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Charles Holland: 'Architecture is an art but running a practice is a business'

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Former FAT director Charles Holland talks about his new direction, making architecture pay and the marginalisation of the profession

Why did Ordinary Architecture, which you set up with Elly Ward in 2014, come to an end?
I wanted to bring the various activities I do – practice, teaching and research – under one roof. And I moved out of London to Deal in Kent, which gave me an opportunity to change how I worked and to establish a different kind of practice.

My professorship at Brighton has also given me an opportunity to develop closer links between practice and research and to look at regional development questions in a more ambitious way.

In terms of what the practice achieved, what are you most proud of?
I was very pleased with Origins, our exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to exhibit there and it was an ideal venue to make an exhibition about the origins of architecture – the cultural stories that lie behind its forms – because the RA has been so instrumental in forming them. 

How would you describe your new venture, Charles Holland Architects?
It is more multidisciplinary … including research and writing as part of my architectural practice. It has also allowed me more freedom in terms of how to approach projects and which ones to take on. For instance, I am working on a project with another architect, Piers Taylor, which is a new and exciting way to work. The project is in Almere in Holland, which I have been very interested in for a long time in connection with self-build and new towns. So there is a continuum between practice and research as well as a fluid way to collaborate with other people.

As a small practice, how is business and what does the future look like?
Moving has opened up a number of interesting opportunities. I’m currently working on a new house in the country, the regeneration of a historic high street and Chalk-Up 21, a public art project celebrating the architecture of Kent. I’m also doing a house and studio for a graphic designer in south London, and the house in Holland.

Cha house kent crop

Cha house kent crop

House in Kent

So business feels healthy from a personal point of view. The post-election sense of the country rejecting both austerity and hard Brexit are reasons to be optimistic too.

How do you find new work?
Mainly it is about growing a network of potential clients; this is the most effective route to work of all. But I also do the usual mix of invited bids, some speculative bids and the very occasional competition. I’ve learnt to be very specific though; only pursue projects you genuinely think you have a chance of winning and where you think you offer something that the client really wants. 

We’ve lost the ability to plan new settlements

What one thing could the government do for you?
The one obvious area the government could improve is housing, particularly beyond the enclaves of London and other big cities. I am very interested in new settlements in semi-rural and suburban areas but the quality of new housing in these areas is often very poor and there are big problems in terms of transport and infrastructure.

We’ve lost the ability to plan new settlements – large villages and small towns – as places that can enhance rather than detract from the countryside, and this is an area where long-term strategic thinking and investment is required.

How has the profession changed since you began at FAT?
It has become a more hospitable place for young practices, less riven by reductive stylistic rules. In many ways it is in much better health design-wise, but architects are often more marginalised within the decision-making process. Too much development happens without their (positive) influence.

Do you have any advice to anyone wanting to set up a new practice now?
My main advice is not to give it all away for free. Value what you do. Architecture is an art but running a practice is a business.

Charles Holland Architects

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