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‘It didn’t matter if someone liked it or not’: six passing architects revisit their first commission

From a beach coffeehouse to a social housing ziggurat: this is where it all began for Norman Foster, Asif Khan and others

Norman Foster

Amenity centre and passenger terminal for Fred Olsen, Millwall docks, London, 1969 -7 0
I met Richard Rogers in the early 60 s at Yale School of Architecture in the US, where we were both studying for our master’s. We got on well and mixed powers to formation Team 4, with Wendy Cheeseman and her sister Georgie Walton, who was the only registered inventor at the house. Wendy and I married and, after four years, we set up Foster Accompanied in her bedsit. It was 1967: there were no accompanies and no projects.

A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall wharves in east London, called Fred Olsen. He knew it was looking to build an amenity centre for its workforce and I got an audience with the dock manager. I was 33.

Norman
Norman Foster at Millwall Docks:’ The dock manager had never met an architect before. He “ve given me” three weeks to come up with a proposal.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

The facilities at the Port of London were frightening. Olsen was a progressive Norwegian company: it wanted to raise conditions for its employees. I arrived early and explored the site. The dock manager had never met an architect before. He showed me some existing intends. As the conversation went on, I began to raise questions- not just about the building, but about how the entire enterprise operated. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.

Olsen’s carries mixed trade with holiday sails, carrying passengers and freight in the same vessel. I verified that a same programme could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under one roof. I marked a restrict plan between two molts on the waterfront. I introduced the dockers’ amenities on the ground floor and agencies for administrative staff and management on the floor above.

A
A Foster sketch of his 1969 activity, outlined on a lamp-post for photographer Michael Franke

” You can’t placed foul-mouthed dockers next to secretaries ,” was the immediate response. I had shaken everything up to such an extent that it was suggested I convene Fred Olsen himself. I are of the view that if you want to raise standards in the workplace, you should go beyond providing showers and bathrooms, and start to overcome the ingrained prejudices between management and workforce. He agreed to the project and gave us one year to deliver it.

The building was challenging technologically as well as socially. At the time , no one in the UK had the knowhow to produce a glass wall with high-pitched thermal act. At my own expenditure, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a decide of working attracts from a company that could induce the glass. Inside, we inserted a gaming arena on the first floor: there were ping-pong counters and missile timbers. Upstairs, Olsen’s prowes collection was on the walls; this was revolutionary for an office building.

The Olsen building was visited by the computer company IBM, which commissioned us to build a temporary head office in Cosham, near Portsmouth. It is now grade II-listed. Today, a concrete wall is all that remains of the Olsen site. Revisiting the locating brought back some remarkable rememberings. Olsen genuinely was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial discord. Four years ago, my spouse organised a stun party for my 80 th birthday and I knew myself stand next to Fred Olsen. He said his only repent was that we didn’t build more projects together.

I am still make versions of the same thing: building communities, whether I am designing for a Swiss village or a disadvantaged parish in Odisha, India, as I am through my organization. That has remained a constant, since that very first commission.

Thomas Heatherwick

Harvey Nichols, London mode week window displays, 1997

Thomas
Thomas Heatherwick with the original storage modeling, a’ ginormous polystyrene and aeroply organize ‘. Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

I met Terence Conran in my final time at the Royal College of Art, in 1994. He had come to give a talk and decided to buy a piece from my intend magnitude present- a gazebo made from birch ply- for his back garden. He then asked me to design an interior display for the Conran Shop, so I made a layered structure from a kilometre of cardboard that exposed hundreds of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, investigated it and asked if I could design a window display at the department store for London fashion week 1997. I was 27 and this was my first proper public project.

When you think of a window display, you automatically imagine: well, there is a window; what shall I employ behind it? But I’ve always seen it interesting to try to take a step further back. I made perhaps I could do something more engaging, more dynamic. I didn’t want to form something that was imprisoned behind glass, so focused instead on the masonry between the windows and came up with this ginormous polystyrene and aeroply organization that weaved between the windows and the building.

I presented the idea to Mary, believing she would say no. Everyone who encountered the propose thought it is not feasible to get the permissions. But Mary was up for it. I soon discovered that, when you try to do something different, people want to be involved. We then had to find a way of stretching our minuscule budget to get this thing improved. There was a team of us working for PS3 an hour( about PS5. 60 today) in a vast studio in east London, including a couple of stone carvers from St Paul’s cathedral and a DJ who went past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided pattern wasn’t really available. I must be given to carve this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 framework that we then scaled up manually, expending massive expanses of graph paper.

I experienced a slight shudder on visit the framework again after 22 times. It was the first time I had done something so public- and there it was, suspended above people’s presidents on Knightsbridge. I was anxious, but in a good way: you should be scared, you should be worried. It was a great success, thank goodness- it won a D& AD[ Design and Art Direction] accolade that time. I remember setting on a bus listening to people wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter if someone would prefer it or not. It drew the street more evocative and engaging.

Today, there are 200 beings working at my studio; we don’t structure things ourselves any more, but we still try to inspire curiosity in the public. The Harvey Nichols window display took a year from plan to station. Right now, we are designing a brand-new terminal at Changi airport in Singapore that are able to take 10 years to complete. It involves billions of pounds of construction work and will endure for decades; but I feel the same strong feel of duty to the people who will experience it.

My first public committee teach me a better quality of merely stopping speculating, like a long-distance runner. It is easy for special things not to happen, but, rarely, some of them do. And in order for them to happen, it is necessary threw everything of yourself into them.

Kate Macintosh

Dawson’s Heights, Dulwich, London, 1972

Architect
Kate Macintosh at Dawson’s Heights:’ Getting started felt exhilarating and terrifying.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

My father intimated I study structure, which was a pretty advanced attitude for a boy of his generation. After the second world war, he thoughts a department in a Scottish dwelling organisation; he was committed to providing decent dwelling for everybody, a sentiment we shared.

I studied at Edinburgh School of Art from 1955 to 1961. I remember a teacher taking me to one side and saying:” Young dames are not terribly practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design ?” I am a stubborn being and I reputed: I’ll murderou demo you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my hypothesis would be built.

After graduation, I made abroad – first in Poland, then in various designers’ bureaux in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole humor in Europe was one of confidence. When I came back, I got a job with Denys Lasdun, “workin on” the National Theatre. After about a year, I realized that this huge project was going to take ages to get on site. I was “the worlds largest” junior member of the team and I are essential in order to get my boots grimy, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female designers begin by doing private mansions, but I understood it as much more challenging to design a community. I insured there was huge pressure on London’s boroughs to provide casing. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a position in the department of architecture and projecting at Southwark council and, to my prodigiou good fortune, I was immediately presented with this phenomenal locate in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.

There was a somewhat chaotic join where we had to present our strategies. There was one architect from Hong Kong who was proposing four tower blocks and another who was proposing a high-density, low-rise scheme. My design was two floundered ziggurats. This was a response to the specific characteristics of the site- the prodigious considers to north and south and the extremely unstable ground maladies. At the extremities, the ziggurats descend from their peak height of 12 storeys to four, manifesting the surrounding proportion of suburban villas.

Getting started felt exhilarating and startling. When you are young, you feel you can take on the world. The housing administrator of Southwark drew up the summary, but as far as I was concerned my buyers were the people on Southwark’s housing list: those in most urgent need of homes.

I devised a system that enabled one-, two- and three-bedroom homes to share the same access. My theory was that a mix of different family sizes, living next door to one another, would have more ability to help each other out with babysitting or shopping. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in a number of cases, two. On site, I remember practically losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a clerk of operates had to heave me out.

Today, there still seems to be a good parish feel there. The dwellings are 30% leaseholder-owned and I would like it to stay at that grade. The center space remains car-free and it still feels very safe. I’ve been told by occupants that children from the surrounding neighborhood come there to play.

Dawson’s Heights is still the largest constructing I’ve designed. It was completed in the mid-7 0s, before the introduction of right-to-buy. After 1979, local authorities were deprived of funding, including a restriction on their right to raise hires; this led to poor maintenance by Southwark during the 80 s. It is now owned by a large housing association, Southern Housing Group, which has invested in its maintenance. Looking back, I feel immensely delighted to see that my profession encompassed what was a golden age for the public sector.

Asif Khan

West Beach cafe, Littlehampton, 2008

Architect
Asif Khan at West Beach cafe:’ I take my kids there every year.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

In my final time at building institution, I completed a self-funded project in Brazil- a canopy gear I had designed and installed in a favela outside Recife- and was invited to give a short presentation about it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I gave a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I recollected: this might be my big break.

Afterwards, I got an email from someone in the audience who “ve been told” I must speak to Jane Wood, a private developers in Littlehampton, West Sussex. It was 2007 and she had just commissioned Thomas Heatherwick, a rising star, to design a coffeehouse on the site of a fish and chip kiosk on the seafront , now known as East Beach coffeehouse. She was creating a real buzz about the town.

Jane and I emailed back and forth for a year; during that time, I became a father. It shaped me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s cafe was be completed, Jane invited me to look at a new website on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the station wearing large-scale sunglasses and driving a white van full of cater gear. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a remarkable place on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I got out of the van, my dreams fell down a puncture. It was a grey, windy period and in front of me was a brick burger kiosk that hadn’t been used for six months. Jane said she wanted to replace it with something simple, like a beach shanty or a shack that served fish and microchips and local ice-cream. I did some rapid growing up in those 30 minutes.

I went back with new ideas for a construct that opens up to take in the condition and closes down when problems are hostile. I created personas of agricultural structures, doll’s homes, sash windows and the quality blue.

The day before the coffeehouse opened, we set a light figure I had designed. Jane looked it and said:” It’s not right for this place. You can do this in Clerkenwell, but not in Littlehampton .” I was so upset, but it taught me one of the most important exercises of my career: shared responsibility you have to the people of a place.

After West Beach cafe, the financial crisis hit. I had to start again- to get out there and exhibit wield, to look for opportunities and, where there weren’t any, to create them. I took on various commissionings to design experimental pavilions in Singapore, Russia and South Korea. That enabled me to grow the studio. Today, we are working on programmes all over the world: designing the brand-new Museum of London; altering a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and devise 6.5 km of moving routes and roads for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this array, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a home. I’ve attached myself to these lieu just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my kids each year: the cafe is still there and it feels like home.

Mary Duggan

King’s Grove, Peckham, London, 2008

Architect
Mary Duggan at King’s Grove:’ I desired that it was a hidden space with a sense of history.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

This was the first house by Duggan Morris Architects, a practice I founded in 2004, when I was 33, with my then collaborator, Joe Morris. I had worked for Gollifer Langston Architects for five years, overseeing the build of seven institutions across north London, but you are never genuinely in complete control of a pattern when you are working for a practice. I was determined to be independent, as was Joe.

Before King’s Grove, Joe and I had renovated three houses and managed to accrue enough fund to invest in this project- something most designers simply wouldn’t be able to do now.( Our first property cost merely PS60, 000.) We were friends with an inventor who had bought a small plot and got a planning application for it, but then decided he didn’t want to develop the site. He sold it to us for PS125, 000 and we locked a self-build mortgage. It was an interesting site reached via a long lane and sliced between 10 terraced back gardens. The previous structure- a plaster mould workshop- had been demolished. Initially, it would have been a Victorian laundry or milk parlour. I desired that it was a hidden space with a sense of history.

Most inventors “ve got an idea” of what their own room will look like. I was no different: a light-pink fairytale building surrounded by beautiful plots. But from our first visit, I realised this wasn’t the place for that. I missed the house to retain the looking and feel of the site. It was surrounded by brick walls and consumed by vegetation, we are therefore designed a house in a similar brick. I’ve learned to rely those first instincts.

The design process was quite easy, since we are knew what we wanted; after all, we were also ” the client “. I think this aspect of the project has had the greatest resonance in my subsequent career: the fact that I was also the investor, the risk-taker, the brief-writer and, eventually, the decision-maker. As such, I am now enabled to empathise with purchasers.

We designed the seat with two dreams in memory: to live in it as a generous two-bed and, down the line, to develop it for sale, or alter it if we wanted to expand our household.( Our daughter was born in the house .) We used inexpensive brick and expended a bit more money on joinery. The kitchen, which is appropriate to a niche in the wall, is made from oak and stainless steel. There is a roof light-headed in the centre of the house, while the front and back doors open up to a south-facing courtyard and a north-facing terrace.

When Joe and I separated in 2016, Duggan Morris demerged and we had to sell the house. A friend bought it and extended an invitation over several times, but I made up self-justifications. I simply didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a patron, who commissioned me in late 2018 to blueprint a studio in the plot. Of track, I had to go back, even if they are I knew the opening intimately.

It wasn’t easy because, under different circumstances, I would still be living in King’s Grove. In fact, I might be constructing an extension for myself now. But it was great to see it in really good condition. It is the sort of house in which the details don’t tire, because it’s made from very honest cloths: brick, glass and oak. I got this strong sense that I had designed something that could stand the test of time.

David Chipperfield

Private house , Richmond, London, 1990

Architect
David Chipperfield at the dwelling of photographer Nick Knight:’ The whole street lobbied against it, writing to Prince Charles to try to have it stopped.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

In 1990, when I was in my mid-3 0s and still fairly inexperienced, I was approached by the fad photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They were living in a postwar house that Nick’s father had built. Nick craved a studio upstairs and more infinite for his young family. At the time, I had a small office of four or five people and we were working with the designer Issey Miyake on a number of store interiors in Japan. This was my first building.

I was excited about everything I was seeing in Japan at the time: they tend to treat the garden as part of the house. Most of Nick’s neighbours wasted a lot of fund on their facades; we did the opposite. We concentrated on how the house and garden could connect. We formed a large concrete frame that provided out from the side of the house, which had the consequences of the partially enclosing a courtyard garden. It too meant that the reces of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting tower, framing a deem into the garden, creating an outside opening that may seem like an indoor one.

We discontinued up with a fight on our hands. The whole street lobbied against it, writing to Prince Charles to try to have it stopped. The parties across the road deterred their screens gleaned for a couple of years in protest. It was an introduction to republican English taste, which was quite shocking. It wasn’t that the house was too big; it was that the figurehead didn’t look like the other residences in wall street. That was the worst part of the process for me. Once we started to build, it was easy by comparison.

Designing and building rooms for beings is a delicate process, which is why I only take on one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a course of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a central thought to my work- the idea of creating an expansive vistum in a suburban street- and it is a strategy I’ve lived by since. The home has been part of Nick and Charlotte’s life for 30 years and I think it has helped them formulate a work-life balance. Nick’s work is incredibly intense and demanding, yet he is dedicated to his family. I like to think the house has played a role.

* If you would like a comment on this part to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s words page in periodical, satisfy email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for book ).

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