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Architecture’s best‑known drop-outs

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Three would-be architects who went on to make their marks in quite different areas

Justine Frischmann: artist, musician

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How did you come to study architecture at the Bartlett?
I wanted to go to art school and my parents persuaded me to study something more ‘practical’. They were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist. My father is a structural engineer (Pell Frischmann chairman Wilem Frischmann) so I think he harboured plans for me to eventually work with him.

I first went to the Architectural Association but everyone was so much older than me – I was only 18. I thought it would be better to switch to a traditional university, and the Bartlett was the obvious choice in central London.

How did you find the course and what did you learn from it?
At the time, the Bartlett was in a great deal of upheaval and the course was pretty messy. Peter Cook came in as the head of school in my last year and things seem to coalesce and improve after that.

For me, the most interesting thing about studying architecture was discovering the way the spirit of a particular time affects the physical shape of things, whether it be buildings, choreography or hemlines. Buildings are the largest and most permanent of these; the hardest to ignore.

Who were your peers and tutors, and does anything stick in your memory from that time?
I had some pretty extraordinary and talented peers during those years. The people who  have become lifelong friends are Tom Sachs, Brett Anderson and Oliver Salway. Oliver is the only one of us who ended up being an architect (Softroom).

I was too young to study architecture when I did

Would you have made a good architect?
Maybe. I think I was too young to study architecture when I did. At the time music seemed so much more seductive and, I suppose, instantly gratifying.

As I get older, buildings become more and more interesting. I have been involved in two sizable building restoration projects here in California over the last five years and enjoyed them enormously.

What was it like being a Stirling prize judge in 2003?
Super fun.There were a lot of magical buildings nominated that year.

Does your architectural training influence your music, your painting and other areas of your life?
I’m not sure if my architectural training directly influenced my music, but it certainly influences my painting – making an object that is of its time, being sensitive to the way the materials go together, and considering the way the details create the whole. 

How do you find living in the San Francisco area, and how is the painting going?
I love the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s phenomenally beautiful. I have a solo show of my work here in November with the George Lawson Gallery.

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Justine Frischmann is an artist and musician best known for being the lead singer of Britpop band Elastica. She studied at the Bartlett from 1989-93 and is now a painter living in California

Fergus Henderson: restaurateur

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What did you take into the world of food from your architectural training?
There are a lot of similarities between food and architecture. Food of course is not permanent but both things affect people. Bones and sucking on bones is quite architectural. I still think of myself as an architect in a funny kind of way.

Like so many architects, I got distracted by kitchens

Why did you change direction and become a restaurateur?
Like so many architects, I got distracted by kitchens. Food was obviously on my mind and a group of us students took over a restaurant.

My parents were very tolerant of the idea of me being a chef; tolerant of the change to cooking, and I think I’ve done OK. The question is how do you make money from restaurants? But people do.

St John Smithfield always seems full of architects. Why do you think that is?
It’s actually a non-architectural space in some ways. It’s a relaxing place with double-height ceilings and that probably appeals to architects. I have been involved in the design of all my restaurants.

Do you do anything else architectural – like draw for instance?
I’ve been working on a book for years now, which I’m illustrating, so, yes, I do draw. It’s a weird book about everything – lasagne, tube trains, deodorant – so it’s fairly eclectic and it’s taking time to take form but we’ll get there.

Bone marrow

Fergus Henderson followed in the footsteps of his architect parents, Brian and Elizabeth Henderson, in training to be an architect, and studied at the Architectural Association from 1984-89. He co-founded the St John chain of restaurants in London and is well known for his philosophy of ‘nose-to-tail eating’ 

Tom Sachs: artist

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How did you come to study at the AA?
I was in an undergraduate programme at Bennington College in the US and was doing a dual major in architecture and sculpture. I’d been taking classes with the dean, Patrick Beale, and he recommended the AA. I didn’t think I really had what it took to be a great sculptor and I thought architecture would be easier.

How did you find your experience there?
The AA was an intense hazing ritual. I was probably in the best unit for me, with tutors Tom Heneghan and Carlos Villanueva Brandt. They were progressive and open to anything. For me they were perfect so I don’t blame them for me dropping out.

Why did you drop out?
I took a class with [industrial designer] Tom Dixon and I really got into it. I decided I didn’t want to do anything but make things. I dropped out after the second trimester and worked for Tom in his shop for the rest of the year. We’re now doing a project together in New York. A visiting lecturer at the AA, Richard Wentworth, also helped me to get in touch with my ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ as he put it and do what felt right. If the world was going to hell in a hand basket and if architecture could not save it, at least I could have an interesting time of it. That’s when I began to seriously cultivate my abilities.

I might have been a better architect in the first half of the 20th century

Would you have made a good architect?
I don’t think I have the emotional capabilities. I would have needed to spend much more time in psychotherapy, addressing and castrating my anger issues. Architecture has become a bureaucratic practice full of building codes, rules for dummies and lazy union obligations. All of this takes away from the creative aspects of architecture. I might have been a better architect in the first half of the 20th century.

Is your work today influenced by your architectural training?
Some of the friends I made at the AA, such as Justine Frischmann, Bob Mantho, Tom Dixon and Richard Wentworth, will influence me for life. After I graduated from Bennington College, I ended up working for Frank Gehry and Knoll. Although I was only in my early 20s, I spent a lot of time with Frank and one of the things he said was that architecture had been replaced by engineering, and I think he meant value engineering. From that, I extrapolated that Frank wasn’t really an architect but an artist (or sculptor) working in the medium of architecture.

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New York-based Tom Sachs studied at the AA in 1987. He is now an artist and sculptor known for his recreations of modern icons in unlikely materials such as Le Corbusier’s 1952 Unité d’Habitation made using foamcore and a glue gun, and Knoll office furniture constructed from phone books and duct tape. Visit www.tenbullets.com

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