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‘It didn’t matter if someone liked it or not’: six producing inventors 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 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 powers to model Team 4, with Wendy Cheeseman and her sister Georgie Walton, who was the only registered architect at the firm. Wendy and I married and, after four years, we set up Foster Accompanied 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, 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 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 running labor. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.

Olsen’s ships compounded trade with holiday cruises, carrying fares and freight in the same vessel. I attended that a similar programme could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under one roof. I related a restricted scheme between two sheds on the waterfront. I made the dockers’ amenities on the ground floor and powers for administrative staff and management on the storey above.

A
A Foster sketch of his 1969 activity, gleaned 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 converge Fred Olsen himself. I argued that if you want to raise standards in the workplace, you should go beyond providing showers and lavatories, 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 , nobody in the UK had the knowhow to produce a glass wall with high thermal achievement. At my own payment, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a specify of labouring sucks from a company that could oblige the glass. Inside, we initiated a gaming neighborhood on the ground floor: there were ping-pong counters and projectile boards. Upstairs, Olsen’s prowes 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 turmoil. Four year ago, my wife organised a bombshell party for my 80 th birthday and I noticed myself stay next to Fred Olsen. He said his only repent was that we didn’t develop more projects together.

I am still doing 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 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 store representation, a’ ginormous polystyrene and aeroply organization ‘. Photograph: Michael Franke/ The Guardian

I met Terence Conran in my final year at the Royal College of Art, in 1994. He had come to give a talk and decided to buy a piece from my intend stage demonstrate- 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 exposed the thousands of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, viewed 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 make: well, there is a window; what shall I employ behind it? But I’ve always met it interesting to try to take a step further back. I recalled maybe I could do something more engaging, more dynamic. I didn’t want to construct 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, recollecting she would say no. Everyone who pictured the propose 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 stretching 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 enormous studio in east London, including a couple of stone carvers from St Paul’s cathedral and a DJ who trod past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided layout wasn’t really available. I must be given to engrave this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 pattern that we then scaled up manually, expending big membranes of graph paper.

I knew a slight thrill on seeing the example again after 22 years. It was the first time I had done something so public- and there it was, suspended above people’s brains 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] award that time. I remember sitting on a bus listening to parties wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter if someone liked it or not. It established wall street more evocative and engaging.

Today, the authorities have 200 beings is currently working on 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 idea to installation. 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 board teach me the quality of exactly retaining believing, 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 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 hinted I study building, which was a fairly advanced posture for a gentleman of his generation. After the second world war, he pate a department in a Scottish housing organisation; he was committed to providing decent house for everyone, a faith 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 madams are not abysmally practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design ?” I am a tenaciou person and I thought: I’ll bloody indicate you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my overtures would be built.

After graduation, I wreaked abroad – first in Poland, then in many designers’ bureaux in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole mood in Europe was one of confidence. When I came back, I got a job with Denys Lasdun, working on the National Theatre. After about a year, I received 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 grimy, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.

A lot of female designers begin by doing private rooms, but I realized it as much more challenging to design a community. I verified there was huge pressure on London’s boroughs to provide home. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a place in government departments of building and projecting 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 somewhat tumultuous meeting 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 prodigious looks to north and south and the extremely unstable ground conditions. At the tips, the ziggurats pitch from their peak height of 12 storeys to four, manifesting the bordering magnitude of suburban villas.

Getting started felt exhilarating and startling. When you are young, you feel you can take on the world. The home 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 organisation 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 shopping. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in a number of cases, two. On site, I remember nearly losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a salesclerk of drives must be given 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 degree. The central seat remains car-free and it still feels very safe. I’ve been told by residents that children from the surrounding province 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 deprived of financing, 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 invests in its upkeep. Looking back, I feel exceedingly delighted to see that my vocation spanned what was a golden age for the public sector.

Asif Khan

West Beach coffeehouse, Littlehampton, 2008

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

In my final time at architecture school, I accomplished a self-funded project in Brazil- a canopy kit 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 introduced a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I felt: this are likely to 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 chipping 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 manufactured me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s coffeehouse 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-hearted sunglasses and driving a white van full of catering equipment. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a remarkable place on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I get out of the van, my dreams fell down a pit. 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 shanty that served fish and microchips and local ice-cream. I did some rapid growing up in those 30 minutes.

I went back with an idea for a structure that opens up to take in the weather and closes down when preconditions are unfriendly. I drew portraits of agricultural designs, doll’s homes, waistband windows and the quality blue.

The day before the coffeehouse opened, we installed a brightnes sculpture I had designed. Jane experienced 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 assignments 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 undertaking, 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 projects across the world: designing the new Museum of London; altering a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and plan 6.5 km of marching streets and roadways for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this array, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a residence. I’ve bind myself to these places just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my children 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 cherished 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 partner, Joe Morris. I had worked for Gollifer Langston Architects for five years, overseeing the build of seven academies across north London, but you are never actually in complete control of a motif 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 owned payment merely PS60, 000.) We were friends with an architect 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 procured 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 inventors have 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 trip, I realised this wasn’t the area for that. I missed the house to retain the sound and feel of the site. It was surrounded by brick walls and consumed by vegetation, we are therefore designed a house in a same brick. I’ve learned to trust 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 precede occupation: the fact that I was also the investor, the risk-taker, the brief-writer and, eventually, the decision-maker. As such, I am now able to empathise with buyers.

We designed the seat with two supposes in imagination: lives 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 lineage.( 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 forgives. I precisely didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a client, who commissioned me in late 2018 to pattern a studio in the garden. Of track, I had to go back, although there is 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 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 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 fashion photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They is now in a postwar home that Nick’s father had built. Nick required 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 invested a great deal of money on their facades; we did the opposite. We were focused on how the house and garden could connect. We developed a large concrete frame that widened out from the side of the chamber of representatives, which had the consequences of the partly enclosing a courtyard garden. It also means that the angle of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting article, framing a panorama into the garden, creating an outside space that feels like an indoor one.

We intent 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 stopped their draperies drawn for a couple of years in declaration. 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 mansions 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 mansions for people is a delicate process, which is why I merely take over one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a path of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.

This was the first time I had a central project to my work- the idea of creating an expansive panorama 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, 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 segment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in periodical, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publication ).

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