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

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 on well and compounded coerces to pattern 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 accompanies and no projects.

A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall piers 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 gave me three weeks to be accomplished with a proposal.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

The facilities at the Port of London were frightful. 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 motifs. As the conversation went on, I began to raise questions- not just about the building, but about how the entire enterprise ran. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.

Olsen’s carries compounded trade with holiday sails, carrying fares and freight in the same vessel. I envisioned that a similar strategy could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under the same roof. I related a restrict story between two sheds on the waterfront. I employed the dockers’ amenities on the ground floor and offices for administrative staff and management on the flooring above.

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

” You can’t set 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 bathrooms, 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 rendition. At my own payment, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a fixed of wreaking derives from a company that could acquire the glass. Inside, we established a gaming province on the ground floor: there were ping-pong tables and projectile committees. Upstairs, Olsen’s art 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 orientation brought back some astonishing recalls. Olsen truly was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial turmoil. Four years ago, my bride organised a astound party for my 80 th birthday and I met myself endure next to Fred Olsen. He said his only repent was that we didn’t build more projects together.

I am still doing versions of the same thing: improving parishes, whether I am designing for a Swiss hamlet or a disadvantaged parish in Odisha, India, as I am through my footing. That has remained a constant, since that very first commission.

Thomas Heatherwick

Harvey Nichols, London style week window displays, 1997

Thomas
Thomas Heatherwick with the original storage model, a’ ginormous polystyrene and aeroply arrangement ‘. 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 grade establish- 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 formation from a kilometre of cardboard that displayed the thousands of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, identified it and would like to know whether 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 reckon: well, there is a window; what shall I employ behind it? But I’ve always observed it interesting to try to take a step further back. I speculated perhaps I could do something more engaging, most dynamic. I didn’t want to oblige 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 idea to Mary, feeling she would say no. Everyone who discovered the plan thought it would be impossible 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 strolled past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided intend wasn’t really available. I had to engrave this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 representation that we then scaled up manually, applying massive membranes of graph paper.

I knowledge a slight shudder on regard the framework again after 22 years. It was the first time I had done something so public- and there it was, suspended above people’s honchoes 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 acquired a D& AD[ Design and Art Direction] give that time. I recollect sitting on a bus like to hear people wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter when a person is would prefer it or not. It did the street more vivid and engaging.

Today, the authorities have 200 people working at my studio; we don’t improve 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 facility. 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 sense of duty to the people who will experience it.

My first public board teach me a better quality of just obstructing speculating, like a long-distance runner. It is easy for special things not to happen, but, occasionally, some of them do. And in order for them to happen, it was necessary to made 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 suggested I study building, which was a quite advanced stance for a man of his generation. After the second world war, he pate a department in a Scottish house organisation; he was committed to providing decent casing for everyone, a faith we shared.

I studied at Edinburgh School of Art from 1955 to 1961. I remember a tutor taking me to one side and saying:” Young maids are not exceedingly practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design ?” I am a stubborn being and I reckoned: I’ll brutal evidence you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my propositions would be built.

After graduation, I laboured abroad – first in Poland, then in various inventors’ agencies in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole humor 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 realise that this huge project was going to take ages to get on site. I was the most junior member of the team and I needed to get my boots unclean, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female architects begin by doing private homes, but I find it as much more challenging to design a community. I verified there was huge pressure on London’s parishes to provide casing. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a undertaking in government departments of building and proposing at Southwark council and, to my immense good fortune, I was immediately presented with this phenomenal place in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.

There was a slightly tumultuous meet 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 staggered ziggurats. This was a response to the specific characteristics of the area- the colossal panoramas to north and south and the extremely unstable ground states. At the edges, the ziggurats sink from their maximum height of 12 storeys to four, reflecting the bordering scale of suburban villas.

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

I devised a plan 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 been able to more ability to help each other out with babysitting or patronizing. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in some cases, two. On site, I recollect virtually losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a clerk of designs 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 degree. The central opening remains car-free and it still feels very safe. I’ve been told by residents that children from the bordering arena 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 deprived of financing, including a restriction on their right to raise leases; 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 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 boys there every year.’ Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

In my final year at structure academy, I completed a self-funded project in Brazil- a canopy kit 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 gave a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I reckoned: 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 property developer 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 microchip 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 nearing completion, Jane invited me to look at a new area on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the station wearing big sunglasses and driving a lily-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 get out of the van, my dreams fell into a fault. 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 shanty or a shanty that served fish and microchips and neighbourhood ice-cream. I did some rapid growing up in those 30 minutes.

I went back with new ideas for a building that opens up to take in the condition and closes down when plights are unfriendly. I returned likeness of agricultural organizes, doll’s residences, waistband windows and the colouring blue.

The day before the coffeehouse opened, we installed a ignite sculpture I had designed. Jane received 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 schooled me one of the biggest exercises 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 undertaking, to look for opportunities and, where there weren’t any, to create them. I took on several committees to design experimental pavilions in Singapore, Russia and South Korea. That enabled me to grow the studio. Today, we are working on activities across the world: designing the brand-new Museum of London; proselytizing a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and designing 6.5 km of strolling roadways and roadways for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this compas, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a lieu. I’ve bound myself to these places just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my minors every year: the cafe continues unabated and it feels like home.

Mary Duggan

King’s Grove, Peckham, London, 2008

Architect
Mary Duggan at King’s Grove:’ I enjoyed 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 spouse, Joe Morris. I had worked for Gollifer Langston Architects for five years, overseeing the build of seven schools across north London, but you are never really 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 coin to invest in this project- something most inventors simply wouldn’t be able to do now.( Our first property overhead 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 self-assured a self-build mortgage. It was an interesting site reached via a long lane and sliced between 10 terraced back gardens. The previous house- a plaster mould workshop- had been bulldozed. Originally, it would have been a Victorian laundry or milk parlour. I adored 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 gardens. But from our first stay, I realised this wasn’t the place for that. I missed the house to retain the watch 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 customers “. I think this aspect of the project has had the greatest resonance in my subsequent vocation: 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 purchasers.

We designed the cavity with two considers in thinker: to live in it as a generous two-bed and, down the line, to develop it for sale, or proselytize it if we wanted to expand our clas.( Our daughter was born in the house .) We used inexpensive brick and spent 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 exactly didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a client, who commissioned me in late 2018 to motif a studio in the garden-variety. Of route, I had to go back, even though I knew the infinite intimately.

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

David Chipperfield

Private room , 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 quite inexperienced, I was approached by the mode photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They were living in a postwar residence that Nick’s father had constructed. Nick wanted 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 firstly building.

I was aroused about everything I was seeing in Japan at the time: they tend to treat the plot as part of the house. Most of Nick’s neighbours spent a lot of coin on their facades; we did the opposite. We concentrated on how the house and garden could connect. We composed a large concrete chassis that increased out from the side of the house, which had the effect of partly enclosing a courtyard garden. It too means that the corner of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting column, framing a scene into the garden, creating an outside opening that may seem 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 people across the road stopped their shrouds described for a couple of years in declaration. 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 front didn’t look like the other homes 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 house houses for people is a delicate process, which is why I exclusively take on one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a behavior of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a center sentiment to my job- the idea of creating an expansive judgment in a suburban street- and it is a strategy I’ve lived by since. The live 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, hitherto 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 magazine, delight email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for booklet ).

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