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Peter St John: ‘We didn’t think we had a very big chance’

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Peter St John talks exclusively to the AJ at the RIBA Stirling Prize event about what it means to win the most prestigious prize in UK architecture. Interview by Richard Waite

You’ve been up for the prize twice before. Did you think this building had more of a chance?
It was so different from the others (New Art Gallery Walsall in 2000 and The Brick House in 2006). We didn’t think we really had a very big chance. I was prepared for disappointment. But at the same time it felt as though this time, as it was another gallery project, it was a culmination of a body of work.

We felt it was strong. Whether people would really like a gallery, we just weren’t sure.

And where is Adam (Caruso)?
Adam was too nervous to come.

What does it mean for you as a practice?
We’ve always been architects who have had a more European outlook. We’ve a very busy office in Zurich and lots of our work is in Switzerland and Germany and we are also building in France and Belgium. We have very little here in the UK.

We are well known for our work in galleries here, but that period of investment in museums and galleries is perhaps over now.

We really want to build more [in London] – it is our home city – and I hope the award might encourage that.

Is public funding for galleries and cultural projects a thing of the past in the UK?
I hope it isn’t. The Lottery made a fantastic step in distributing money for the arts around the country and built a number of very good regional galleries. That is not something a private funder is likely to do. You need both private and public funding. But It would be a real shame if this country became like the USA, with everything privately funded.

Newport Street Gallery is not really about that. It is a unique situation and we were incredibly lucky to be a part of it – a very unusual artist with the resources and the passion to do something for the public. Damien Hirst loves art – not just his own art. He wants others to enjoy it.

Do people really understand the civic quality of this building?
Like any building you need to go see it and see what it is like. It is not the easiest building to photograph. You can get beautiful photographs of the staircases.

But actually its relationship to the city, how it works with the railway line and seeing it from a distance need to be felt. What I am proudest of is the way in which the gallery spaces are arranged. A walk around the gallery and up along the stairs is very special.

Going to a gallery should be a very special spatial experience. It is not a public gallery; it is a private building into which the public are invited. But it has all sorts of characteristics that make it feel more public and like a civic building. That is what the staircases are doing. I’d like to think it’s like the Whitechapel Gallery – one of my favourite galleries – which has such gracious spaces and nice features about it. That is the difference between a public building and a commercial one.

When you look back is there anything you would change?
I don’t feel that there is in this case. It was a project that took a very long time, a very long period of developing the design and getting planning permission, because we were making such dramatic changes to the listed buildings.

In this situation with a generous budget we were able to do things which we can’t do on most projects. We could make very elaborate full-scale mock-ups in order to test things out and for the client to really see exactly how it was going to look. So we were even more sure it was going to turn out how we wanted it to. There were very few unknowns. You can’t build well when there are unknowns.

1455589 caruso st john newport street 4

1455589 caruso st john newport street 4

This award is the pinnacle for many architects, what do you want to achieve now?
I’m only 57 and Adam’s only 55, so I hope that this is not the pinnacle of what we will achieve. It’s not like that. Architects actually get better and better later in life.

We are not a commercial practice; we don’t want to get very big. We want to do a small number of very good buildings.

What was special about the client relationship on Newport Street Gallery?
We were designing a gallery and the client loves art and is extremely visually acute. We were working with a client who is more visually critical than any other we have worked with.

I wouldn’t say it was difficult. It was very interesting. It put us on our toes. It is very special and really nice to work with someone like that. It makes the building infinitely better when the client is closely understanding what you are doing.

Are you hopeful for where the profession is now?
We have a lot of experience working in other countries where things are very different. I don’t think many architects in this country have much experience of how it is in Europe.

There isn’t enough power in planning in London and the city is very much in the hands of developers.

We work a lot in Germany and Zurich where the architect has a lot more control and the architect is given a lot more authority and say in how the city is developed.

The competition process is much more open and deliberate whereas here, the city if being developed by developers who generally tend to use the architects they are used to working with.

We have always – right from the beginning – tried to find work across Europe and where we have actually found work is in the competition processes run in other countries. These are generally competitions where a lot more architects are on the juries.

It is very different here. You have to find work in a very different way. Here we have our niches – we do galleries and work with historic buildings. But in Switzerland we are building an ice hockey stadium, a very large laboratory, housing, and a building to enable handicapped people to work in the city.

In Britain we are rather pigeonholed.

But that doesn’t answer the question. Frankly, I’m not convinced that architects have a strong voice within the profession.

Comment

Peter Clegg, partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

‘It’s a really good decision [though] it’s quite predictable. It’s a beautifully detailed building put together with a passion for gallery design. Of all the buildings on the shortlist it will have the most lasting quality. It’s a very thoughtful piece of architecture by a thoughtful architect.’

Tom Bloxham, chairman and co-founder, Urban Splash

‘There is a great simplicity and understated beauty about the gallery. It was a fabulously generous gesture by Damien Hirst to create a free gallery in quite a run-down part of London.’

Piers Taylor, founder, Invisible Studio and AJ alternative Stirling Prize panel judge

‘It’s a great building and the obvious choice. But it also begs the question: What is the Stirling Prize for? Don’t we know this stuff? Where do we go next? How do we make architecture make a difference and make it relevant to a broad section of the public that neither know or care about architecture? And how can architecture move beyond rich white guys commissioning ascetic white guys to do a project with few constraints for the already converted?’

Eva Jiricná, founder, Eva Jiricná Architects

‘Knowing the architects for a long time I salute their patience and intellectual capacity to take every project through a rigorous process of high-quality control and managing to deliver without any cut corners.

Nevertheless my little “me” would love to see a little bit of fun and make my heart beat faster when passing by – especially in that part of London – if I didn’t have time to step inside and walk up the truly extraordinary staircases.’

 

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