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

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 core 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 to get well and compounded forces-out to anatomy Team 4, with Wendy Cheeseman and her sister Georgie Walton, who was the only registered designer at the firm. Wendy and I married and, after four years, we set up Foster Associate in her bedsit. It was 1967: there were no accompanieds and no projects.

A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall wharves 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 horrific. 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 patterns. As the conversation went on, I began to raise questions- not just about the building, but about how the entire procedure wreaked. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.

Olsen’s ships combined trade with holiday cruises, carrying fares and freight in the same vessel. I learnt that a similar programme could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under the same roof. I identified a restricted scheme between two molts on the waterfront. I made the dockers’ amenities on the first floor and offices for administrative staff and management on the flooring above.

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

” You can’t gave foul-mouthed dockers next to secretaries ,” was the immediate response. I had shaken everything up to such an extent that it was suggested I encounter Fred Olsen himself. I argued that if you want to raise standards in the workplace, you should go beyond providing showers and toilets, and start to overcome the ingrained racisms 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 thermal performance. At my own cost, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a decide of cultivating attracts from a company that could form the glass. Inside, we established a gaming sphere on the ground floor: there were ping-pong counters and dart committees. Upstairs, Olsen’s artwork collecting 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 site brought back some astonishing rememberings. Olsen genuinely was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial unrest. Four years ago, my wife organised a astonish party for my 80 th birthday and I felt myself sit next to Fred Olsen. He said his only regret was that we didn’t develop more projects together.

I am still do versions of the same thing: improving parishes, 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 mode week window displays, 1997

Thomas
Thomas Heatherwick with the original supermarket representation, 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 layout degree show- 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 arrangement from a kilometre of cardboard that displayed hundreds of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, saw 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 make: well, there is a window; what shall I introduce behind it? But I’ve always determined it interesting to try to take a step further back. I envisioned maybe I could do something more engaging, most dynamic. I didn’t want to stir something that was imprisoned behind glass, so focused instead on the masonry between the windows and came up with this ginormous polystyrene and aeroply design that weaved between the windows and the building.

I presented the relevant recommendations to Mary, guessing she would say no. Everyone who watched the proposal 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 elongating 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 immense studio in east London, including a couple of stone carvers from St Paul’s cathedral and a DJ who walked past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided motif wasn’t really available. I must be given to engrave this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 simulate that we then scaled up manually, expending huge expanses of diagram paper.

I suffered a slight thrill on control 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 tops 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] award that time. I remember sitting on a bus listening to beings wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter if someone would prefer it or not. It obliged wall street more colors and engaging.

Today, there are 200 beings is currently working on my studio; we don’t construct things ourselves any more, but we still try to inspire curiosity in the public. The Harvey Nichols window display took a year from meaning to installing. Right now, we are designing a brand-new terminal at Changi airport in Singapore that will take 10 times to complete. It involves millions 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 learn me the quality of simply maintaining belief, like a long-distance runner. It is easy for special things not to happen, but, sometimes, some of them do. And in order for them to happen, you must applied 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 indicated I study architecture, which was a pretty advanced attitude for a follower of his generation. After the second world war, he headed ministries and departments in a Scottish dwelling organisation; he was committed to providing decent house for everyone, a ideology we shared.

I studied at Edinburgh School of Art from 1955 to 1961. I remember a instructor taking me to one side and saying:” Young maidens are not abysmally practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design ?” I am a stubborn person and I fantasized: I’ll viciou demo you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my overtures would be built.

After graduation, I labor abroad – first in Poland, then in numerous architects’ offices in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole feeling in Europe was one of optimism. When I came back, I have a job with Denys Lasdun, working on the National Theatre. After about a year, I recognized that this huge project was going to take ages to get on site. I was the most junior member of the team and I are essential in order to get my boots soiled, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female inventors begin by doing private mansions, but I received it as much more challenging to design a community. I examined there was huge pressure on London’s districts to provide dwelling. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a job in the department of building and planning at Southwark council and, to my gigantic good fortune, I was immediately presented with this phenomenal place in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.

There was a somewhat chaotic session where we had to present our schemes. 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 overwhelmed ziggurats. This was a response to the specific characteristics of the place- the stupendous scenes to north and south and the extremely unstable ground problems. At the tips, the ziggurats pitch from their peak height of 12 storeys to four, manifesting the smothering magnitude of suburban villas.

Getting started felt exhilarating and startling. When you are young, you feel you can take on the world. The dwelling administrator of Southwark drew up the brief, 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 bequeathed a system 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 been able to more capacity to help each other out with babysitting or browsing. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in some cases, two. On site, I remember roughly losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a clerk of pieces had to heave me out.

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

Dawson’s Heights is still the largest building I’ve designed. It concluded in the mid-7 0s, before the introduction of right-to-buy. After 1979, local authorities were deprived of financing, including a restriction on their right to raise payments; 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 vastly grateful that my profession 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 boys there every year.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

In my final year at structure school, I ended a self-funded project in Brazil- a canopy paraphernalium I had designed and install in a favela outside Recife- and was invited to give a short presentation about it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I introduced a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I imagined: this might be my big break.

Afterwards, I got an email from person 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 backward and forward for a year; during that time, I became a father. It obliged me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s coffeehouse was be completed, Jane invited me to look at a new website on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the depot wearing large-hearted sunglasses and driving a white van full of cater material. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a remarkable locating on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I got out of the van, my dreams fell down a defect. It was a grey, stormy epoch 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 shanty that served fish and chippings and neighbourhood 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 climate and closes down when status are unfriendly. I accompanied personas of agricultural structures, doll’s lives, waistband windows and the emblazon blue.

The day before the coffeehouse opened, we installed a ignite carve I had designed. Jane investigated 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 learnt me one of the biggest lessons of my occupation: 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 handiwork, to look for opportunities and, where there weren’t any, to create them. I took on various fees to design experimental pavilions in Singapore, Russia and South Korea. That enabled me to grow the studio. Today, we are working on activities all over the world: designing the new Museum of London; proselytizing a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and contrive 6.5 km of ambling routes and roadways for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this stray, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a target. I’ve obliged myself to these neighbourhoods just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my kids every 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 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 really in complete control of a layout when you are working for a practice. I was determined to be independent, as was Joe.

Before King’s Grove, Joe and I had refurbished three houses and managed to accrue enough coin to invest in this project- something most inventors simply wouldn’t be able to do now.( Our first property expense exclusively 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 build- a plaster mould workshop- had been bulldozed. 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 designers have 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 see, I realised this wasn’t the place for that. I required the house to retain the watch 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 rely those first instincts.

The design process was quite easy, since we are knew what we wanted; after all, we were also ” the customers “. I think this aspect of the project has had the greatest resonance in my subsequent job: the facts of the case 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 buyers.

We designed the infinite with two conceives in head: 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 chamber of representatives .) We used inexpensive brick and spent 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-footed in the centre of the house, while the figurehead 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 apologizes. I merely didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a client, who commissioned me in late 2018 to design a studio in the garden-variety. Of course, I had to go back, even though 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 substances: brick, glass and oak. I get this strong sense that I had designed something that could stand the test of time.

David Chipperfield

Private home , Richmond, London, 1990

Architect
David Chipperfield at the residence 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 style photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They were living in a postwar home that Nick’s father had built. Nick craved a studio upstairs and more room 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 roused 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 lot of money on their facades; we did the opposite. We is focused on how the house and garden could connect. We developed a large concrete frame that widened out from the side of the house, which had the effect of partly enclosing a courtyard garden. It also means that the corner of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting article, framing a consider into the garden, creating an outside opening that feels like an indoor one.

We dissolved up with a fight on our hands. The whole street lobbied against it, writing to Prince Charles to try to have it stopped. The beings across the road remained their screens depicted for a couple of years in demonstration. 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 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 construct rooms for people is a delicate process, which is why I exclusively take over one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a way of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a center mind to my work- the idea of creating an expansive attitude in a suburban street- and it is a strategy I’ve lived by since. The room 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 piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in engrave, satisfy email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for booklet ).

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