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Woodman: 'We must reward the faith architects have invested in the AF'

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The Architecture Foundation’s newly appointed director Ellis Woodman explains how he plans to shake-up the organisation

This week the Architecture Foundation hired the AJ’s critic-at-large Ellis Woodman to lead and reinvigorate the organisation, starting with a renewed focus on London. The foundation’s new director explains how he is going to turn around the fortunes of the 24-year-old body and his plans to make it relevant again to the development of the capital.

Why did you want this job?
I’ve been attending Architecture Foundation events since I was a student 20 years ago, so I appreciate what a fundamental role it has played in shaping the architectural discourse in this country and beyond. The opportunity to build on that legacy and prove the AF’s continued relevance is extremely exciting.

How do you think the Architecture Foundation is perceived – and how has that perception changed over the years?
The reappraisal that the AF went through last year included a root and branch review of its resources and programme. The organisation will be run by a significantly smaller team than was in place 12 months ago, and we face an immediate need to re-establish the foundation’s profile.  But as Ricky Burdett demonstrated as director in its early days, you can achieve an enormous amount with modest resources if you are nimble. 

Architects and the wider built environment community have stepped forward to ensure the AF’s long-term sustainability, and that speaks volumes about how much it is valued. They have returned us to a strong financial position. Now we have to reward the faith they have invested in us.

Is there going to be a change of focus?
The big change will be a renewed focus on London. I see the AF’s principal role as the development of propositional thinking about London, both at the scale of policy and design. 

The big change will be a renewed focus on London

The city is undergoing an astounding transformation but there is an urgent need to ask: what kind of a city are we trying to make? The AF should be leading that discussion.

Does it concern you that practices from outside London may feel excluded?
London can learn a lot from the experience of other cities, so we absolutely need to involve voices from elsewhere in the UK and overseas. In an ideal world, the AF might seek a wider engagement but we need to shape a programme around the available resources. It would be fantastic to see similar organisations established in Scotland or in some of England’s larger cities.

Given that there are other organisations such as the NLA, the design centre networks and the RIBA, how do you feel about the already crowded marketplace?
Certainly it means there is less demand for some of the things that we have been known for in the past, such as exhibitions of international architects’ work. Where I see the real need is for an organisation that is critical and propositional.  One of our fundamental functions must be to provide architects with the means to articulate their ambitions for the city.

What is the first thing you will do as director?
In 15 months’ time, Londoners go the polls to elect a new mayor. Candidates’ positions on the built environment have not played a decisive role in voters’ choices in past elections. We are going to deliver a series of initiatives aimed at changing that.

Does the AF need a permanent home and a shop window for its activities?
I am in no hurry to re-establish a permanent exhibition space. We can achieve more by partnering with other institutions on a project by project basis, and there are huge opportunities to develop the programme online.

Does the AF need a name change?
Not in the immediate future. The name may not be as communicative as it might be but at the moment it is important to maintain a sense of continuity. 

How can you reconcile your current critical voice, existing public persona and being the head of such an organisation?
Maintaining the organisation’s intellectual independence is essential. That may not always prove straightforward given its reliance on private funding but I have a strong board of trustees behind me who are committed to the principle that the AF should provide a platform for critical voices.

How can you make AF an effective lobbying body to government? 
While I don’t see that as part of our immediate mission, many of the issues we will be addressing are of nationwide relevance. We are concentrating on London but aiming to have influence beyond the city too.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Alex Mowat - Mowat & Company

    It is great to see such a respected voice take over at AF. It is a hard job with modest budgets and resources but I am sure Ellis has the support of many people ( architects and the wider industry) and he can call on these supporters to make his case. I hope he continues to stick to his position and say some uncomfortable things, when needed as he did in his Venice Pavillion.

    Wishing the whole team good luck.

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