Amenity centre and passenger terminal for Fred Olsen, Millwall docks, London, 1969-70
I met Richard Rogers in the early 60s at Yale School of Architecture in the US, where we were both studying for our master’s. We got on well and combined forces to form Team 4, with Wendy Cheeseman and her sister Georgie Walton, who was the only registered architect at the firm. Wendy and I married and, after four years, we set up Foster Associates in her bedsit. It was 1967: there were no associates and no projects.
A part-time architecture student worked with us. His father worked for a shipping company in Millwall docks in east London, called Fred Olsen. He knew it was looking to build an amenity centre for its workforce and I got an audience with the dock manager. I was 33.
The facilities at the Port of London were horrific. Olsen was a progressive Norwegian company: it wanted to raise conditions for its employees. I arrived early and explored the site. The dock manager had never met an architect before. He showed me some existing designs. As the conversation went on, I began to raise questions – not just about the building, but about how the entire operation worked. In the end, he agreed to give me three weeks to come up with a proposal.
Olsen’s ships combined trade with holiday cruises, carrying passengers and freight in the same vessel. I saw that a similar strategy could be used to bring dock workers and managers together under one roof. I identified a narrow plot between two sheds on the waterfront. I put the dockers’ amenities on the ground floor and offices for administrative staff and management on the floor above.
“You can’t put foul-mouthed dockers next to secretaries,” was the immediate response. I had shaken everything up to such an extent that it was suggested I meet Fred Olsen himself. I argued that if you want to raise standards in the workplace, you should go beyond providing showers and toilets, and start to overcome the ingrained prejudices between management and workforce. He agreed to the project and gave us one year to deliver it.
The building was challenging technologically as well as socially. At the time, nobody in the UK had the knowhow to produce a glass wall with high thermal performance. At my own cost, I flew to Pittsburgh to obtain a set of working drawings from a company that could make the glass. Inside, we introduced a gaming area on the ground floor: there were ping-pong tables and dart boards. Upstairs, Olsen’s art collection was on the walls; this was revolutionary for an office building.
The Olsen building was visited by the computer company IBM, which commissioned us to build a temporary head office in Cosham, near Portsmouth. It is now grade II-listed. Today, a concrete wall is all that remains of the Olsen site. Revisiting the location brought back some extraordinary memories. Olsen really was a bastion of hope in a desert of industrial unrest. Four years ago, my wife organised a surprise party for my 80th birthday and I found myself standing next to Fred Olsen. He said his only regret was that we didn’t build more projects together.
I am still doing versions of the same thing: building communities, whether I am designing for a Swiss village or a disadvantaged community in Odisha, India, as I am through my foundation. That has remained a constant, since that very first commission.
Harvey Nichols, London fashion week window displays, 1997
I met Terence Conran in my final year at the Royal College of Art, in 1994. He had come to give a talk and decided to buy a piece from my design degree show – a gazebo made from birch ply – for his back garden. He then asked me to design an interior display for the Conran Shop, so I made a layered structure from a kilometre of cardboard that displayed hundreds of kitchen items. Mary Portas, who worked for Harvey Nichols at the time, saw it and asked if I could design a window display at the department store for London fashion week 1997. I was 27 and this was my first proper public project.
When you think of a window display, you automatically think: well, there is a window; what shall I put behind it? But I’ve always found it interesting to try to take a step further back. I thought maybe I could do something more engaging, more dynamic. I didn’t want to make something that was imprisoned behind glass, so focused instead on the masonry between the windows and came up with this ginormous polystyrene and aeroply structure that weaved between the windows and the building.
I presented the idea to Mary, thinking she would say no. Everyone who saw the plan thought it would be impossible to get the permissions. But Mary was up for it. I soon discovered that, when you try to do something different, people want to be involved. We then had to find a way of stretching our minuscule budget to get this thing built. There was a team of us working for £3 an hour (about £5.60 today) in a vast studio in east London, including a couple of stone carvers from St Paul’s cathedral and a DJ who walked past and asked if he could help. It was 1997, so computer-aided design wasn’t really available. I had to carve this incredibly complex form into a 1:20 model that we then scaled up manually, using huge sheets of graph paper.
I experienced a slight shudder on seeing the model again after 22 years. It was the first time I had done something so public – and there it was, suspended above people’s heads on Knightsbridge. I was anxious, but in a good way: you should be scared, you should be worried. It was a great success, thank goodness – it won a D&AD [Design and Art Direction] award that year. I remember sitting on a bus listening to people wonder what it was about. For me, it didn’t matter if someone liked it or not. It made the street more vivid and engaging.
Today, there are 200 people working at my studio; we don’t build things ourselves any more, but we still try to inspire curiosity in the public. The Harvey Nichols window display took a year from idea to installation. Right now, we are designing a new terminal at Changi airport in Singapore that will take 10 years to complete. It involves billions of pounds of construction work and will endure for decades; but I feel the same strong sense of duty to the people who will experience it.
My first public commission taught me the quality of just keeping believing, like a long-distance runner. It is easy for special things not to happen, but, occasionally, some of them do. And in order for them to happen, you must put everything of yourself into them.
Dawson’s Heights, Dulwich, London, 1972
My father suggested I study architecture, which was a pretty advanced attitude for a man of his generation. After the second world war, he headed a department in a Scottish housing organisation; he was committed to providing decent housing for everybody, a belief we shared.
I studied at Edinburgh School of Art from 1955 to 1961. I remember a tutor taking me to one side and saying: “Young ladies are not terribly practical. Have you thought of doing something like interior design?” I am a stubborn person and I thought: I’ll bloody show you. Thereafter, I paid particular attention to how my propositions would be built.
After graduation, I worked abroad – first in Poland, then in various architects’ offices in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The whole mood in Europe was one of optimism. When I came back, I got a job with Denys Lasdun, working on the National Theatre. After about a year, I saw that this huge project was going to take ages to get on site. I was the most junior member of the team and I needed to get my boots dirty, sharpish, and take on a commission of my own.
A lot of female architects start by doing private houses, but I saw it as much more challenging to design a community. I saw there was huge pressure on London’s boroughs to provide housing. In 1965, at the age of 27, I took a job in the department of architecture and planning at Southwark council and, to my immense good fortune, I was immediately presented with this phenomenal site in Dulwich: Dawson’s Hill.
There was a slightly chaotic meeting where we had to present our schemes. There was one architect from Hong Kong who was proposing four tower blocks and another who was proposing a high-density, low-rise scheme. My design was two staggered ziggurats. This was a response to the specific characteristics of the site – the stupendous views to north and south and the extremely unstable ground conditions. At the extremities, the ziggurats descend from their maximum height of 12 storeys to four, reflecting the surrounding scale of suburban villas.
Getting started felt exhilarating and terrifying. When you are young, you feel you can take on the world. The housing manager of Southwark drew up the brief, but as far as I was concerned my clients were the people on Southwark’s housing list: those in most urgent need of homes.
I devised a system that enabled one-, two- and three-bedroom homes to share the same access. My theory was that a mix of different family sizes, living next door to one another, would have more capacity to help each other out with babysitting or shopping. All of the 296 maisonettes have a private balcony; in some cases, two. On site, I remember nearly losing a boot in the sticky London clay: a clerk of works had to heave me out.
Today, there still seems to be a good community feel there. The homes are 30% leaseholder-owned and I would like it to stay at that level. The central space remains car-free and it still feels very safe. I’ve been told by residents that children from the surrounding area come there to play.
Dawson’s Heights is still the largest building I’ve designed. It was completed in the mid-70s, before the introduction of right-to-buy. After 1979, local authorities were starved of funding, including a restriction on their right to raise rents; this led to poor maintenance by Southwark during the 80s. It is now owned by a large housing association, Southern Housing Group, which has invested in its maintenance. Looking back, I feel immensely grateful that my career spanned what was a golden age for the public sector.
West Beach cafe, Littlehampton, 2008
In my final year at architecture school, I completed a self-funded project in Brazil – a canopy kit I had designed and installed in a favela outside Recife – and was invited to give a short presentation about it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I put a lot of energy into that six-minute talk, because I was still a student and I was presenting alongside professionals. I thought: this might be my big break.
Afterwards, I got an email from someone in the audience who told me I must speak to Jane Wood, a property developer in Littlehampton, West Sussex. It was 2007 and she had just commissioned Thomas Heatherwick, a rising star, to design a cafe on the site of a fish and chip kiosk on the seafront, now known as East Beach cafe. She was creating a real buzz about the town.
Jane and I emailed back and forth for a year; during that time, I became a father. It made me feel that anything was possible. When Heatherwick’s cafe was nearing completion, Jane invited me to look at a new site on the neighbouring west beach. She picked me up from the station wearing big sunglasses and driving a white van full of catering equipment. I had this idea that we were about to arrive at a remarkable location on an unspoilt beach backed by dunes. When I got out of the van, my dreams fell into a hole. It was a grey, windy day and in front of me was a brick burger kiosk that hadn’t been used for six months. Jane said she wanted to replace it with something simple, like a beach hut or a shack that served fish and chips and local ice-cream. I did some rapid growing up in those 30 minutes.
I went back with an idea for a building that opens up to take in the weather and closes down when conditions are hostile. I brought images of agricultural structures, doll’s houses, sash windows and the colour blue.
The day before the cafe opened, we installed a light sculpture I had designed. Jane saw it and said: “It’s not right for this place. You can do this in Clerkenwell, but not in Littlehampton.” I was so upset, but it taught me one of the biggest lessons of my career: the responsibility you have to the people of a place.
After West Beach cafe, the financial crisis hit. I had to start again – to get out there and exhibit work, to look for opportunities and, where there weren’t any, to create them. I took on several commissions to design experimental pavilions in Singapore, Russia and South Korea. That enabled me to grow the studio. Today, we are working on projects all over the world: designing the new Museum of London; converting a Soviet cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, into a centre for contemporary culture; and designing 6.5km of walking routes and roadways for Expo 2020 in Dubai. I want to keep this range, so we are continually forced to rethink what is best for a place. I’ve bound myself to these places just as I did in Littlehampton, where I take my kids every year: the cafe is still there and it feels like home.
King’s Grove, Peckham, London, 2008
This was the first house by Duggan Morris Architects, a practice I founded in 2004, when I was 33, with my then partner, Joe Morris. I had worked for Gollifer Langston Architects for five years, overseeing the build of seven schools across north London, but you are never really in complete control of a design when you are working for a practice. I was determined to be independent, as was Joe.
Before King’s Grove, Joe and I had renovated three houses and managed to accrue enough money to invest in this project – something most architects simply wouldn’t be able to do now. (Our first property cost only £60,000.) We were friends with an architect who had bought a small plot and got a planning application for it, but then decided he didn’t want to develop the site. He sold it to us for £125,000 and we secured a self-build mortgage. It was an interesting site reached via a long lane and sliced between 10 terraced back gardens. The previous building – a plaster mould workshop – had been demolished. Originally, it would have been a Victorian laundry or milk parlour. I loved that it was a hidden space with a sense of history.
Most architects have an idea of what their own house will look like. I was no different: a light-pink fairytale building surrounded by beautiful gardens. But from our first visit, I realised this wasn’t the site for that. I wanted the house to retain the look and feel of the site. It was surrounded by brick walls and consumed by vegetation, so we designed a house in a similar brick. I’ve learned to trust those first instincts.
The design process was quite easy, because we knew what we wanted; after all, we were also “the client”. I think this aspect of the project has had the greatest resonance in my subsequent career: the fact that I was also the investor, the risk-taker, the brief-writer and, ultimately, the decision-maker. As such, I am now able to empathise with clients.
We designed the space with two thoughts in mind: to live in it as a generous two-bed and, down the line, to develop it for sale, or convert it if we wanted to expand our family. (Our daughter was born in the house.) We used inexpensive brick and spent a bit more money on joinery. The kitchen, which fits into a niche in the wall, is made from oak and stainless steel. There is a roof light in the centre of the house, while the front and back doors open up to a south-facing courtyard and a north-facing terrace.
When Joe and I separated in 2016, Duggan Morris demerged and we had to sell the house. A friend bought it and invited me over several times, but I made up excuses. I just didn’t want to go back. Then the house was sold again, to a client, who commissioned me in late 2018 to design a studio in the garden. Of course, I had to go back, even though I knew the space intimately.
It wasn’t easy because, under different circumstances, I would still be living in King’s Grove. In fact, I might be building an extension for myself now. But it was great to see it in really good condition. It is the sort of house in which the details don’t tire, because it’s made from very honest materials: brick, glass and oak. I got this strong sense that I had designed something that could stand the test of time.
Private house, Richmond, London, 1990
In 1990, when I was in my mid-30s and still quite inexperienced, I was approached by the fashion photographer Nick Knight and his wife, Charlotte, to expand their London home. They were living in a postwar house that Nick’s father had built. Nick wanted a studio upstairs and more space for his young family. At the time, I had a small office of four or five people and we were working with the designer Issey Miyake on a number of store interiors in Japan. This was my first building.
I was excited about everything I was seeing in Japan at the time: they tend to treat the garden as part of the house. Most of Nick’s neighbours spent a lot of money on their facades; we did the opposite. We concentrated on how the house and garden could connect. We created a large concrete frame that extended out from the side of the house, which had the effect of partially enclosing a courtyard garden. It also meant that the corner of the living room could be opened up, without a supporting column, framing a view into the garden, creating an outside space that feels like an indoor one.
We ended up with a fight on our hands. The whole street lobbied against it, writing to Prince Charles to try to have it stopped. The people across the road kept their curtains drawn for a couple of years in protest. It was an introduction to conservative English taste, which was quite shocking. It wasn’t that the house was too big; it was that the front didn’t look like the other houses in the street. That was the worst part of the process for me. Once we started to build, it was easy by comparison.
Designing and building houses for people is a delicate process, which is why I only take on one or two at a time. Success depends very much on how you develop a way of being personal and professional: that relationship is critical.
This was the first time I had a central idea to my work – the idea of creating an expansive view in a suburban street – and it is a strategy I’ve lived by since. The house has been part of Nick and Charlotte’s life for 30 years and I think it has helped them formulate a work-life balance. Nick’s work is incredibly intense and demanding, yet he is dedicated to his family. I like to think the house has played a role.
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