Teaching the lessons of life Kate Heron, head of architecture at the University of Westminster, stresses the importance of diversity in education and practice
Any architecture student at the University of Westminster who looks to the chair of the department for guidance on rigidly planning a career will be disappointed. But if they want to follow their instincts and act on opportunities, they could scarcely find a better role model. Kate Heron, who is just starting her second year in the post, has spent her life following her nose. 'I have never stopped doing one thing before starting doing something else,' she says.
This approach has brought its fair share of frustrations and disappointments, and she does not have an enormous corpus of built work. But she runs a well-respected small practice with her partner; her role at the university follows years of part-time teaching; she heads the architecture group at the Arts Council, where the role of architecture is currently part of the larger debate; she was involved with a Design Council think tank; and she designed last year's Shaker exhibition at London's Barbican.
Her first year at Westminster was made more hectic by helping her father, Patrick Heron, prepare his retrospective at London's Tate. Her partner, Julian Feary, has translated her father's drawings into an impressive sculpture/wind baffle for London's Stag Place and, concurrent with the London Tate exhibition, the Tate in St Ives has put on a show of Feary's collaborations with Patrick Heron.
Heron describes the practice's work as 'a lot of small domestic things, a lot of art-related things'. Sadly, one of the largest projects, a new building for the Camden Arts Centre, failed to get Arts lottery funding. 'We were very unhappy about it,' Heron said, 'It is terribly difficult when you are looking for work to have things in your portfolio that aren't built.'
Her eclectic career began at the aa alongside Piers Gough and Janet Street- Porter, who became a close friend. After the aa, Heron and fellow student Leon van Schaik spent six months at rmjm's Welwyn Garden City office before setting up their own practice. Their first project was in the Isle of Dogs, Heron's introduction to 'a bit of London that is so interesting' and where she has lived ever since.
She created a small co-ownership housing association by turning a couple of houses into flats, and became involved in the earliest plans for regenerating the area. The practice with Van Schaik ended when he emigrated to South Africa with his wife, and its best-known building was a gallery outside Edinburgh for Ian Hamilton Finlay. Heron took the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney to her next employer, Levitt Bernstein.
While there, she became increasingly involved with Docklands. A project with Katherine Findlay, who was Heron's student at the aa, led to the creation of the Mudchute urban farm. 'I worked on it for three weeks and stayed for eight years,' she reflects.
Around the time of the formation of the lddc, she also became involved with brief-writing for various projects, but 'was itching to get back into designing'. Having met Feary, she set up in practice with him. Their intention was to design buildings with strong social significance. Each partner brings different skills to their work: 'The social strength is on my side,' Heron says. 'Julian is the constructor, almost a product designer.'
Her mixture of idealism and realism makes her much appreciated as a teacher. Former students admire her fairness, her down-to-earth nature, and the fact that she accepts they should have some leisure time. One of her first actions at Westminster was to move all the staff up to the studio floor - a seemingly administrative detail with tremendous impact. The studios themselves are wonderful urban gritty spaces and, says Heron, 'that is how I like people to see the school'.
After a period of great vitality, the school sank into demoralisation, in part caused by threats of a merger with the engineering department. Now, says Heron, 'we need to change the whole spirit of the place; we need to know who we are'.
She feels it is important not to ape the other central London schools: 'My view is that there is not a single star to be taught by: it's the diversity of architecture that is important - and in a city as big as London, you can afford that diversity.' Heron believes that part-time teachers, with one foot in practice, are of fundamental importance, and about half of her 25 staff are part-timers. She also believes that 'bringing in new blood is key'; she is particularly pleased to have appointed Andrew Holmes, an artist and architect who has previously taught at the aa, and to have made David Green a professor.
If she doesn't believe there is one defined way to design, she has no doubt about what the major issues are: 'I think the most important thing at the moment is to get the relationship with clients right,' she says.
Although at the end of her first year Heron was feeling swamped by administration, she believes that her experience in practice fits her for tasks such as dealing with budgets. While she brings the skills of practice to education, her mix of common sense and idealism should prepare those she teaches for a fulfiling life in practice.