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Lubetkin Prize-winner Gianni Botsford talks to the AJ

Gianni Botsford tells Richard Vaughan about having his father as the client for his award-winning house in Costa Rica.

So how do you feel about winning the Lubetkin Prize for Casa Kike?
I’m really surprised actually. I didn’t think the scale would overtake the other considerations, but I think it’s nice that it was treated on exactly the same level. So I’m really pleased. It’s great!

Why did this building win?
I think there is a great human desire to be close to nature that this project satisfies. And that’s very much to do with the relationship between the architecture and its surroundings. The house is built from what surrounds it. The trees are cut down locally – there’s no stockpiling, you have to go and find the tree and get permission to cut it down. And then they cut down only on a full moon. It’s something to do with the sap apparently. If you want to build straightaway without treating the wood that’s what they do.

How important is it for a smaller architect to be recognised like this?
I think it’s amazing that we’re recognised on that level – I think it’s strange for a small practice. But it’s clearly not to do with size. It’s about how you approach a problem, regardless of the scale. We work at all sorts of scales, although we’re a small practice, and we would like to get bigger.

How important is it in light of the economic climate, and the possibility of a recession?
I have no idea, but the first person who came up to me was one of the people who won the Client of the Year Award [Coin Street Community Builders]. So that was pretty good. He gave me his card, said ‘give me a call’. I’d like to think it will help bring in work, and recognise what we do.

What was it like having your father [the writer Keith Botsford] as client on Casa Kike?
It was more difficult than I thought it would be – that was until I got him to understand what an architect does, and how they think, and how they need to operate. The only way I did that was to explain to him that what he was doing, which was essentially meddling, was like what an editor does to a writer. That’s something that I have known has always upset him – taking the last sentence out, removing the last paragraph to make it fit. And he suddenly clicked, he suddenly said ‘OK, you’re the architect’. And from then on he became a driving force for the project because he was permanently in Costa Rica. And we did it. We built it in six months. It’s a real change-over for a father to see, it’s almost a power shift – to have your son tell you this is how it’s going to be.

How is your relationship now?
He is very happy there. He was commissioning his first piece of architecture, and I think he imagined a colonial-esque house with four walls and a front door. But when we started analysing the site, the topology of the site, the wind and how we could make it naturally ventilated, as well as the fact that the volume of the building needs to house 17,000 books, he started to recognise a traditional house wouldn’t work.

How easy was it to work with you being in London?
My father was the one having to shout at the contractors. Eventually we gave up on drawings and took a physical 1:20 model of the structure and said to the contractors: ‘Build this full size.’ That was the point at which they all understood what the project would be. We would build models of the junctions and they would experiment, but drawings were redundant. It was a really nice way to work.

What were the major challenges you faced on the project?
To design a naturally ventilated building to house books, art and a grand piano in a hot and humid country is very difficult. We didn’t have an engineer, although we did have a structural engineer whose fees were probably less than two tickets to tonight’s [prize-giving] dinner. We did a lot of research to understand the climate. If you went just 100m inland from our site the air is very different.

How do the planning laws in Costa Rica compare with those in the UK?
Well, there are planning laws in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t say we necessarily complied with every single one of them, but we’re working towards doing that. The project is actually an extension to an existing property.

One of Richard Rogers’ first major buildings was his parents’ house; do you hope for a similar trajectory for your work?
I want to build interesting projects for interesting clients in interesting places. I think it’s a very close, emotional thing to do. It’s one very good test for an architect.

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