the university and beyond. He achieved his objectives not by being a narrow ‘committee man’ but rather through a calm and careful consideration of the personal and social impact of alternative courses of action on all stakeholders. This was not done in a calculating way but through a natural sensitivity to and interest in people’s feelings and motivations. We would often sit in his office long into the evening on eventful days reviewing the situation. There would inevitably be laughter and some refreshment but Ken would get things done. In spite of all his national and international responsibilities Ken was generous with his time and support for me and I know many others who felt the same.
One of the many occasions in Ken’s company that still raises a smile sums him up perfectly. Those who have been external examiners in schools of architecture will know how demanding it can be to get into the minds and designs of a succession of students who are complete strangers. Ken examined extensively and was sensitive to the needs of Sheffield’s external examiners. On one such occasion the day had been controversial, difficult and long. Ken decided the examiners deserved the very best so we drove them out to an illustrious establishment on the Chatsworth estate well known for its excellent chef. The enthusiasm for Nouvelle Cuisine was in full swing and, although the meal was creatively prepared and beautifully presented, Ken sensed an unspoken feeling that our guests were still hungry. He beckoned our waiter and asked if we could share a bowl of chips. A look of distain fluttered across the waiter’s face and some minutes later he returned to whisper politely in Ken’s ear that ‘chef regrets the fryer is not on tonight’. There was a sigh of relief around the table at this ingenious excuse for not delivering humble chips. But Ken insisted that we could wait while it was turned on. Eventually a solemn procession of the chef and two remaining waiters crossed the now empty restaurant bearing a huge silver tureen full of steaming chips. Ken ladled them onto our guests’ plates and they were gratefully devoured.
Life never seemed to be compartmentalised for Ken and our conversation would often range from family matters through sport to world events. Ken had been a fine footballer in his earlier years and he told me more than once how he had kept Brian Clough quiet for ninety minutes. Ken continued to play cricket for many years and his exploits both on and off the field of play generated many amusing anecdotes that get told and retold around the university. He was of course a dedicated family man and often spoke about his children. Whenever I met his wife Joan, who sadly left us before Ken, she was invariably forthcoming in her opinions of things ‘Kenny’ had done or said. On such occasions he would sit with a twinkle and a wink in his eye and chuckle quietly. We can only imagine his passing will be felt acutely by his wider family.
As with all of us Ken had his faults and blind spots. His driving was never immaculate and it often seemed to his passengers that they were on some mystery tour. It was said, only slightly unfairly, that he was the only person in the university able to occupy three spaces when parking his car. But the eccentric angle brought the benefit that you could easily spot his car from the school of architecture on the top floors of the Arts Tower and know he was in.
Few can have contributed as widely and consistently to architectural education. Ken was not ostentatious or dramatic and never pretentious, but worked with a quiet and effective humanity. There will be many whose life he has touched who will remember him with affection and gratitude. Throughout my career I could always turn to him for advice, encouragement and simple companionship. Even though I have not seen him since he moved to be near his daughter in the southeast a few years ago, the world now feels a lonelier place.
Competition entry for a Cathedral at Kaduna, by Ken Murta and Jim Hall, 1962
Church hall extension, St John’s Church, Hyde Park, Sheffield, by Ken Murta and Jim Hall c.1971 (photo by Russell Light)