Woman Architect of the Year finalist Julia Barfield talks to Laura Mark about her career in architecture, from building squatter settlements in Peru to devising and completing Brighton’s i360 tower
What made you start a career in architecture?
My parents’ best friend’s father was an architect. He was what made me aware of architecture as an option – it wasn’t really in my family. At school I enjoyed both the arts and sciences. There was a point where they said you had to choose between the two and I thought ‘oh bugger that!’ I didn’t want to choose – I enjoyed maths, science, art, English, history. Architecture is a bridge between the arts and sciences. That is what is great about it.
You spent your year out doing community architecture in Lima. What did you learn from this?
We spent seven months working in a squatter settlement just outside Lima. It was amazing. There was a lot of movement from the countryside into the city and many of the new settlements were very ad hoc, but plans for this one had been drawn up by a group of architects, engineers and planners.
It was so interesting. It was a bit of desert but the kind of desert where if you start putting water on it, it will flower and bloom. So they drew up a whole city plan with roads and plots. As families came they were given a plot – 20m x 7m – and we did a whole series of options for how they could develop the plot over time.
They’d start off with no money, so there would be walls built from woven reed matting, and over time they would be able to afford more so they would gradually get blocks and a concrete structure. We did a series of options so that when they did start to put concrete pillars and blocks down it was in a place where there was a plan for how it would develop in the long term.
What was also really interesting was that there was a whole political structure so that each of the plots would be around a square and groups of 10 to 12 units would have a representative. They organised their own bank and market. It was amazing.
What has that work brought to your practice?
Both David [business partner and husband David Marks] and I were brought up in socially, politically aware families. The whole social side of architecture is very important to us. It’s a natural part of our practice.
You worked for both Foster’s and Rogers in the formative years of your career. How was that?
I was incredibly lucky. When we left the Architectural Association (AA) it was the late 70s and there was a recession on. There weren’t that many jobs out there. So a group of us from the AA formed a company making models for architects.
I phoned Richard Rogers Partnership, and they had just won Lloyd’s so they wanted lots of models. And then eventually I jumped ship and went to work at the practice on the Inmos Microprocessor Factory. Eventually David made the same move too.
I regard working for Richard and Norman as the best kind of apprenticeship you could have. I learnt more there than I learnt at the AA; particularly at Foster’s – it was a fantastic opportunity. I was learning about the analytical approach to architecture, testing different options, and understanding context.
Working for Richard Rogers and Norman Foster was the best kind of apprenticeship you could have
What made you move away from that and set up Marks Barfield?
David set up on his own initially. He ran the basement on Lloyd’s – a £20 million project in itself – and when that came to an end he was definitely ready to make a move. I joined him about a year later.
We had a number of jobs set up and then, the day I announced to Foster’s that I was leaving, they all vanished. So there was not a lot of work, but by that time I’d had a baby and there was a lot more flexibility in being your own boss.
The culture at Foster’s at the time was that we used to work until eight at night. It’s fine when you are young and don’t have children, but when I had a baby I had to leave at 6pm. I felt like I was having a half day.
What ambitions did you have for the practice when you set up?
We wanted to follow on from the kind of work we had been doing. We won a very big job very quickly. We did a competition for Thames Valley Park, which we won. It was a £30 million job.
At that time we were based in a lean-to at the side of our house in Stockwell, and the client said to us: ‘If you are going to have a serious job, then you need a serious office.’ Off the back of that we bought the office where we are today. Then the job fell through and we found ourselves with our overheads having gone up tenfold and no work.
We then invited lots of people to come and share the space with us. We had a seamstress, a publisher, another architect, a landscape architect. It was like a little creative factory. We did any work we could find. We were even designing brochures for engineers at one point. But we survived.
How do you find working with your husband? Is it difficult to separate work and home life?
We never switch off. Architecture is a way of life. We see more of each other. When we were both working for different practices we wouldn’t see very much of each other.
What have been the highlights of running your own practice?
As architects we are incredibly privileged. We can take an idea, which starts off in our heads, and through huge amounts of teamwork, end up walking into a completed building. What can be better than that?
You have a very different approach to getting projects off the ground – from the London Eye to i360. Why did you plough your own money into these?
We didn’t really plough money into the London Eye – it was our time. We didn’t have any money at that point. But after the London Eye we did. We wanted to determine our own future. In my professional lifetime the role of the architect has changed. We are not ready to become an architect that just designs facades. It’s not interesting at all.
David’s father was an entrepreneur, and we were encouraged by his approach. We worked with him in the early 90s on a project called the World Sea Centre. It didn’t come off, but it was one where we were part of the whole process, and was a precursor to what we did with the London Eye.
How much of a risk is it for the practice when you do projects like these?
On the i360 when we bought 660 tonnes of steel in 2008 it was definitely risky. But I’ve never known any different. We’ve never really been a practice that is comfortable from a financial point of view. It makes life more interesting.
We were very fortunate that the London Eye came off and that it gave us a financial buffer. It enabled us to keep the practice going, especially in 2008. That was a really bad recession and if we hadn’t had the money from the London Eye I don’t know that we would have survived.
2008 was a really bad recession and if we hadn’t had the money from the London Eye I don’t know that we would have survived
Why don’t you think more architects do these kind of projects?
They’re not as mad as us. Maybe it’s about not wanting to take a risk. A lot of architects have the ideas but they don’t take them forward. There was something quite special about the Millennium. There was a lot of bloody-mindedness.
Both the London Eye and i360 are innovative, structurally challenging projects. Do they have to be landmark schemes to work?
They don’t have to be but that was a natural progression. I’m working on a project at the moment trying to develop some sites on the park next to where we live. We came up with the idea that these sites, which Lambeth hasn’t really realised the potential of, could be redeveloped, and the profit from them ploughed into the maintenance of the park. We gave the idea to the council, they thought it was great and then put it out to tender. Now the job has gone to another architect. It’s frustrating but if you are doing it yourself – like at i360 – then you maintain that control.
I’d love the knowledge we have gained in projects like the London Eye and i360 to be of more social benefit. Whether we’ll be able to do that I don’t know.
You’re not known for social housing. Is that something you would like to do?
We would like to do that. After the London Eye we thought we could do anything, and there was a housing crisis so we came up with this high rise housing project called Skyhouse.
It was 2001 and nobody was building high-rise residential. It was high-density high rise with a rich social mix – a mix of public and private with communal gardens. Public and private were integrated, much like it is on the continent with blind tenancies. We went to see quite a few developers but we never got it off the ground. I like to think that it may have influenced future thinking.
What stops innovative projects like that?
On that scheme, I think the developers were not ready for it. It was too early. The Urban Task Force report had come out and concluded high rise was not good.
Is there a battle to be recognised for your other work as well?
I would like our work to be recognised in the whole; not just for the more stand-out projects. We are very difficult to categorise and people like to categorise architects. All of our projects are very different from each other but they are all about responding to the site, the brief, the budget.
You were heavily involved in CABE and design review before. Do you think there is a void in design scrutiny at the moment?
Definitely. It has a devastating effect on our cities. Local councils can no longer afford design review. We need a government that values good design.
Vauxhall is a complete disaster and it is because Lambeth does not have a design review panel. London is very robust but can it survive the onslaught of the 200-plus tall buildings that are being consented?
You are about to take over the RIBA Awards panel. What are your plans for the group?
I have no idea if it is possible but I would like the group to have a 50:50 gender balance by the time I leave.
There’s a move to change the RIBA Awards system. I think the RIBA is trying to get control back. It’s good that it has become more international, but we need to make sure there is a balance between the international prize and the Stirling Prize. I wouldn’t want the Stirling Prize to be thought less of.
Why are awards so important to the profession?
They show the public what quality architecture is.
After the publicity of the House for Essex debacle, do you think the RIBA Awards need a shake-up?
I’ll hopefully make sure that doesn’t happen again. That was bad. As architects we need to be open-minded. Quality comes in many different shapes and sizes.
We need to make sure the regional juries don’t filter anything out that they shouldn’t. Good buildings should rise to the top.
Julia Barfield CV
Place of study Architectural Association
Previous practices Richard Rogers Partnership, Foster + Partners
Current practice Marks Barfield
Year set up on own 1989
Key projects London Eye, i360, Kew Treetop Walkway
Current projects A mosque in Cambridge, an office refurbishment in London and an infill project in Clapham