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‘It didn’t matter if someone liked it or not’: six leading inventors revisit their first commissioning

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

Norman Foster

Amenity centre and fare 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 pushes to anatomy 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 Associate in her bedsit. It was 1967: there were no identifies and no projects.

A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall docks in east London, announced 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 gave me three weeks to come up with a proposal.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

The facilities at the Port of London were shocking. 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 action wielded. 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 similar programme could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under one roof. I recognized a narrow plot between two sheds on the waterfront. I made the dockers’ amenities on the first floor and bureaux for administrative staff and management on the flooring above.

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

” You can’t threw foul-mouthed dockers next to secretaries ,” was the immediate response. I had shaken everything up to such an extent that it was suggested I satisfy 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 toilets, 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 , nobody in the UK had the knowhow to produce a glass wall with high-pitched thermal rendition. At my own expenditure, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a move of acting portrayals from a company that could obligate the glass. Inside, we interposed a gaming country on the first floor: there were ping-pong tables and missile cards. Upstairs, Olsen’s artistry accumulation 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 point brought back some remarkable recollections. Olsen certainly was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial upheaval. Four years ago, my bride organised a bombshell party for my 80 th birthday and I discovered myself reputation next to Fred Olsen. He said his only regret was that we didn’t body-build more projects together.

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

Thomas Heatherwick

Harvey Nichols, London way week window displays, 1997

Thomas
Thomas Heatherwick with the original accumulation framework, a’ ginormous polystyrene and aeroply formation ‘. 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 pattern stage depict- 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 design from a kilometre of cardboard that displayed the thousands of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, viewed it and would like to know 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 recollect: well, there is a window; what shall I set behind it? But I’ve always procured it interesting to try to take a step further back. I concluded perhaps I could do something more engaging, more dynamic. I didn’t want to represent something that was imprisoned behind glass, so focused instead on the masonry between the windows and came up with this ginormous polystyrene and aeroply structure that weaved between the windows and the building.

I presented the relevant recommendations to Mary, pondering she would say no. Everyone who experienced the programme thought it would be impossible to get the permissions. But Mary was up for it. I soon was revealed that, when you try to do something different, people want to be involved. We then had to find a way of straining our minuscule budget to get this thing built. There was a team of us working for PS3 an hour( about PS5. 60 today) in a enormous studio in east London, including a couple of stone carvers from St Paul’s cathedral and a DJ who sauntered past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided blueprint wasn’t really available. I must be given to carve this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 prototype that we then scaled up manually, use immense sheets of diagram paper.

I experienced a slight shudder on watch the example again after 22 times. It was the first time I had done something so public- and there it was, suspended above people’s managers 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 prevailed a D& AD[ Design and Art Direction] awarding that year. I recollect setting on a bus like to hear people wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter when a person is liked it or not. It became the street more colors and engaging.

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

My first public commission instruct me a better quality of just retaining 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 was necessary to employed 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 proposed I study building, which was a moderately advanced posture for a boy of his generation. After the second world war, he leader a department in a Scottish housing organisation; he was committed to providing decent casing for everybody, a sentiment we shared.

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

After graduation, I acted abroad – first in Poland, then in numerous inventors’ offices in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole humor in Europe was one of optimism. When I came back, I got a job with Denys Lasdun, “workin on” the National Theatre. After about a year, I ascertained 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 needed to get my boots soiled, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female inventors begin by doing private houses, but I insured it as much more challenging to design a community. I met there was huge pressure on London’s parishes to provide house. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a responsibility in the department of building and scheduling at Southwark council and, to my prodigiou good fortune, I was immediately presented with this phenomenal place in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.

There was a slightly chaotic rally 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 website- the stupendous deems to north and south and the extremely unstable ground surroundings. At the terminus, the ziggurats descend from their maximum high levels of 12 storeys to four, manifesting the bordering proportion of suburban villas.

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

I bequeathed a plan that enabled one-, two- and three-bedroom residences to share the same access. My theory was that a mix of different family sizes, living next door to one another, would have more capacity 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 recollect roughly losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a clerk of duties had to heave me out.

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

Dawson’s Heights is still the largest building I’ve designed. It was completed in the mid-7 0s, before the introduction of right-to-buy. After 1979, local authorities were starved of funding, including a restriction on their right to raise rents; 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 upkeep. Looking back, I feel immensely grateful that my career covered 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 year at building institution, I ended a self-funded project in Brazil- a canopy paraphernalium 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 employed a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I concluded: this might be my big break.

Afterwards, I got an email from someone in the gathering who told me 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 cafe. She was creating a real buzz about the town.

Jane and I emailed backward and forward for a year; during that time, I became a father. It did me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s cafe was be completed, Jane invited me to look at a brand-new locate on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the depot wearing large-hearted sunglasses and driving a white-hot van full of catering gear. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a striking point on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I went out of the van, my dreams fell into a defect. It was a grey, breezy date 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 hut or a cabin that served fish and chips and local ice-cream. I did some rapid grown up in those 30 minutes.

I went back with an idea for a building that opens up to take in the condition and closes down when maladies are hostile. I raised epitomes of agricultural formations, doll’s residences, waistband windows and the colour blue.

The day before the coffeehouse opened, we set a illuminate sculpture I had designed. Jane verified 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 educated me one of the greatest readings of my career: the 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 labour, 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 projections all over the world: designing the new Museum of London; proselytizing a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and intention 6.5 km of treading streets and roadways for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this wander, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a home. I’ve fix myself to these residences just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my kids each year: the coffeehouse is still there and it feels like home.

Mary Duggan

King’s Grove, Peckham, London, 2008

Architect
Mary Duggan at King’s Grove:’ I loved 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, work practices I founded in 2004, when I was 33, with my then marriage, 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 truly in complete control of a intend when you are working for a practice. I was determined to be independent, as was Joe.

Before King’s Grove, Joe and I had revamped three houses and managed to accrue enough money to invest in this project- something most designers simply wouldn’t be able to do now.( Our first property overhead exclusively PS60, 000.) We were friends with an architect “whos 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 secured 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 dismantled. Initially, it would have been a Victorian laundry or milk parlour. I cherished that it was a hidden space with a sense of history.

Most architects “ve got an idea” of what their own residence will look like. I was no different: a light-pink fairytale building surrounded by beautiful garden-varieties. But from our first see, I realised this wasn’t the website for that. I craved the house to retain the appear and feel of the site. It was surrounded by brick walls and consumed by vegetation, so we designed a house in a similar brick. I’ve learned to cartel those first instincts.

The design process was quite easy, because we 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 precede career: the facts of the case that I was also the investor, the risk-taker, the brief-writer and, ultimately, the decision-maker. As such, I am now enabled to empathise with clients.

We designed the opening with two designs in sentiment: lives in it as a generous two-bed and, down the line, to develop it for sale, or convert it if we wanted to expand our family.( Our daughter was born in the chamber of representatives .) We used inexpensive brick and expended a bit more money on joinery. The kitchen, which fits into 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 invited me over several times, but I made up forgives. I only 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 seat intimately.

It wasn’t easy because, under different circumstances, I would still be living in King’s Grove. In fact, I might be improving 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 textiles: brick, glass and oak. I went this strong sense that I had designed something that could stand the test of time.

David Chipperfield

Private residence , 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 quite inexperienced, I was approached by the style photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They were living in a postwar residence that Nick’s father had improved. Nick required a studio upstairs and more space 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 firstly building.

I was agitated 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 expended a great deal of money on their facades; we did the opposite. We were focused on how the house and garden could connect. We caused a large concrete chassis that spread out from the side of the house, which had the effect of partly enclosing a courtyard garden. It also meant that the reces of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting column, framing a attitude into the garden, creating an outside opening that feels like an indoor one.

We resolved 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 stopped their draperies outlined for a couple of years in affirm. It was an introduction to conservative English taste, which was quite shocking. It wasn’t that the house was too big; it was that the front didn’t look like the other residences in the street. That was the worst part of the process for me. Once we started to build, it was easy by comparison.

Designing and structure lives for parties is a delicate process, which is why I simply take on one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a road of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a center theme to my job- the idea of creating an expansive consider in a suburban street- and it is a strategy I’ve lived by since. The house has been part of Nick and Charlotte’s life for 30 times 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 bit to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s words page in periodical, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publishing ).

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