The AJ talks to its ex-editor and former Open City chief Rory Olcayto about his new role at Pollard Thomas Edwards and explores what an in-house architectural writer and critic will actually do
Why did you decide to leave Open City?
Joining Open City in 2016 was always part of a wider plan in terms of the industry skills I wanted to develop.
After eight years at AJ, including two as editor, I felt I had built an understanding of how the profession works, thinks and feels. Running Open City was about developing a more public understanding of architecture through Open House London and the charity’s learning programmes.
At Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), I want to use the skills and knowledge gained in both roles and apply them to the wide range of town and city-making projects the practice is deeply engaged with. But I’m also returning to practice. I studied architecture and worked for architects in Glasgow, Istanbul and Liege before I turned to journalism.
Is there anything you will miss?
The volunteers. In truth, without them, Open City wouldn’t exist. Some have been there for more than 20 years, since the early days of Open House in the 90s. The unpretentiousness of the whole endeavour too, was a breath of fresh air.
What does your role as writer and critic at Pollard Thomas Edwards entail? And how honest can you be?
Firstly, there’s a lot of writing to do in architectural practice. From establishing the narratives that underpin a design project to writing compelling planning submissions and proposals for new projects.
But it’s more wide-ranging than that: our plan is to develop a new culture of writing, research and criticism to support the intense design challenges facing the practice. We want to embed these skills, making them a more integral part of the studio’s design toolkit.
Writing, storytelling and powerful, inclusive narratives can really help to drive all aspects of architectural and urban design.
My colleagues want me to be honest. There’d be no point to the role otherwise
The team is also confident enough to admit they need a bit of critical distance from their own work. There are so many daily pressures in responsible practice (time, cost, legal and technical) that architects need constant refreshment and encouragement to maintain their design ambitions. So, yes – my colleagues want me to be honest. Very honest! There’d be no point to the role otherwise.
Crystal Wharf on the Regent’s Canal designed by PTE
Are there any precedents for this kind of role in the industry?
Well as you know Grimshaw had a poet-in-residence, Lionheart, throughout last year.
My role at PTE is different, but the point is that architectural practice is growing up. Firms are hiring appropriately skilled professionals to take on new tasks, rather than assigning one of their architects to the job.
Many bigger architects, Foster + Partners for example, employ a wide range of professionals, including writers and artists to supplement architectural skills.
My brief is quite PTE-specific, however. There’s already a culture of writing in the practice, with some partners producing expert publications for the likes of RIBA. I’ll be building on foundations already there.
Why does an architecture practice need an in-house writer and critic?
Design cultures are often quite defensive, or rather guarded entities, and to be frank, need to be regularly challenged. That can be hard to do when you’re in the thick of it, so writers, especially those with journalistic backgrounds who like digging and are naturally curious, can help maintain and develop design cultures by doing what they do best – close reading and constructive criticism.
Do you expect the practice’s architects to have to change their behaviours?
Definitely. PTE’s teams want to change the way they think and act. This role has emerged out of a long conversation with the partners at PTE over the past couple of years. We’ve developed the role together on the basis that the practice is naturally reflective and, given the very public nature of much its work, wants to continually improve upon what it does.
PTE’s teams want to change the way they think and act
Giving shape to the intellectual qualities of the work it undertakes is crucial, in my view, to job satisfaction. It’s great knowing something is on time and budget and the client and end-users are happy. But having a strong sense of the strategic, philosophical and artistic qualities that underpin those real-world successes, and knowing that you’ve contributed to them, is of equal value too.
How will you know if your role has been a success?
Partly it will be reflected in how others come to see PTE in the coming years – as the pioneering outfit it always has been. Maintaining that perspective within a very busy studio environment and sharing it with the wider world will go some way to establishing why this kind of role is crucial to contemporary practice.
What is your favourite PTE building and why?
That’s tough – because I have three. One is PTE’s own workplace, Diespeker Wharf, a fantastic industrial refit with a garden and courtyard alongside Regent’s Canal. Another is just next door, Crystal Wharf, which is home to both Stanton William Architects and 50-plus apartments. It’s still one of the best new canal-side buildings in London in my view, and PTE acted as developer and architect.
The Avenue does what Marmalade Lane does without the added hype
The other is The Avenue, in Saffron Walden, a lovely ensemble of homes that at first glance has a kind of nouveau Arts & Crafts feel and pretty much does what Town and Mole’s rightly celebrated Marmalade Lane does, but without the added hype.
PTE’s The Avenue, in Saffron Walden (2014)
How is PTE responding to the government’s plans for more and better homes, and how does your appointment support that?
In the wake of the Living with Beauty report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the government seems poised to encourage design quality through local engagement. Obviously, this is something PTE is going to work with and is already very adept at – I can’t think of another practice of similar scale that is so involved with the communities it serves – and clearly my role will play into this.