One of the intriguing aspects of our profession is the breadth of knowledge and range of languages that an architect is expected to have and to operate in. We look at the civic realm and the impact of our choices on a city and its dwellers, while simultaneously we envisage how two materials coming together may be constructed elegantly. Practice is not an easy ride, and what an architect designs may not always end up being built. Patronage, and the client decision-making is a key part of a successful project. The quality of the dialogue during design always ends up reflected in the quality of the architecture.
I came to London to practice in 2000, with the mandate to open Rafael Viñoly’s European office. I was young (very young), and it is possibly this lack of knowledge that fuelled me along. My project experience had always been at the large scale, and high complexity (laboratories and performing arts buildings). Operating in a new environment, winning and designing large projects in an unfamiliar context, suited me. I felt comfortable at the scale I was dealing with.
When running projects like the Curve Theatre in Leicester, or the Walkie Talkie tower in London, the client body tends to be professionalised (architects, QS, real estate lawyers, etcetera) and the contractors tend to be larger outfits, and the consultant support is vast. Process is structured, organised and the discussion will vary between efficiency and value. Design is not always at the core of the subject, as there are balance sheets and returns expected.
Five years later, I opened Studio Seilern Architects on the back of a wonderful project in Zimbabwe: an ambitious one-off house on a rock for a delightfully eccentric couple in a country that was economically and politically broken, but ever hopeful in spirits. The change of scale, of client body, and of construction environment meant a complete recalibration of my mindset. I made the decision to roll up my sleeves and work on all aspects of the project, from making models to detailing, enjoying the novel hands-on experience of design at that scale.
The meetings were no longer in a large conference room with 20 consultants and tepid coffee, but around the dinner table with a glass of wine. Discussions were personal, and the professionalisation of the interaction with the client needed to be toned down to get to the essence of the project.
It was a labour of love, and a challenge that was equally shared between the client and the architect. Something magical happened, something that I had not expected, and could not name: an intimacy in the building process. Larger projects can often be over-corporatised in the process, thereby missing the intimacy of the human soul. In these important, but smaller projects I found a dialogue which was possibly more visceral and intuitive, and as a result brought a surprise and delight in the delivery.
At SSA we are now working mostly on larger new-build commissions, ranging from concert halls and offices to hotels. But we continuously seek a balanced portfolio of work that includes both large and small scale, where one informs and feeds the other, and more importantly, mean that we as architects cannot forget about the soul of our projects when looking at spreadsheets or a waterproofing detail.