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Roland Paoletti on 'The Role of the Client'

The following is a transcript of a talk given by Roland Paoletti at a RIBA conference held at the Millennium Dome on 19 October 1999

Although I was born in London, I actually left London in 1960 and went to Italy, and apart from a few weeks here and there, I’ve never been back until I was called back in 1990, 30 years later. So I came back like Rip van Winkle, knowing very little about London and very little indeed about London architects, which may be one of the secrets of why the Jubilee Line is what it is.

During those 30 years, apart from going to university in Venice for a little while, I spent a number of years in Italy - a lot of it with Pier Luigi Nervi- and then in Hong Kong. Apart from designing skyscrapers at the beginning for Hong Kong Land, I spent many years on the Hong Kong mass transit railway. In 1983, while I was on the mass transit railway, we got an enquiry from the minister of transport and communications in Singapore, who wanted to see me. They were about to start the underground railway there.

All I can say is that talking to this man who was the client for the Singapore system, I think I did more for Singapore in one morning, than I’d managed to do in the last seven or eight years in Hong Kong working full time. The reason was this: that by some miracle the minister of transport and communications, who is now president of Singapore, was actually an architect. So actually what I said he heard, and what he heard he did. So it’s about communication.

When I was asked to come to London I went round the system with one of the London Transport architects and he told me something that rather shocked me: that the architectural department never did the planning, the volumes, the space of the underground stations. They were actually given it by the civil engineers, and the architect just did the fit-out.

That had always been the case in London since the very beginning, even in Charles Holden’s time. Holden didn’t manage to get underground except one level down at Piccadilly and one tremendous shot at Gant’s Hill. Otherwise it was all surface work. So within the English context, the Jubilee line is quite unique in that the architects, for the first time ever, have done the total underground station.

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Southwark Station by MJP Architects

Now, with civil engineers it is a very private world. Civil engineers are very very brilliant in the way they‘ve managed to contain this world. They haven’t invented quantity surveyors. They control the lot. And architects really are not welcome. And I can see why they’re not. They interfere very much with a very comfortable situation.

The Jubilee Line architects got in at the very beginning and within a year and a half designed the stations

Anyway, for better or for worse, the Jubilee Line architects got in at the very beginning and within a year and a half designed the stations. I want to separate the construction of the stations- the cost, the time lag - from the actual essential bit that the architects did, which was the design.

The speed with which the stations were designed was, I believe, the secret of their success. As we are in this great tent, I’ll talk about North Greenwich and Canary Wharf. I’m very proud of this great Dome here because we fought very hard for that North Greenwich station with the Ministry of Transport. When it was looking for cost savings, it was the first thing it jumped on was because there was nobody there. In fact, that station was the catalyst for the making of this great tent, because when the little committee from the government visited, they came to the station, saw that it was already finished, and said: ‘We will make it here, the millennium celebration.’

In this case I was determined that the architect would have freedom to do things that he would not be allowed to have on other schemes because of the client organisation. I knew that I would be given leeway because the site itself was abandoned therefore they couldn’t say: ‘People won’t like it’ because there were no people to not like it. On that basis I managed to get the station done. But I wanted a rather maverick architect, and strangely enough, in spite of Post-Modernism and all the rest of it, there seemed to be few around. A young Brazilian architect that I had in my little group that I’d got from an agency, just to start the whole thing up, said, ‘Oh there’s this Alsop and Lyall.

They’re good: I visited its office and I can honestly say the practice was enormously uninterested, even more uninterested, believe it or not, than Rogers. If ever I got the brush-off, it was from Rogers, who afterwards regretted it, I think. Alsop was the same. They were busy, they were doing other things. You’ve got to realise that seven stations at the end of the existing Jubilee Line in the East End represented nothing to an architect. Because what was the precedent?

So to actually convince them to come aboard was not easy at all. We put an advertisement in the Telegraph, and the only architect who’s now in it that answered was Troughton McAslan. None of the others thought it worthwhile. So I had to disguise from the civil engineers what I was after, and at the same time try and invite a reluctant profession in. In the end I managed to convince John Lyall of Alsop’s office to come aboard, because I said there was this great development potential on top of North Greenwich for British Gas, so the practice pricked up its ears at this. It came in and produced that station. I got from Alsop & Lyall much more that I wanted. The poetry of its station has been illustrated 100 times over, and it’s given a feel of freedom to the line. So I owe Alsop & Lyall everything.

So I owe Alsop & Lyall everything.

With Canary Wharf, I didn’t actually approach Foster’s. Strangely enough, he approached me. I tried to convince him not to come aboard. I told him it was a missionary activity and it might do him harm. I knew it couldn’t do any harm to the smaller firms because it would give them publicity. But with the big ones, I actually thought it was going to be such a difficult job it might do them harm.

In spite of that he decided he would do it. What’s interesting in Canary Wharf is that the architects he put on board, David Nelson and Rodney Uren, are not architects at all. And they have done a marvellous job. When I approached Foster, he said ‘Oh Roland, you don’t understand. In my office I’ve created a chemistry. And whether it’s me or whether it’s the others, it happens’. And it was very good, and very true, and very modest. But I was a bit doubtful about the team because David Nelson was by training a furntture designer (he did all the furniture on the the Hong Kong Bank); and Rodney Uren was an industrial designer from Australia. Well, they’ve done that station. We have this most architectural of our stations being done by people from the Royal College of Art. So it’s actually what happens that ‘s important.

With public works the money is so huge and the influence is so enormous, so many people’s lives are affected that the client must be somebody on a par with the architects he chooses, so that each understands what the other is about .lf you have merely a manager, who hasn’t in his own right a sort of prestige in terms of his learning, you won’t get the same result. You need a client with authoritas, the right to be listened to and be obeyed by others because of his knowledge, rather than potestas, which is the power to impose his will on others because of his position in the world.

The brief to the architect was this: you have already got a little sketch of a design which was an engineer’s normal, basic, ordinary and practical station. Come in and give a price for fitting it out.

You’re only in for tiles. Norman Foster was brought in like this. Alsop was brought in like this. They were also given an instruction which was this: ‘You are not actually an architect. You are in as a technical contractor. Come in at this price to do that limited job: However Russell Black, who was the project director and a civil engineer, said: ‘You will all collaborate with me, absolutely, and do what you are told’. The day they were told, ‘you’ve got the job,’ Russell Black sent them a letter reading: ‘You can start work. Oh, by the way, my power is delegated to Roland Paoletti, architect in charge.’ That was it.

I’m going to close with a quotation from Nervi, who I worked with for so long. He used to say: ‘When you are choosing contractors, subcontractors, consultants, what you will, personalise it. Don’t worry about the firm. Find out who is the person. If you’ve chosen the right person, he’ll do his job. And you don’t actually need documentation. No matter what the firm is, if you’ve chosen the wrong person, all the documentation in the world is not going to get you out of the problem you’re in.’

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