In gaining experience, I’ve tried not to lose the power of innocence, says Yuli Cadney-Toh


It is 1977, in a black cab straight from Heathrow Airport, my parents take me to the South Bank. I am 13, jet-lagged. I see huge concrete cubic forms in a cityscape set against a high-summer dusk, and I know I have arrived… somewhere.

It does not follow a child’s idea of a building, Sir Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre. Of course I do not have the language then, only the eyes of a child taking in everything, imprinting, as I find out later, permanently. I can still see clearly the boardmarked concrete, the lighting of the solid planes, the spaces through which people are flowing, looking at each other and connecting. So wonderfully irreverent, I think as a teenager. Sitting on the wide window seats of the foyer, a band playing, I am seeing something for the first time. We can’t have the same experience the next time round, so it is always a treat and privilege to see anything for the first time. Even then, I know I am looking at architecture as an abstract, as pure as sculpture. That it need not be literally four walls with doors and windows, it is more.


Top: Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre following renovation by Haworth Tompkins in 2016 (ph: Philip Vile).
Above: The OSh House (Open and Shut House), designed by t-sa, takes its name from the way the building relates to its greenbelt setting (ph: Hélène Binet)

Ten years later, it is 1988. As a recent graduate, still very green and certainly untrained, I roll up at Geoffrey Bawa’s studio in Colombo, Sri Lanka. On the first day I am taken to the construction site for a school. I am struck by the labour of the hand-made: everything hand-carried, hand-placed. And by the stacks of clay tiles on the ground, ready to become multiple layers on the roof to keep wall-less tropical rooms below cool. The precious steel, frugally used as reinforcements for concrete. It is the architecture of the condition of the place, of what is most possible, and so breathtakingly beautiful.

Twenty years later, it is 2007, and my practice with Takero Shimazaki, t-sa, is working on OSh House in red Surrey brick, in a context steeped in the English Arts & Crafts heritage. I am still hugely indebted to Lasdun and Bawa, for the lesson of the abstraction of materials. They have shown us how ‘bricks and mortar’ can be made to be more than walls, and why indeed it must be, to be worthy of being architecture. We understand it is our responsibility, to the best of our ability, to harness the power and humility of the materials we have to hand.

Those lessons were learnt with some natural ease, through the open eyes and heart of youth. I have since accumulated a career-full of experience and, like one’s contemporaries, can deftly draw upon a personal reference library to enrich a viewpoint today. I have this ready to mind as I turn a corner in a city, or enter a space, able to contextualise what I have come to see for the first or indeed for the eighth time. Contrarily, I also remind myself to take a moment, to try to unlearn if I can, to instead see properly with the insight of a child.