25 April 2010

An architect's life

April's meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Society gave us an insight in to the life of an architect.

The story was told by Simon Tupper of local architects Initiatives in Design (IID) who were responsible for the building that we were meeting in.

The talk was usefully punctuated with many examples of IID's work, most of which seemed to be on churches or schools.

Simon went in to some detail on the design process from initial idea through to managing the finished building and explained the architect's role in this and how it varied from client to client depending on how they wanted to run the project. For example, some clients had over the build to a developer and the original architect either ceases to be involved or has to work with the developer as the new client.

IID, like the vast majority of practices, work on reasonably normal buildings. Things like the Gherkin may be the public face of modern architecture but not many architects get to work on projects like that.

As a result, most of the work came across as a fairly mundane mix of identifying the best building materials to use (and these change all the time so lots of research is needed) and working with local Development Control (a.k.a. Planning) departments to agree plans for a site. There was very little of the innovation and design flair that I was hoping for.

I am very interested in architecture but nothing Simon said made me want to be an architect.

What I found more compelling were the case studies used to illustrate the talk, some of which are outlined on the IID Timeline on their website.

For example, I was surprised to learn that one of the local independent schools has a new 300 seat theatre. This is larger than, say, the Orange Tree in Richmond and it seems a waste to have it locked away in a fee-paying school. Schools with theatres is a growing trend as they compete with each other for students and their parents' money.

I also learnt about Jolly Corner in St Andrew's Church that was built in remembrance of the well paediatrician Dr Hugh Reginald Jolly. This church is about five minutes walk from where I live yet I have never been inside it. A visit there is now on my to-do list.

This may have been my false impression from the brief talk but we saw lots of pictures of the outsides of schools and even a few floor plans but nothing was said about the design of classrooms and the educational benefit of this. I remarked some time ago that the new local secondary school, Chessington Community College, had some great communal spaces but the classrooms were traditional, inflexible and small.

The talk was very good in explaining what an architect does and in describing some of the project, and that made for a thoroughly worth-while evening put. Less positive was the impression that architects are not trying that hard to fundamentally improve the built environment around us (of course they are heavily constrained by their clients) and so I ended the talk better informed and with a better understanding but also with a twinge of disappointment.

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