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‘It didn’t matter if someone liked it or not’: six leading architects 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 core 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 to get well and compounded forces to flesh Team 4, with Wendy Cheeseman and her sister Georgie Walton, who was the only registered architect 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 affiliates and no projects.

A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall docks in east London, called Fred Olsen. He knew it was looking to build an amenity centre for its personnel 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 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 blueprints. As the conversation went on, I began to raise questions- not just about the building, but about how the entire functioning wreaked. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.

Olsen’s ships mixed trade with holiday cruises, carrying passengers and freight in the same vessel. I encountered that a same strategy could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under one roof. I identified a restrict scheme between two sheds on the waterfront. I placed the dockers’ amenities on the ground floor and powers for administrative staff and management on the floor above.

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

” You can’t put foul-mouthed dockers next to secretaries ,” was the immediate response. I had shaken everything up to such an extent that it was suggested I converge 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 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 thermal recital. At my own cost, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a place of wielding gathers from a company that could establish the glass. Inside, we established a gaming expanse on the ground floor: there were ping-pong tables and dart boards. Upstairs, Olsen’s artwork collect 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 amazing reminiscences. Olsen genuinely was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial discord. Four years ago, my spouse organised a bombshell defendant for my 80 th birthday and I ascertained myself tolerate next to Fred Olsen. He said his only regret was that we didn’t improve more projects together.

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

Thomas
Thomas Heatherwick with the original storage example, 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 position testify- 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 organization from a kilometre of cardboard that displayed hundreds of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, checked 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 firstly proper public project.

When you think of a window display, you automatically envisage: well, there is a window; what shall I make behind it? But I’ve always learnt it interesting to try to take a step further back. I visualized maybe I could do something more engaging, more dynamic. I didn’t want to do 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 idea to Mary, anticipating she would say no. Everyone who considered the schedule 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 pulling our minuscule budget to get this thing constructed. 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 marched past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided design 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, employing immense membranes of graph paper.

I experienced a slight chill on look the simulate again after 22 years. It was the first time I had done something so public- and there it was, suspended above people’s psyches 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 triumphed a D& AD[ Design and Art Direction] awarding that year. I recollect sitting on a bus listening to beings wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter when a person is would prefer it or not. It obligated wall street more vivid and engaging.

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

My first public commission instruct me the qualifications of simply retaining accepting, 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, there is a requirement introduced 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 position for a husband of his generation. After world war ii, he thoughts a department in a Scottish dwelling organisation; he was committed to providing decent casing for everyone, a idea 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 ladies are not abysmally practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design ?” I am a stubborn person and I reckoned: I’ll bloody substantiate you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my propositions would be built.

After graduation, I wielded abroad – first in Poland, then in various designers’ bureaux in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole climate 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 encountered that this huge project was going to take ages to get on site. I is more junior member of the team and I needed to get my boots grimy, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female inventors begin by doing private homes, but I ascertained it as much more challenging to design a community. I pictured there was huge pressure on London’s districts to provide casing. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a errand in the department of architecture and proposing at Southwark council and, to my immense good fortune, I was immediately presented with this prodigious place in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.

There was a slightly chaotic see 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 colossal deems to north and south and the extremely unstable ground maladies. At the tips, the ziggurats pitch from their maximum height of 12 storeys to four, showing the circumventing scale of suburban villas.

Getting started felt exhilarating and frightening. When you are young, you feel you can take on the world. The home director of Southwark drew up the brief, but as far as I was concerned my buyers were the person or persons on Southwark’s housing list: those in most urgent need of homes.

I bequeathed a structure 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 browsing. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in a number of cases, two. On site, I remember virtually losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a salesclerk of designs 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 central infinite remains car-free and it still feels very safe. I’ve been told by occupants that children from the circumventing locality come there to play.

Dawson’s Heights is still the largest building I’ve designed. It was finalized in the mid-7 0s, before the introduction of right-to-buy. After 1979, local authorities were starved of financing, 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 invests in its maintenance. Looking back, I feel vastly delighted to see that my career spanned 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 academy, 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 set 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 someone in the gathering 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 cafe 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 backward and forward for a year; during that time, I became a father. It constituted me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s cafe was be completed, Jane invited me to look at a new area on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the depot wearing big-hearted sunglasses and driving a grey van full of catering equipment. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a striking site on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I got out of the van, my dreams fell into a pit. It was a grey, breezy 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 hut or a shanty that served fish and microchips and local ice-cream. I did some rapid grown up in those 30 minutes.

I went back with new ideas for a structure that opens up to take in the climate and closes down when conditions are unfriendly. I accompanied images of agricultural formations, doll’s residences, sash windows and the quality blue.

The day before the cafe opened, we installed a daylight carve I had designed. Jane saw 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 most important readings of my vocation: 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 undertaking, to look for opportunities and, where there weren’t any, to create them. I took on several boards to design experimental pavilions in Singapore, Russia and South Korea. That enabled me to grow the studio. Today, we are working on projects 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 intend 6.5 km of ambling itineraries and roads for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this series, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a residence. I’ve fasten myself to these homes just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my kids 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 blueprint 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 architects simply wouldn’t be able to do now.( Our first belonging payment merely 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 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. 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 architects have an idea of what their own house 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 place for that. I required the house to retain the look 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 trust 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 subsequent job: the fact 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 buyers.

We designed the space with two reckons in subconsciou: to live 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 category.( 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-colored 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 apologies. I merely didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a buyer, who commissioned me in late 2018 to designing a studio in the plot. Of route, I had to go back, even if they are I knew the cavity 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 information: brick, glass and oak. I get 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 quite inexperienced, I was approached by the manner photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They is now in a postwar house that Nick’s father had improved. Nick wanted a studio upstairs and more seat 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 money on their facades; we did the opposite. We focussing on how the house and garden could connect. We developed a large concrete frame that provided out from the side of the house, which had the consequences of the partly enclosing a courtyard garden. It likewise meant that the corner of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting pillar, framing a judgment into the garden, creating an outside cavity that feels like an indoor one.

We intention 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 deterred their screens gleaned for a couple of years in assert. 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 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 beings 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 direction of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a center plan to my job- the idea of creating an expansive look 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 times 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 segment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s characters page in etch, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for brochure ).

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