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Invisible success

people Derek Latham's company succeeds despite contradicting the general assumptions about how an architect should operate

Derek Latham arrived late for a crucial meeting with an important prospective client. The client asked why, and Latham told them he'd been explaining to'a little old lady' that her house was not in imminent danger of falling down. 'So you thought she was more important than our company?' asked one of the interviewers. Latham met this head on: if the company wanted to secure planning permission for its schemes, it must carry the public with it. That meant taking time to listen, explain and reassure. The client - Tarmac - gave him the job.

That somehow typifies the Latham approach. The Derek Latham Company flies against many widespread assumptions about what an architectural practice needs for success. Though it is in a real sense a national practice, it has no London office and doesn't want one; it declines to have a distinctive house style; and it refuses to enter competitions, thriving on appointment by interview. The Latham approach is to look critically at the brief and if necessary rethink it: 'stepping back two paces in order to go forward three'. Indeed, says Latham, 'in the majority of jobs we've done, we've been the most expensive. We say to a prospective client, 'We've looked at your brief and we've found it wanting. This is what we'll do.' All the jobs we've won with the public sector, we've won on that basis.'

Latham was switched on to architecture as a teenager by Greek temples. He took part in an international scout Jamboree which included a trip to Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia and Athens: 'I was bowled over.' He studied architecture at Leicester, arguing in his thesis against clean-sweep redevelopment and for a more organic form of urban renewal. And this was in 1968.

The time to put these ideas into practice came when, working for Derby city council, he was required to design a huge housing scheme including 270 old persons' units, all concentrated in one place. This would have meant the residents (mostly in their 70s) seeing two or three funerals a day during the dark, high-mortality month of November. Rather than be party to that, he resigned - only to have the director of planning phone within hours offering him a job. He soon found himself drafting a letter rejecting the housing scheme, and writing briefs for a more humane kind of urban renewal.

He subsequently spent four fruitful years as design and conservation officer with Derbyshire county council, playing a key role in setting up the county's first historic buildings trust and in several of its projects. Along the way he acquired town-planning and landscape qualifications. He moved into private practice because he was 'about to be promoted out of design and into administration'. With a former colleague, Michael Wood, he set up what became the Wood Latham Newton Partnership. In 1980 he established his own practice, which in 1989 became the Derek Latham Company.

He set up on his own because Wood and Newton considered a renewal scheme he wanted to do - the Railways Cottages in Derby - too risky financially. 'They were right,' admits Latham. Yet that scheme pioneered the kind of 'urban micro-surgery' which Latham & Co has since practised so effectively. Railway Cottages involved radical re-use of both buildings and land, with selective demolition and new build as well as the restoration of railway workers' houses.

A more recent example of Latham micro-surgery is its £8 million new hq for the King's Fund's in London's Cavendish Square. From the square, it looks as though little has happened. Behind it, Victorian and Edwardian buildings have been given a more radical treatment; a 1950s/60s block has been demolished and replaced by a large-floorplate conference space; and a dramatic conservatory roof has been inserted. The client now has the extra high-quality space it wanted, but the job is so low-profile that the public and architectural press have scarcely noticed.

In many ways Latham & Co suffers from being 'invisible' from where architectural critics sit and write. The practice has no single, easily recognisable style, preferring to let circumstances guide appearance. It operates from Derby, which is a highly efficient base in terms of mobility. This is demonstrated in an area of work which is a practice staple: schools. Led by director Alan Dale, the schools team operates all over the country, identifying how to supply each school's needs, and delivering affordable chunks of new accommodation to time and within budget.

The 1989 change to limited company status has been a success, says Latham. The timing was fortunate, but - more important - it removes the automatic link between ownership and architectural advancement. His co-owners are Stuart Hodgkinson and Alan Dale.

Public art is a long-standing Latham cause. Relations between architect and artist require clarity and empathy, he says. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he helped Sir Ernest Hall to establish an rsa centre at Dean Clough. He also has a book due to be published by Donhead early next year. The title: Creative Reuse.

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