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George Ferguson: architect at home

I came to university in Bristol and that simple choice was the biggest life-changing decision I could possibly have made. I was attracted to Bristol in the first place because I thought it was a very diverse city.

It is big enough to be interesting and have its own culture but small enough to get your head around it.

It has always been my aim to play a part in it and I always have played a part in it. In the ‘70s I was involved in Bristol politics. I escaped from that deliberately to do things in the city in another way. I enjoy making things happen. That was why I bought the Tobacco Factory to stop it being demolished and took it as an opportunity to demonstrate the things I believe in which are beyond architecture.

I think you are only ever doing a certain amount by putting up a building, you need to do an awful lot more to bring a building to life. And that has been the exercise I have gone through with the Tobacco Factory. I opened a theatre, started a restaurant, café bar, included creative industry workspace, educational space for animation and dance and other performing arts. There is a farmers’ market and a brewery.

I live on the top of the Tobacco Factory, I’ve been there for seven years. I felt that if I was to keep control of the dream of what I wanted to achieve it would be better for me to be there. All of my extra-curricular activities from architecture are to do with making these things happen which I really enjoy. And I think they make every bit as much of a difference as architecture does itself.

The Tobacco factory is a four-storey, very robust, red brick building with a steel frame. It has factory north lights, very high ceilings. When I bought it, it was in good structural condition but all the windows were broken, the roof was leaking because all the lead had been stolen and it was full of pigeons and buckets catching drips. On the top floor I stripped out all of the partitions, and rearranged it into 7 loft apartments of which I have one.

The detailing of the apartment is very raw, very crude. I’ve used standard industrial fittings to make the kitchen, bookshelves etc. The quality is all to do with the space and the light and the view.

That is where I sleep and live and entertain, but my dining room is the café bar downstairs, the theatre is my telly - I don’t have a real telly. And I love going to see all the kids and people dancing in the studio, and being there for the Sunday market in the car park, having the brewery around the corner. It’s good urban living. It’s not for everybody but I can’t imagine living any other way now.

I’m seeking a sustainable city, I encourage cycling for example. And I’m making a small film about the cycle city at the moment. That is something I do a lot of outside of architecture; broadcasting. Or a bit of radio. And I write for the local paper as well, a weekly column called ‘By George’. I write about anything that comes to mind. This week I’m writing about what would happen if Sarah Palin ran Bristol – a scary article! The column doesn’t have to be about architecture but it does tend to have a planning or architectural bias.

I’ve always had a great interest in historic buildings and historic places. Too often we have turned our backs on the lessons to be learnt from great places. And the other thing is that I like to have an effect beyond the building of buildings as objects. Which leads to regeneration and masterplanning - how you can impinge positively on people’s lives. That was my ambition at the Tobacco factory.

I virtually only travel for work these days but I always turn it into pleasure. And where I can I go by train, I don’t mind the journey taking longer. I take my laptop, which is my mobile brain really. I enjoy the process of train travel. Because flying is just a pragmatic solution, plus one feels a twinge of guilt as well everytime one does it.

I’m a regular subscriber to several architectural magazines. I dip in and out of AJ. I am intrigued by some of the articles. I primarily read for ideas - great thinkers like Ruskin for example. But I’m not a very good novel reader. So I enjoy reading serious magazines. One can definitely enrich one’s architecture and creativity by looking at what other people have done. There is a great danger of being trapped by that too.


I have a concern about architectural magazines, that they are able to steer the concerns of the industry. There is a grave danger of learning your architecture from magazines. Magazines should be about ideas, they shouldn’t be about imposing styles or particular ways of doing things.

The technical information found in magazines is less interesting to me these days. Although I am very interested in the technical information surrounding environmental issues – the information that pushes things forward.

George Ferguson is chairman of Bristol-based Acanthus Ferguson Mann architects. He was president of the RIBA from 2003-2005

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