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accidental architect

Peter Richardson left school at 18 with no A-levels and no idea what he wanted to do. Now his Glasgow-based practice Zoo is carving itself a reputation for adventurous architecture and collaboration with artists by richard frost.

Peter Richardson is cutting edge and successful, but what does that mean in new Scotland in the new millennium? What are his priorities? On the day his latest project, the new £3.6 million Tramway, was officially opened (June 1), he was beginning a holiday in the Algarve with his wife Mercedes and their three young children.

His demeanour is friendly, open and almost modest. Asked how he felt about that job, his immediate response is: 'I am pleased with Tramway. I am pleased because the client is pleased. They have got what they expected and wanted.'

But you? 'We have done what we wanted to do on a very tight budget.' It doesn't sound false and it certainly isn't the arrogance of a prima donna settling into an inflated ego.

Things add up. Asked about Zoo Partnership, he says that architectural practices are often thought of as families, but 'I look on it as a football team' - each player has a job to do.

Consider the images. A family may be close, cosy, conservative; it is certainly patriarchal - or occasionally matriarchal. Football is a team game, egalitarian; control is diffuse. You have to trust and rely on each other, even if you are the captain.

Football actually is Richardson's sport. He used to play a bit and now he enjoys the pain of being a devoted Celtic supporter; he has a season ticket.

He is tall and lean of frame though he hasn't the time to work out. He used to swim a lot - a very individualistic sport. One body in and against the element, hardly aware of the competition; it is evidence that he isn't only a team player.

Richardson, 37, is an architect by chance or because it was written in his stars. Listening to his Scottish accent, it is a surprise to learn that he grew up in a semi in York. He left school at 18 without any A-levels and not knowing what to do. His grandfather, a steel worker, had wanted to be an architect, he recalls. He went to work as an architectural technician simply because his father had got him the job. However, he took to it immediately and on the back of his technician's training, went to Leicester Poly to do architecture, and did very well.

After three years in offices in London, he got into Edinburgh to finish his degree and fell in love with the city. He then worked in three busy and varied practices in Glasgow in order to qualify before setting up on his own. The job that gave him the chance to strike out on his own was a £2 million refurbishment and office development of a Gorbals mill. The type of project was not new to him: 'If you work in Glasgow you are going to come up against good industrial and factory buildings and get to know the problems and opportunities, ' he says.

But lean years followed. He took on some lecturing at Strathclyde, which he still does, and the practice jogged along. One of his students, Alan Pert, joined him in the business and will be qualifying this year. Zoo now has three architects - one, Robin Lee, is also a trained sculptor - and two assistants working in a big open-plan office looking onto the iron-work tracery of Glasgow's Central Station.

The Tramway contract was won in competition in 1997. At the same time Zoo won another competition for refurbishment work on the Mersey Tunnel which hasn't come to anything. Tramway is a big job on an industrial building, involving careful conservation in its development, but it does not indicate any specialisation by Zoo.

Richardson says: 'It is very refreshing to do new buildings. I want to build new buildings and make a lot of money. It is nice working on old buildings but there are problems. . .'

Zoo's work frequently involves artists such as sculptors and other practitioners of the adventurous visual arts. Four of its five projects on site are funded by the Scottish Arts Council. So there is some significance in the fact that Richardson made the effort to get an A-level in art in his spare time after leaving school. Zoo is also working on Scotland's first conveyor-belt sushi bar.

Is there a vision? Should there be one? Richardson does not pontificate. 'We may take more risks with materials, ' he says, leaving the question open.

He thinks architecture is in pretty good shape. 'Certainly people in Glasgow are coming round to the idea that good design is worth it and they will take a few more risks.' So the imperative is good design and the vision will become clear after the critics have got to work. . .

He is aware of himself as a European architect. 'I'd like to be recognised as part of the European trend rather than as English or Scottish, ' he says. He has said that Le Corbusier is his favourite architect. Asked about influences, he points to Peter Zumthor, the Swiss, and digs out a new book by Baumschlager and Eberle. He isn't a great traveller, keeping up with developments by reading.

Then there is a pet project, the house chimera: Zoo has designed, and made a one-in-ten model of, a floating, sea-going, houseboatcum-office and is looking for support and a production line. With not dissimilar schemes already afloat, it is by no means an impossible dream. 'There's a massive potential worldwide, ' says Richardson and he clearly quite fancies one.

Just now he lives in what he says is obviously an architect's family home - a modern conversion in a Grade A-listed building in Glasgow.

He would dearly like to open an office on the Continent and 'have the excuse to live a continental lifestyle so that the kids can learn a couple of languages and we have a reason to be there.'

Tramway is featured on pages 40 to 43

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