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Q&A with PTE's Stephen Fisher: 'These are good times for architecture'

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About to retire after 33 years at Pollard Thomas Edwards, senior partner Stephen Fisher reflects on lessons learned during his architectural life

How has architecture and the profession changed during your career?

The changes have been gradual but quite significant. Back in the 1980s there was far more time, and traditional contracts gave architects a high degree of control. Two recessions have produced a leaner profession where hand drawing has largely given way to the speed and efficiency of the computer.

Changes in legislation and controls were rare, but are now so frequent that processes for auditing and checking are essential. The internet has blossomed, and while this has helped us to inform and communicate, it leaves a mass of clutter that fogs the key information we rely on.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the thought process. Certainly it has been aided with technology, but it essentially relies on architects’ ability to think outside the box, and to quickly review and filter masses of data and options to find that almost elusive goal.

What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming an architect today?

Architectural training is still one of the best career starts. It can open doors to lots of opportunities and specialisms along the way, and offers insights into a diverse range of projects and practices. The change from a largely academic early education to one based on design and creativity is a massive step, and the question ‘is it good enough?’ takes on a whole new meaning where there are only winners, and no losers.

PTE’s owners have a tradition of combining design with developments, and for us this is perhaps the most interesting and widely questioned aspect for students or newly qualified architects. Money is the only building material and we need to spend it wisely, whether it’s ours or our clients’.

What practical business advice do you have for the industry?

Too often architects are left out of key decisions within the industry and we leave the job of gaining strategic positions to too few people. There is a tendency to resist change when in reality we are aptly skilled to see where changes could take us.

Having experienced two major recessions, I can see that forecasting and planning are essential. Having too much or too little work is a daily strain, but seeing emerging patterns and making early shifts in direction are essential. These are good times, so watch for the early signs of change.

What are the highlights of your career?

Becoming a PTE director at 32 in 1987 was a major change. I had to manage even more projects while understanding the needs of a business. This was a new age for housing, and with a growing reputation PTE was bringing a unique approach that coupled good design with homes that people could relate to. We understood each other and worked as a team to produce more. I will miss it.

Now, I’m embarking on a late change in career rather than retirement. For many years I’ve enjoyed being an architect and developer, and I can now afford to choose projects that are interesting and will benefit from the right design approach, and will offer all of the rewards that I’ve enjoyed with PTE for 33 years.

New partners at PTE have ensured that the third generation is well established, so I will no longer have the stresses and strains of a 150+ person practice. Instead, I’ll be a client/designer for perhaps 50-100 homes on a rolling programme. Most important is my intention to work less as I hit 60 and a three-day week will allow a split between London and Cornwall.

What was your favourite project?

There are so many projects it’s hard to have favourites. However, the two where I’ve had total hands-on control are Freston Road (The Independent State of Frestonia) and my second home at Gwithian Towans.

Freston Road was my first project at PTE and in 1985 enabled the rehousing of a group of squatters that had declared independence in the late 1970s. See the AJ front cover and article of 29 April 1987 for the full story!

Freston Road (The Independent State of Frestonia) on the cover of the AJ

Freston Road (The Independent State of Frestonia) on the cover of the AJ

Gwithian Towans is current, and will be my Cornwall base when completed in a week or two. Stunning views from high over the St Ives bay, and where I’ve managed to once again hand draw and consider every detail.

Are you optimistic about the future of the profession?

Very. Over my relatively short career I’ve seen major changes that at times threatened to weaken and diminish the role of the architect. Yet in our competitive environment, there is a strong bond and will to survive.

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