Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
About the author
I’m an architect. Well, I used to be – now I write about architecture and I am a guide running a business-to-business service called Architectural Dialogue. We serve mostly foreigners coming to London on study tours and we’re members of the European Guiding Architects Network (http://www.guiding-architects.net/) – which has members in Shanghai, Dubai, New York, Sydney, Istanbul, Moscow, Hamburg, Berlin, Rome and such like. Swinging between these two activities is an important contrast to me: thinking about architecture, learning what is going on in different practices, and being on the street experiencing it. And, yes, you guessed it: I believe in photos only as photos, not as accurate depictions of buildings. With respect to the latter, photos lie. I’m OK with that; it’s just that I’ll be wary if you tell me you like or dislike a building because you saw a photo. I like it in the flesh.
In career terms I began (a long time ago) with six years at the Architectural Association (including my ‘year out’ in the USA), mixed up with Archigram (on projects such as the schemes for Bournemouth and Monaco), who were one my first employers – the first, that is, after some two months for Rogers, drawing a huge axonometric for what was to become the Pompidou Centre (I didn’t bid to go to Paris because I was worried about my inadequacy with schoolboy French – possibly my first major career error). Anyway, I was still at the AA (not that this kind of thing worried John Young, soon to be the key designer on the Lloyds ’86 building and then with Rogers).
I think they let me into the AA because I turned up for my interview showing the interviewers (with some juvenile embarrassment) drawings of prostitutes in the local pub at South Shields. It was that kind of era (very late ‘angry young man’).
It was a strange time: the tail-end of an institution that was then still the largest and oldest school in the country, just out of Christmas carnivals in full evening dress and now caught up in political turmoil about an absorption into Imperial College. My first day there was the experience of being among about a one hundred intake listening in bemusement to Mike Glickman, then a senior, literally standing on a soap-box and haranguing us all. It was an AA tradition.
First Year was confusing, but I suppose it always is – in many different ways, especially given the class traditions within architecture (the mid-60′s weren’t that far removed from the ’30s, despite the myths). My Second Year was tutored by Tony Dugdale: a fresh graduate, affable and bright, always striving to ‘turn on’ people. He’d give lectures about a throw-away, open-choice society and illustrate the point by throwing pens out his pocket to the other side of the room – and later ask us to help him find them, returning them to his pockets for the next demonstration. He briefly worked on the Pompidou Centre (bringing over Alan Stanton, Mike Davies and Chris Dawson from LA), but quickly became disillusioned, later going into selling junk antiques and old cameras, and then designing boat interiors. Quite a lost talent. Glickman had a habit of popping up in my life. For example, he turned up at the Milton Keynes Development Corporation as a wannabe Charles Eames-type, more interested in products than architecture, and later as a nutty-professor type more interested in aliens, crop circles and the rest. A memorable First Year tutor was Paul Oliver. He gave us architectural history lessons which consisted of listening to old blues recordings (‘Blind Boy’ this and that, etc.) And there was the red-nosed historian Sam Stevens, who could give Reyner Banham a run for his money any day, except that Sam’s runs appeared to be to the nearest bar.
This was the tail-end of an era when young UK architects still sought experience in the USA (something that was soon to change, as attentions shifted toward Europe) and Mike Fletcher and I wrote to hundreds of US practices for a ‘year out’ job. Only one replied with an offer (so what’s new?; it must have been rather like all those CV’s from India one currently receives over here)) and we flipped a coin. I was the sucker that won. However, I did get an introduction to New York, went to the chills of Buffalo and even famously couldn’t be bothered to travel from Buffalo to an up-state place called Woodstock, where there was some dreary small festival being held. Such is life.
By my Diploma school years I was truly lost, with a mix of characterful tutors who milled around in contented indifference and less characterful ones who weren’t indifferent, but I wasn’t interested in them. Perhaps because I worked with Archigram and my wife was the buxom, super-efficient and affable secretary to the Diploma School (Peter Cook, Dugdale, et al) I was allowed to drift around as I wanted – an untouchable. Weird. Luckily, I was picked up in my Fourth Year by P.Cook as a good draughtsman and I ended up having my jazz vocabularly extended whilst working on the likes of Bournemouth Steps and the Monte Carlo casino projects. We won the latter, but it was quickly taken away from us (or, Colin Fournier, who was shipped off to Monte Carlo to practice his gentlemanly French).
With Archigram, as for many others, the late (and largely absent) Ron Herron (spending a lot of time in LA) became my own East End, working-class hero, despite his denim outfit and cowboy boots and the fact that I didn’t really know him until he returned to help run the cut-down Archigram practice (Herron, Cook and Crompton; the others wanted to take grant money and put it to other uses, avoiding a practice commitments). His competition-winning ideas scheme of the mid-’70s beautifully summed him up: a palace for the Queen, set in Glasgow and construed as a Hollywood film set – a scheme completed in a somewhat desperate manner at a low time when Archigram seemed well-past its sell-by date and the future appeared to be bleak. ‘Sets’ were his obsession (and, strangely, they featured strongly in my career), but my abiding memory is him at home: Sunday afternoon, watching a Hollywood movie on a small Sony TV, drawing board on knees, smoking the Gauloises cigarettes that probably killed him whilst using them to dry the ink from his fat 0.8 Rotring pen. (You guys only knowing screens will have to take my word for it: 0.8 makes pretty fat and wet line.) It took me a long time before I later realised that what I liked about this ‘Superstar’ scheme was its expression of the personality and concerns of its author, relative to which the formalities of Archigram stuff seemed peculiarly hollow. But then I’ve never been able to understand the appeal of formalism. Anyway, it was a good time. My wife even transferred over from the AA to being the Archigram secretary.
My first real job had been with another local London hero: the remarkable John Winter (still alive, living just up the hill from where I write this, in a splendid neo-Miesian / Saarinen, Corten-clad steel house, opposite Highgate Cemetery, possibly with a plot awaiting him). But after the glamour of a pretty useless education at the AA, I couldn’t cope with what, in hindsight, was extremely useful experience doing numerous housing association conversions of small London terrace houses (I recall he had some 125 jobs on the go at once, in a tiny office in Charlotte Sreet, then thronged with Greek restaurants). I wanted glamour.
A touch of glamour came with a post-Archigram invitation to join Wolf Olins, an up-beat corporate identity firm and, for me, an important experience that took me into an increasingly relevant world of blather and branding.
I went there with Mike Fletcher and we asked another north-east lad, Keith Priest, to join in. Both stayed after I left, then left themselves (a middle-mangement uprising at WO) and set up what was to become a successful London practice. However, after working on things like Les Halles underground shopping mall in Paris – interestingly, doing its corporate identity and thus running up against its architects, who would scream: ‘Je suis le architect!”, thus learning that architects could be weird people – I became disillusioned again. This time it was with the clever but cynical bullshit of a corporate identity world: endless variations on the same themes, sold as unique to clients who paid huge fees; in those days it was always animals.There were two teams: well-educate manager types who handled the clients, and a team of graphic designers (some literally taken off the streets at 16!) who worked quite independently until, a couple of days before the client presentation, the two interests were brought together. Boy, could those designers handle Magic Markers (another lesson well learned)! I recall being bemused by the creative half of the outfit: Michael Wolff who, in Bauhaus-manner, always wore a grey boiler suit. He would make regular trips to Paris to purchase them!
After some eighteen months left Wolff Olins (a recurring theme of my career) and went into part-time / some-time this and that: teaching at what was then the North-east London Polytechnic, working at the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (then under Derek Walker), then Farrell Grimshaw and to YRM. Milton Keynes was the tail end of a post-war programme of new towns and it has been very successful, but I needed to be in London again. The escape route was to Farrell Grimshaw – a few years before and during their acrimonious divorce (when we weren’t allowed to speak with our desk neighbours on the rival team), mostly working on large pre-fab timber housing schemes for Farrell (principally just outside Manchester), and the notable but minute Clifton Nursery in Paddington. The game was to always stay two steps ahead of Terry (a very good designer with a very strange agenda), who seemed to give up on Clifton and, satisfyingly (probably to Terry’s surprise) the job ended up on the front cover of every major architectural magazine. It was demolished a few years later, but I still meet with former students who worked on building it (yes, it was like that) and still tell tales.
During the practice divorce I was stuck in the Terry team, working for a talented architect who was fast becoming fashionably unfashionable as he became the UK’s premier Post-Modernist and keen follower of all that Charles Jencks had to say on the topic. I left, partly because my own marriage had just broken up and I needed a change from Terry and his increasing obsession with twiddly decorative themes and anything that was entirely different to what his Hi-Tech ex-partner, Nick Grimshaw, was doing.
After a break with Goddard Manton on converting Dockland warehouses I came to Yorke Rosenburg and Mardall (the UK’s post-war SOM), then in their last bountiful years before selling out to City investors and later abruptly failing, leaving the principal Directors jobless but handsomely rewarded, while middle management took over and struggled on (to a recent scandalous failure). YRM shipped me out to Singapore for a while (an introduction to wiley Chinese executive architects) and then, upon my return, promised me a job in Saudi that they expected to last seven years. I ran, literally, leaving (the late) David Allford wondering what he’d said. It was a shame, but YRM was then only Allford and Henderson, and the form’s days were numbered (Allford’s son, Simon, is now an exuberant partner of the very successful AHMM (taking up YRM’s mantle, as it were), and Henderson is often to be found keeping his weight up at his son’s St John’s restaurant, in the current home of many London architects: Clerkenwell).
I next went to DEGW, following bouncy John Worthington, whom I’d met whilst at Farrell Grimshaw, on evening trains running from London back to Manchester (full of chatty but drunken architects buying a few more gin & tonics on the client’s account). In part, I was intrigued by his indifference to whether people labelled him an architect. But DEGW was a strange top-heavy practice made up of a set of partners who relished consultancy and wouldn’t know what concrete was if it was poured over their heads. When I went there the firm was 25 strong; a month later it was , worryingly, 23. When I left it was 120, but it was around the 60-70 mark that politics among the partners and associates became rather silly.
I managed to last about 8 years at DEGW on a variety of office fit-outs and met another affable hero, Italian this time: Luigi Giffone … Jobs there = included fit-outs for IBM (remembered for being informed that they didn’t use an architectural firm more than three times because, by then, the architects had gone from total ignorance about project management to knowing how to run rings around the managers – that was my introduction to the subject), and Lloyds (where three years converting their 1958 building gave me insights into this aged blue-chip organisation inhabiting this and Rogers’ incongruous design for them across the road) and the painful realisation that one either ran large teams or drew details, but the two didn’t mix (especially when your supervising partners-in-charge hadn’t a clue on running large jobs). Otherwise it was mostly consultancy (again). It was good experience, but I walked out, now appreciating (like most architects) that working for other people is invariably tedious. It was time to go it alone.
For a while I ran my own practice (with Paul Stanton), but the deep early ’90s recession killed that off (a time when everyone else escaped to Berlin, just as they now do to Hong Kong, Dubai, etc.). I didn’t do that – by now I had met someone I wanted to be with all the time and who had her feet firmly planted in London. She was a great support and madly keen on architecture, unable to understand why architects looked at photos all the time and didn’t travel enough. I traveled more, learned more, and I’m still learning from her.
By now I had got into exhibitions, etc., and part-time teaching at Oxford Brookes (under Chris Cross, another Milton Keynes connection and once part of the notable ‘Grunt group’) and Greenwich Universities. This teaching was mostly with the talented, energetic and ambitious Nial McLaughlin (who had made a point of setting up on his own within a couple of years of graduating from Dublin) and then Fiona Duggan. I enjoyed studio teaching but (again) couldn’t cope with the politics between part and full timers, petty rivalries and statistical games aimed at reducing failure rates. In brief, I learned to become even more sceptical of the value of formalised architectural education, but met some terrific students. (Who would come to London to help out on one of my wife’s projects for a couple of weeks and still be there months later. We had to get rid of them by finding them jobs – usually, I have to say, at good practices.)
Somewhere in there, was an interesting five-year period working on housing consultancy to a Japanese pre-fab housing company, reporting on European housing trends, learning that the Japanese had an utterly different approach to what pre-fab housing was all about (marketing and service, not technology … more branding issues again). We must have travelled to every corner of western Europe looking at suburban housing for them. Boring? No, it was fascinating. We’d cross the English Channel and more or less say, ‘OK: left or right?’
After that (London was booming again) I took up with two ex-YRM vets: Sevil Peach and Gary Turnbull, mostly doing more glamorous fit-out work in Weil am Rhein for the Vitra furniture company and their internet agents (in Freiburg and Berlin). Branding issues once again.
It was good, but working in a small firm with a live-in couple for one’s associates makes for peculiar politics and, one day, I again abruptly jumped ship.
After that, a lot of time was spent consulting on UK university campus projects with my old teaching colleague, Fiona Duggan – where a dab hand at drawing continued to serve me well in communicating ideas, but the consultancy was peculiarly formulaic, always ending up with the same equation of programmatic development for disparate universities eager to harvest student numbers. In any case, there was an element of Wolff Olins again: consultancy that advises a client at a strategic level, only to see another architect come in to implement the recommendations by throwing out all one had argued for! And then there were a few projects with the talented designer / artist (and neighbour), Gerry Judah.
All together, it seemed as if there had been too much consultancy. Nevertheless, these experiences have all been useful grist to another mill: writing about architecture and being an architect. I started writing for Elsevier (Architectural Press, Oxford) in 1990, writing about design management, project management and professionalism – topics most architects had no idea about (especially professionalism!). This followed an introduction to project management in the early 1980s – an eye opener. Of the 60 people on the course I was the only architect and everyone else was into software, pharmaceuticals, radar systems and the like. But there was always a strong theoretical interest within these written works (The Wild Card of Design and Getting There by Design) that enthused me more than anything to do with actual practice.
Here, now, the purpose of this blog is to voice ideas, comments and the actual writing of a book I am currently working on … As my wife keeps reminding me, I’ve been working on it for some seven years. It’s called Meetings With Buildings. Over that period I have also published the fourth and fifth editions of my Guide to London’s Contemporary Architecture (currently in preparation as a sixth edition) and an historical work on all London’s key architects and their architecture (Architects and Architecture of London). All three books are deeply concerned to get people out onto the streets, to experience the real thing – architecture ‘in the flesh’, as my wife calls it.