Designs on the presidency
Alex Reid is 'passionate about the ability of architecture and design to change peoples' lives'. While recognising the 'noble intent' of architectural experimentation in the '50s and '60s, he castigates the topdown solutions of the government of the day, which he links with a 'warfooting military mentality' which was still prevalent in the civil service at the time. Today, architecture and design have become more human and 'the expectations and awareness of good design have been heightened' in a positive way.
'There are many different ways to judge 'good' architecture, ' he explains. 'It could be judged on 20 or so different criteria.' These he suggests could range from the scheme's costeffectiveness to its grandeur, and from its sustainable credentials to its harmony with its setting or a number of other 'dimensions of accomplishment'. He recognises that some of these criteria conflict (for example a grand building may not be the most cost effective) and concludes that one should identify the 'key priorities' at the start and stick to them. The extent of compliance with these indicators enables judgements to be made about the design's success.
Reid does not want to advocate a dictatorial approach to design criteria, but nor is he in favour of interminable participation. He believes the architect has a duty to impose clarity on the design process, although he suggests that the best key indicators derive, not from participation and consensus per se, but from 'mutual respect'. Architecture is not 'the outcome of market research', but must be a process of developing the brief with the client with 'confidence and humility'. The indicators, by which the performance of the building will be judged, must be set authoritatively.
Reid is not a practitioner so he brought a student project to the table, at first appearing a little sheepish but quickly warming to the task.
There followed a faux-spontaneous student crit, which gave a clue as to how he managed to win the Bannister Fletcher Prize for the highest marks in final examinations. His preparation is first rate.
The design was for a car park for 1,200 vehicles on a hypothetical site in Walthamstow, before the Victoria Line was a twinkle in the eye of transport planners. Because concrete 'is not uplifting', and Reid was always looking for 'new added value approaches to bring to the party', he designed a Ferris wheel.
His challenge to the run-of-themill 1960s car park layouts which were springing up all over the place was an impressive steel structure, which may have been ahead of its time, with parking in five-car gondolas. Interestingly Reid, 30 years on, is more effusive about the management, maintenance and mechanical workings of the wheel, than the aesthetics of the design itself.
On another scheme, Reid developed a way to silence any criticisms that his school building's schemework design had not been thought out sufficiently thoroughly. By drawing a variation of a plan on each leaf of a book, and cutting the pages horizontally into strips so that portions of the design could be flipped over to be read with any other page, he produced one million design options!
Woodley School, designed by Hampshire County Council in 1991, is the building Alex Reid chose to demonstrate what he believes good design to be. 'The 'dimension of accomplishment' on which Woodley School stands out, ' he says, 'is its humanity'.
He describes how Woodley School exemplifies humane architecture with the sensitivity of the design towards its user group, developed through intense consultation; in its use of natural materials, offering a soft, empathetic environment; and in its physical layout, resting harmoniously in the site.
He also approves of the subtlety between inside and outside, which is reflected in the building's use of light and the careful mastery of the movement of people and air through it.
'Without being complacent, ' Reid says, 'buildings like Woodley School show that this is as good and exciting a time in architecture as there has ever been.'
On Reid's website, untitled thumbnail images provide visual interest on each page. These pictures are reproductions of schemes by Aalto, another of Reid's favourites.
With the cheeky laugh of Sid James, 'champion of small practices' Brian Godfrey invited me into his offices in Teignmouth, Devon, to discuss his views on architecture and to show me his portfolio of projects.
Converted, or rather adapted, from three residential flats, his office is a cross between a Dickensian showhouse and the set from Rising Damp.
It is the working office of somebody with better things to do than decorate and is delightfully unpretentious.
Godfrey is a utilitarian by nature; above all, a practical practitioner. He has taught architecture and design at the University of Exeter for many years but worked for a long time before gaining his architectural qualifications as a chartered surveyor. He knows the business of architecture from both sides and places great stock on getting things built. 'I laugh when I hear about practices specialising in one thing and another, ' he chuckles. 'We do whatever lands through our door.'
Currently, his workload includes the conversion of a listed building into a swimming pool, a tennis club and a cinema-to-nightclub conversion - 'that has to be designed in three days and built by 1 June'. The luxuries of time to debate 'value added' are not available to Godfrey, although he always tries to educate his clients to raise their aspirations. 'I tell them about sustainability and energy saving materials and all that, but they are generally not interested.
They just want to get the thing built.'
Godfrey chose his own house as his best design work and is circumspect when I say that I might be critical.
'That's OK. I like it and that's all that matters.'
Built 10 years ago, it is perched on a windswept promontory overlooking the sea on one side and with views of Dartmoor from the other. The 220m 2house is located at the end of a narrow lane and is designed to accommodate the natural bend in the site. It is one of those homes for which the phrase 'not everyone's cup of tea' was invented: Alpine render, stone feature wall, hardwood windows, Marley Bold roll, felted balconies, a well-worn leather TV chair and wallpaper cornice friezes. It is the English Riviera retreat of a pipe and slippers family man and has the cosy feel of an individual's design choices.
Internally, it is a very homely series of spaces. Externally, the lawn garden - with nectarines and apricots, plums and palms, and a goldfish pond with 'water feature' - is quite clearly a comfortable retreat in the summer months.
Just before we leave, Godfrey flips open the salmon-pink double garage doors to reveal a mid '70s BMW Batmobile 3.0 CSL; one of only 130 in existence, with aerofoil, spoilers, wide wheels and wing splitters. This rarity (which was rebuilt by Godfrey after a fire in the engine several years ago), reveals a more Rock 'n' Roll dimension to the man. It represents a labour of love which his business does not allow him the luxury of bringing out in his architectural designs.
Godfrey's ideal building is the Parthenon: 'It must be the most perfect building that has ever been built; to see it is to be humbled by the expertise of the designers and craftsmen of so long ago.' His understanding is that there are certain 'eternal rules of proportion which means that its beauty has transcended the ages'. He believes that these rules, exemplified in the Parthenon, used to be understood as a matter of course but are now sadly lacking in mainstream architecture. He is in favour of originality and rule breaking but only once the rules are understood. Nowadays, he says, 'there are only a handful of geniuses that can break them'. Far too many architects don't even know the rules exist.
His favourite architect is Walter Segal - not for any particular building, type of material or construction practice - but for his 'imagination in a variety of skills and innovations'. He admires the fact that Segal carefully thought through every detail in terms of buildability, although Godfrey has not got into the selfbuild market himself. 'I haven't really got the time for it, ' he says.
'I'm a great believer in what's been done before, ' he concludes enigmatically.
'Structure and form is all you need to know.'
Paul Hyett, has been motivated 'entirely through his career' by the need for 'close relationships with clients or the end user' in order to ensure that the complexities of the brief can be developed and understood - by all sides. Though every building is different, the issues of access, flows and adaptability always require careful examination.
Hyett thinks it is vital that building designers understand - or are taught to understand - the building as it will be in the urban fabric.
Architects need a 'certain humility based on a broader appreciation of their actions, ' and should, if appropriate, consider 'suppressing a design so as not to compete with others'.
Hyett does not like 'loud and inappropriately obtrusive buildings'.
'Architecture should always lift the spirit, ' he says. He takes it for granted that architecture should 'add value'.
Such buzzwords have obfuscated the real objectives of architecture and he claims to not indulge them too much.
Architects, he says, through their designs, should always seek a higher agenda. 'We, as professionals, have a duty to clients but also to unborn generations. I have a deep concern for ecologically sustainable design, which I think is absolutely crucial to the development of a new aesthetic.'
The London Ambulance Station, designed by Hyett Salisbury Whiteley, is an extension and conversion of the practice's design for a 'reinvented warehouse', originally built for an arts supplies company in 1989.
The brief was tricky. It required two unconnected control centres; a new communication centre from which to monitor and direct London's fleet of ambulances, and an independently-located administration and training facility. The client's demands for security set this scheme apart and resulted in a tight brief and intensive consultation.
For reasons of economy, the original building was deemed 'good enough' to refit, although the geometries have made for awkward detailing. The existing steel lattice rafters crash through new glazed partitions uncomfortably, with unsightly cut glass, silicone jointing and unwieldy gaskets. However, the space itself is airy and maintains its link to, and yet separation from, the secure training facility rather well, so that the enjoyable large scale of the building is not lost.
Alterations are never easy and this was no exception. Internally the spaces are crammed with what seem to be MFI beech veneer cupboards, (fit out by the client), which hinder a real appreciation of the doubleheight space. Externally, the building is marred by badly stained gable brickwork and coiled barbed wire around the base of the radio mast.
Other details do not work particularly well; the balustrading has been cannibalised by the client and the external plinth detail at the glazing threshold seems badly thought out.
However, this is workaday architecture in practice - the best results cannot always be achieved but, in the long run, the building functions well, is enjoyed by users and the client is happy. These might not be the only criteria for an AJ building study, but are essential ingredients for the work of a mainstream architectural practice.
'Carlo Scarpa's Castlevecchio is so important to me, ' says Paul Hyett. 'It opened up a whole new conversation to do with the regeneration of an existing fabric. It integrates the new into the old so well that it expresses, for me, a valuable opposition to the trend for comprehensive redevelopment as a solution to problems.'
Hyett is a great believer in 'consistency of scale within a streetscape, without sameness'. He is effusive in his praise for this 'evolution not revolution' in architecture. The narrative style of design and understanding a brief is something which has certainly coloured his practices'attitude to architecture and the built environment. Hyett readily admits he has borrowed heavily from the Castlevecchio in his recent work, especially the symbolic use of water, for example - as a healing and purifying force - in the design of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. 'Buildings must reflect nature and humanity, ' he says.
Other favoured designs include the RIBA's own headquarters at Portland Place and Stirling's Staatsgalerie in Berlin. Reflecting that he enjoys many different styles and periods of architecture, Hyett muses that architects should 'never stop going and seeing buildings - there is always so much to learn and enjoy'.