Bearing the cross
'That job's got my name on it,' was Marianne Davys' first thought when she saw an advertisement placed by Camden Building Design Services in The Architects' Journal. It wouldn't have been every architect's response: Davys is now in that post of senior architect and project manager for the Kings Cross Estates Action project, a five-year £29 million project to regenerate Kings Cross's run-down housing stock, and anything which actually gets built is some sort of compromise, a result of numerous meetings with a seemingly infinite number of committees and consultants. But Davys embraces it all with good humour: 'I enjoy other people's skills . . . it's a pleasure to work with so many talented people'. She is that rare breed, an architect/enabler, who thrives on collaborative design.
Davys shares responsibility for consultation, reporting, cost control, and design co-ordination with client co-ordinator Janet Crook. They met when Davys was being interviewed for the job. Crook was on the interview panel, and had a clear ideas about the type of person that was needed. 'It was about architectural skills but also about management skills, and Marianne had a personality I thought was needed for the job. The job's all about interaction on a daily basis; about taking the job very seriously but at the same time maintaining a sense of humour, and so many technical people don't have those skills.'
Davys stresses the importance of organisational skills, and says that her experience at Allies & Morrison has proved invaluable in this respect. 'I learned how to approach any construction project in a very structured way. The first thing I had to do when I came here was to establish a way of working - what information goes to whom . . . it's a discipline which all the consultants have responded to.' Having spent eight years as a local-authority councillor, Crook brings political expertise to the project. 'There was terrible in-fighting and nobody could agree on anything - it taught me the importance of working together towards the same objective'. The King's Cross project has been surprisingly free of these troubles, an achievement which Davys attributes largely to Crook's know-how. 'She knows how groups work together, and how to defuse a potentially difficult situation.' The 'situation' can be anything from encounters with government ministers to heated meetings with residents to more informal discussion.
The project's visits from government ministers, such as Peter Mandelson, and by interested parties from all over the world is attributed by Davys to interest in the location: 'King's Cross is on every transport network . . . and it's famous'. For the 2000 residents in the catchment area its notoriety is a curse, and the project is not only a means of improving their homes, but also of helping to shake off the area's unsavoury reputation.
Both Davys and Crook have been impressed by the extent of residents' commitment to the project. 'It would be ill-advised to underestimate how seriously they take their role as client,' says Davys. 'There are many intelligent highly motivated residents . . . and they turn up to endless meetings.' The meetings may seem endless but Davys and Crook believe they are essential, both for establishing a consensus about what needs to be done, and for convincing people that results have been effectively achieved. Crook argues that the discussions have an important social effect. 'They generate more than the physical improvements - communities get created.'
But conflicts cannot be contained in meetings, and the ability to diffuse potentially volatile situations depends on just being around. Take the time Cook found a tenant berating a contractor for removing trees with a bulldozer. 'It was just lucky that I was passing, and was able to explain that they were diseased and that we were planting new ones. Otherwise it could have been a letter in the paper, and once its in the paper its much harder to deal with. The next thing you know it's 'Typical council, call themselves green . . .'.' Press coverage is generally supportive, but can be unhelpful - Crook recalls a piece in the local paper under the headline 'oaps' fury at 'improvements''' which complained about the noise. 'I was very upset about is at first but Marianne just said: 'Never mind, it could have said oap's fury at lack of improvements'.'
Keeping each other's spirits up is a key part of the job, and keeping up the spirits of the other parties involved is absolutely crucial. The completion of each contract is celebrated with a big party for residents and contractors. Crook recalls the most recent thrash 'with the orchestra and the bungee jumper in the pouring rain'. An ad hoc scaffolding pole was erected for the bungee jumper - 'the safety officer was there having kittens' - and the contractor laid on a feast and distributed multi-coloured umbrellas to the rain-sodden guests. 'Channel 1 news came along . . . at heart people are performers, and everybody started waltzing around. People just began to behave as though they were really going to have a serious party.'
So do they always manage to lift the sprits, or do they sometimes despair? 'We take it in turns' says Davys. And what happens if they despair at the same time? 'We down tools and go to one of the many good pubs on site!'