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House proud

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PEOPLE: James Gorst is putting together a portfolio of well-judged residential schemes - a far cry from 'weighing' buildings with John Outram. The Lodge at Whithurst will bring more exposure - and maybe an award or two

Nice chap, James Gorst.

The architect who crafted the subject of this week's building study is re-emerging in practice in a new office in Clerkenwell, a building that was once a jail before becoming the 'House of Detention', a museum devoted to the gruesome prison conditions of yesteryear. Happily, the atmosphere there now is quite different.

After years of toiling with the likes of Sir Denys Lasdun, John Outram and, latterly, on his own, Gorst has settled into London's architecture hotspot, Clerkenwell, as the head of a small team specialising primarily in residential projects - residential because Gorst sees houses as the places where all the dramas of people's lives and their 'intense relationships' are played out.

The team comprises Sandy Rendel, formerly of Cullum & Nightingale and Stanton Williams - one of the major players in the Lodge at Whithurst; and Ariane Deffontaines, an ex-staffer with Sheppard Robson who was part of her country's skiing team for five years. The daughter of a French architect, Deffontaines designed the well-received Magma bookshop in Covent Garden and a second in. . . Clerkenwell.

Gorst, an eloquent and friendly man, began - like Rendel - at Cambridge.He read history before moving on to architecture and left to join 'a rather louche' firm called Louis de Soissons, run by Max Gordon and featuring a young Eva Jiricna. Then came Sir Denys Lasdun's office.

'I think he was intrigued and appalled by my portfolio, ' says Gorst of the great man, adding that, at the time, it was full of 'Gravesian things'. But perhaps Lasdun's eye was turned by a large farmhouse in Suffolk from the Gorst pen. Their paths barely crossed, but '[Lasdun] liked the idea of some connection with new currents'.

After a year, Gorst was off again in an effort to 'pull his career together', since all he was really about at Lasdun's was tiling layouts. 'I thought: 'I'm not going to win the Royal Gold Medal like this', ' he recalls.

Next was John Outram's office, the architect who was one of Gorst's tutors at Cambridge.Widely loved for his eccentricity, Outram had an unusual approach to some clients.'He thought developers were like Northerners - they wanted to know what they were getting for their money, ' Gorst remembers. 'So he wanted to try to impress them by calculating the cost of buildings by weighing them! I spent a couple of weeks weighing various elements and we divided the weights by what they cost.'

Gorst stayed with Outram for about six months, working for him three days a week.

He spent the rest of his time surveying flats on his own, perfecting the art down to a 15minute sprint.

Then, in a Covent Garden pub, he was asked to do four shops in Farnworth, Suffolk, and accepted. But there he was, designing and building with no practical experience, no clue about working drawings or about site meetings - and no insurance.

Inevitably, a problem arose - the roof leaked. But after two weeks of 'hacking away' at it, he discovered that it was not his fault.

Evidently, it was a builder's problem since the damp-proofing had not been correctly laid down. 'So I got insurance and felt it was definitely a good thing for an architect to have, ' he says.

Being thought of as a Classical architect 'by default' has always seemed to be Gorst's way. In an early house, he wanted to design a Botta geometric piece for the female shoe designer client. But the brother stepped in and wanted a more traditional feel. So a Soaneian scheme resulted. 'I became estranged from modern architecture - it was not until 1994 that I suddenly lost all this.'

That 'Classical' tag appeared to follow him even further when Prince Charles's eye was drawn to a house that Gorst designed in Chelsea in an Arts and Crafts manner, featured in the now defunct magazine Perspectives. The Prince, currently keeping his hand in on things architectural as the new hospital design 'tsar', liked what he saw and got in touch. HRH was convinced that Gorst was the man to change the direction of his beloved Poundbury.

So Gorst began to design housing there in an 'arhythmic' idiom, but did not see eye to eye with Leon Krier, and so withdrew.

Framed drawings of his housing schemes are all that remain. Yet he has nothing but good to say of the Prince. Some aspects of Poundbury are impressive, he says - the traffic layouts and the level of craft.

'But stylistically it's the wrong decision - it's been done before, so why do it?'

Another project may also dispense with that Classical label, but is touch and go: a client bought a Tudor property in Wickhambrook, Suffolk, and Gorst was given an open brief; the result is a flat-roofed modern extension which has enraged the previous occupier of the house so much that she is campaigning to get it stopped.

'She got the great and the bad of the local neighbours to write in and complain, ' laughs Gorst. 'We were hurtling toward rejection.'

They hope to win on appeal, nevertheless.

The practice appears to be solid financially - not only because it has a good deal of work (schemes include the renovation of a Wells Coates penthouse in Palace Gate, another penthouse in Chelsea, and a scheme that could not be more 'antipodal' to Whithurst, in Eaton Square) - but also, says Gorst, because he has been astute in property, 'taking huge risks', buying and selling at the right time and in the right kinds of places.

A social conscience is high on his agenda, despite working for people such as one client who needed books as decor, so sent Gorst to Tate Modern. He returned from the gallery bookshop with £3,500 of art and architecture tomes, to be 'arranged'. And at one point, Gorst was so disenchanted with some clients that he almost became a probation officer.He'd had the interview and was looking forward to helping children. But then, again, another commission came up.

So what next? 'I'd like to do a public building - something like a small library, ' he says. 'But I'm delighted to be doing this - I'm having more fun than ever.'

Gorst, in his reworked prison, has escaped.

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