Professor at the Sheffield School, known for his involvement in professional affairs, international work and encouraging his own students’ links with practice
Ken Murta was only the fifth person to hold the title of professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, and under his tenure 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, practising initially in the northeast and working 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 become a professor.
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.
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 Arb’s predecessor, ARCUK. In the early 1970s representatives of all the British schools of architecture 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.
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 by northern British schools and universities in Malaysia. Eventually, as planned, the Malaysians became self-sufficient but Sheffield’s influence in Malaysia persists. Ken assisted many overseas universities in the development of their architectural departments and simultaneously did much to promote recognition of the RIBA as an international ‘gold standard’.
It has not been unusual for heads of schools of architecture to struggle with their host universities, but this was never the case for Ken at Sheffield. I observed him 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 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. 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. We drove the examiners out to an illustrious establishment on the Chatsworth estate. The enthusiasm for Nouvelle Cuisine was in full swing and Ken sensed that our guests were still hungry. He beckoned our waiter and asked if we could share a bowl of chips. A look of disdain fluttered across the waiter’s face and some minutes later he returned to whisper politely that ‘chef regrets the fryer is not on tonight’. But Ken insisted we could wait. 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 90 minutes. Ken continued to play cricket for many years and his exploits both on and off the field of play generated many amusing anecdotes. 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 and chuckle quietly.
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.
He leaves four children and nine grandchildren.