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PROFILE

Ft’work’s Clare Richards: ‘There was no real life in my architecture training’

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Filmmaker-turned-architect Clare Richards, founder of ft’work, talks about her struggle with career switch and mission to reset the profession’s social agenda. Ella Jessel reports. Photography Anthony Coleman

In 2003 documentary producer Clare Richards took a high-stakes career gamble. She decided to close her production company and embark on the gruelling seven-year training to become an architect. 

The catalyst for this bold move was her experience producing the award-winning Channel 4 documentary series Tales from the Wasteland, which explored rural and urban poverty and the failure of the welfare state. The programme, filmed in Leeds, East Anglia and County Durham, documented people living in ‘horrific’ circumstances. 

Reflecting on the connection between poorly-built environments and failing communities led Richards to decide to pursue a more practical approach to remedying social problems. Aged 45 and a mother of three, she applied to The Bartlett and was accepted. 

After graduating she worked at Ash Sakula and Penoyre & Prasad, ending up as an associate at Fluid Architects. In 2016 she set up ft’work architects, her own not-for-profit practice. 

But while playing an active role in the profession – she won an RIBA president’s medal in 2010 for her research, titled Happy Communities, and has been active in shaping the draft London Plan – Richards retains an outsider’s perspective. The absence of ‘real life’ in her architecture training left Richards disillusioned. Now, through ft’work, she is making it her mission to – in her own words – ‘revive the social purpose of architecture’.

So how does a non-profit architecture firm work? And does she now find herself in a better position to help failing communities? 

Richards had always nurtured ambitions to become an architect, but ended up working in television instead, she explains when we meet at a café in Hackney Wick in east London. As a producer for the ’80s and ’90s national breakfast television broadcaster TV-am, she found herself handed the ‘heavy’ subjects: homelessness in the USA, infanticide, teenage sex and young carers. 

Her decision to switch careers was a game of Russian roulette

Her decision to switch careers was, she says, a game of Russian roulette, telling herself if she was accepted onto the prestigious Bartlett course she would take the place. ‘I knew they took the occasional oddball,’ she says. ‘They took me on the strength of an A-level art portfolio done in the 1970s and some film clips.’ 

She started her undergraduate course at the same time her eldest son went to university and with her youngest only nine. ‘It almost killed me,’ she recalls. ‘It’s an unbelievably challenging course, especially when you have three kids.’ 

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But it was not just the heavy workload that was hard; what she also found difficult was that the course seemed disconnected from reality. She says: ‘I was interested in social narrative, but tutors looked at me with blank expressions. It was all birds flying across dystopian cities. When I put any kind of social narrative into my work there was a lot of sucking of teeth.’

This chasm between ‘real life’ and architecture at The Bartlett surprised her. ‘It didn’t occur to me at all it could exist. If architecture has a social purpose, we need to be trained to understand what it is. But over time architecture training has been devised to be design-led. Design has always been the thing that is awarded. Just look at architecture awards.’

I was interested in social narrative, but [the Bartlett] tutors looked at me with blank expressions. It was all birds flying across dystopian cities

So did these frustrations change her original belief in architecture’s capability to effect change? Not entirely. Richards says architects can fix communities, but only as part of a collaborative approach. 

‘We cannot on our own go out and transform people’s lives unless we stop displacing existing communities. They are terribly easy to destroy but take years to build. The more divisive we are in the way we regenerate, the less likely we are to sustain a successful community.

‘There is some kind of assumption that the built environment profession can go out and transform places, that that’s what we do, that design is transformative. The trouble is, it isn’t. Take the analogy of a failing school. Pulling it down and rebuilding it won’t make it better; it has to be a combined effort.’ 

Asked if she feels she is more or less influential in this regard than in her previous career, Richards says claims that documentary-makers are influential can also be overblown. She says: ‘You can make three hours of TV on poverty and it will make quite a lot of noise, but then after a few weeks it’s gone.’ 

Her belief in a collaborative, grassroots approach to development is the driving force behind ft’work’s approach to architecture. The practice supports bottom-up, community-led projects. It is funded by ft’work trust, which in turn is backed by private donations. ‘I’m fortunate not to have to pay myself a wage,’ says Richards. 

There’s an assumption that the built environment profession can go out and transform places, that design is transformative. It isn’t

Ft’work has not yet built any projects, but collaborates with those that are building. Richards says: ‘It’s a different kind of model. People might wonder how you can be an architecture practice if you’re not designing. But I’m talking about designing communities.’

Ft’work’s latest initiative is My Place, a project it is piloting in 2020 in north London with Manor House Development Trust. It aims to involve children and young people in estate regeneration by offering them training and the chance to collaborate in the design process. Richards says: ‘My Place is building something, but it might not be a building.’ 

Under the scheme, the local authority or developer would provide a small plot on the estate, expertise and project management help, plus a supply of recycled or leftover materials.  

Richards envisions the spaces, manned by young volunteers, as a tool not only to educate, but to host events. Other ft’work projects include Tentropolis, a proposal to use, in partnership with a homeless charity, vacant high street premises as temporary accommodation for the increasing number of London’s rough-sleepers.

Ft’work has also worked on New Ground, a celebrated co-housing project for older women in north London.

In addition to its own projects, ft’work provides support for community organisations such as Creative Wick, a social enterprise which campaigns to protect Hackney Wick’s grassroots creative economy. The collaboration will result in a new project – Living Lab, a research centre where participants will work to develop solutions to problems arising from the gentrification of the area.

As well as being architect and patron to projects such as these, the polymathic Richards is also a prolific campaigner, whether it be organising and sponsoring a new social impact award for New London Architecture, or working with RIBA Education to develop a platform with schools of architecture to debate the social purpose of the profession. ‘I’m not afraid to push at doors,’ she says.

After reading the London Mayor’s 500-page Draft London Plan and submitting a detailed consultation response, she was invited to take part in the evaluation in public. ‘Only one other architect [Levitt Bernstein’s Julia Park] was invited to speak. Why? Doesn’t that tell you something?’ she asks, incredulous. 

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Ft’work’s London Plan response has been distilled into six ‘social design principles’. They include: preventing the displacement of existing communities; protecting social infrastructure where it already exists; and addressing social needs as a precondition for development and regeneration. 

At first glance these are basic principles, common sense even. But it is easy to think of examples of regeneration schemes or masterplans that would not conform to them. 

Is there tension between such baseline social commitments and the need to build large amounts of housing, and quickly? ‘Absolutely,’ says Richards. ‘The only way it is viable for developers to build affordable homes is to fund them through building top-end flats that can be cross-subsidised.

‘That model doesn’t work. It has been working for investors and developers, but it hasn’t been working for the people who live in these places.’ 

Pension funds are beginning to see the benefits of investing in the long-term growth of a community

Richards looks instead to a new ‘slow burn’ investment model that is emerging. Pension funds, for example, are a type of investor that needs to have a consistent, long-term return for its money. 

‘They are beginning to see the benefits of investing in the long-term growth of a community, too,’ she says. 

Schemes like RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street or the resident-led Marklake Court development in Southwark, designed by Bell Phillips, are, she says, ‘demonstrably successful’. 

Richards is one of a small group of architects going out of their way to speak up about poor development. Asked if the profession needs to take a more active stance, she points to the example of the national backlash over the redevelopment of Baylis Old School in south London, in which children in social housing units were barred from using a communal playground.

‘People from top to bottom, including the housing minister, said it [the segregation] was outrageous,’ says Richards. ‘Why aren’t we architects saying it’s outrageous?’ 

Richards concedes the nature of procurement and competition means many architects simply ‘aren’t in a position’ to speak out about the social impact of their projects, as they need the work. She recalls: ‘I asked one architect why they do these projects, if they criticise them in private. The reply was “because if we don’t, a less good architect will do it”.’

Richards wants the construction industry as a whole to push for a more socially aware, community-led approach. ‘The bit ft’work can do,’ she says, ‘is to share knowledge and best practice, while provoking a debate around policy change.’

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