Inside The Homes Of Britain’s Star Architects

They are happy to lay down the law on what makes a good stadium, tower block or concert hall, but do architects practise what they preach when it comes to their own dwellings?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Inside the homes of our star architects” was written by Rachel Cooke, for The Observer on Saturday 22nd September 2012 23.04 UTC

A few years ago I went on a tour of Balfron Tower, a 26-storey block of flats in Poplar, east London. The brutalist Balfron, designed by Erno Goldfinger, was built in 1965-67, and for a few scant weeks in 1968 Goldfinger moved into the building himself, the better to convince the world how utterly fantastic his design was (his real home was in Hampstead). The legend goes that he and his wife, Ursula, threw champagne parties to find out what the residents – the building was owned by London County Council – liked (and disliked) about their new home. I don’t know precisely what they told him, but someone ending up loving Balfron. In 1996 it was Grade II listed.

Two things stick in my mind about my visit. The first was the lift, which stops only at every third floor, and was sinisterly long and narrow because, or so our guide told us, it was designed to accommodate a coffin. The second was a debate I had with an architectural historian inside a flat close to the top of the building. Naturally, he was all for Balfron. You should have seen the beatific expression that suffused his face as he urged me to admire its generous proportions, its clever layout, its wonderful view. I was less certain. Would you like to live here? I asked. He insisted that he would. Then he admitted that he actually lived in a Georgian house in Royal Greenwich.

I suppose this was predictable. The dinner party myth about architects is that, just like your parents, they expect you to listen to what they say, not copy what they do. On their drawing boards lies the shock of the new: unlikely angles, acres of concrete (or metal or glass), severe corridors. Only then they put down their pencils, hop in their Fiat 500s and go home to something old and elegant, with sweeping banisters, delicate fanlights and biscuity floorboards.

Is this fair? Surely there are lots of architects who practise what they preach, who see their houses as another expression of their work, as a private arena for solving problems and coming up with new ideas. And even if there aren’t, does this matter? The fact that most fashion designers look truly awful doesn’t stop us from wanting to buy their clothes. Why should we hold architects to a different standard from other creative professionals?

If you spend all day thinking about how to make a building seem witty and sharp, perhaps it is soothing to retreat to something more, well, neutral – the architectural equivalent, you might say, of Philip Larkin rereading Dick Francis. To try to answer these questions, we interviewed some of the architects shortlisted for this year’s Stirling prize in their own homes, on their own sofas. Where do they live, and how? Do their homes even remotely resemble the theatres, galleries and stadi ums on which their reputations are built? Or are they secret repositories of soggy sofas and wonky shelving? To find out, read on.

John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell

The architects of Belfast’s Lyric theatre on their Georgian home in Rathmines, Dublin

When Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey – partners in life as well as in architecture – moved into their Georgian house in Rathmines, Dublin, 20 years ago, the first thing they did was to remove the first floor. “And that improved it greatly,” says Tuomey, with a certain kind of understatement. More important, it was a move they knew they wouldn’t be able ever to reverse. Why did that matter? “Well, it’s easy to make decisions for other people. It’s more difficult for yourself, though I do know some architects who are wilful enough to do it.” It’s for similar reasons, he thinks, that so many architects favour Georgian houses. “It’s easier to pretend that something has happened to you, that you’re stuck with some things. Also, Georgian houses are plain on the front, and loose enough [inside] to fade away and become architecture in a different sense – to become, perhaps, a kind of scaffolding.”

Removing the first floor turned the bottom of the house into one vast room, and the feeling when you walk into it, and gaze up at all its unexpected height, is of being in a tower, or a keep; there is even a kind of minstrels’ gallery, a wooden walkway that leads out onto a roof terrace. But it’s not austere. The space, scattered with books and comfortable chairs, isn’t minimalist – and it is bounded, more cosily, by later, less dramatic additions at the back of the house: a garden room, built of concrete, glass and iroko (poor man’s teak), and a tiny study, built entirely of wood, and painted to resemble a beach hut. The garden room, in particular, is a lovely space; airy, and open to the elements, but with a protected sturdiness that means you would be as content to sit in it in winter as in summer. “Actually, it was a kind of experiment,” says Tuomey. “The windows were a test for the windows of the Lyric [the Belfast theatre that has won them a place on this year's Stirling prize shortlist]. We liked the feeling that you can have glassiness, without losing heaviness, that you can be contained at the same time as the outside is inside.”

Gutting the house, and doing lots of things to it at the same time so that it would look all of a piece, was not for Tuomey and O’Donnell. They prefer the idea of a conversation between old and new to the blank slate. “This house is the story of the family,” says O’Donnell (the couple have two sons). “Each part of it tells a different part of that story. But I wouldn’t call it a hotch-potch. Everything sits together quite happily, everything is built with the same sensibility, if not with the same materials.”

As Tuomey puts it: “Without getting too theoretical, the most important thing in architecture is the feeling of the continuous present. Old and new things shouldn’t look like they don’t know one another. It’s like a bookshelf: you put things beside each other, and there they stand. Your new thing should feel like it was already there, and has come into itself out of what was around it. Every single building was new, once, and it’s not a crisis.”

You can feel this philosophy everywhere in their house. In the kitchen is a set of black leather and chrome Corbusier chairs – one of the first things they bought together, 30 years ago. Their dining table once belonged to O’Donnell’s parents, only now it is surrounded by a good set of mid-century Danish chairs. In the garden, which feels vaguely Japanese, are two chairs by Jasper Morrison (the 1986 Thinking Man’s Chair), but the space is also overlooked by the imposing copper dome of Rathmines church. You sense, powerfully, the couple’s pleasure in things, in what Tuomey calls “useful beauty”.

Their house, like yours or mine, is an accumulation, a series of layers. But it is also a way of thinking about their work. “Thinking about it is a way of keeping the mind agile, like a form of exercise,” says O’Donnell. “In that sense, not doing something, but talking about it ad infinitum, has a positive aspect. Everything is possible, for ever.” In other words, there is always a plan. Right now, for instance, they are thinking about building a studio at the end of their garden. Will it happen? Perhaps. Then again, it might not. After all, even after two decades, their staircase still has no bannister. As they both tell me, they would install one tomorrow – if only they could definitively work out what might look, and feel, best.

David Chipperfield

The architect of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery on his family’s large 1920s flat in Portland Place, central London

David Chipperfield doesn’t entirely approve of my desire to nosy around his flat. He thinks the standard of discourse about architecture is quite low enough, without me going on about – as he puts it – lifestyle.

“In this country, we seem to have decided that the general public isn’t interested in, or capable of, discussing architecture,” he says. “The debate is poor, and cliched. British society seems not to be comfortable talking about it at all unless some kind of big confrontation is involved, and this is a problem for us because it’s society that commissions us in the end.”

On the other hand, as even he concedes: “Seeing architecture differently from the way you see the rest of life is a bit weird. I believe one should be consistent in all that one does, from the books you read to the way you bring up your children. Everything you do is connected. The way we live as a family [he and his wife, Evelyn, have three children; he also has a son from his first marriage] is difficult to separate from the way we behave at the office. There’s no line between them.”

A decade ago, Chipperfield built a house by the sea in Galicia, Spain. “My children spend the summer there, and all the directors come, and our clients, and we probably have better conversations there than we do in the office.”

In London, the family shares a huge flat in Portland Place; the building – I would guess it was built in about 1920 – stands roughly halfway between John Nash’s Park Crescent (at the north end of the street) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (whose HQ was designed by George Grey Wornum in the 1930s). Not that Chipperfield chose it for its proximity to RIBA. “It was a trade-off. We wanted to live in the centre of London, and there are only so many ways you can do that unless you are very rich. To be honest, the ceilings are a bit low, it hasn’t got great charm, it gets a bit dark at the back. You don’t walk in, and say: oh, this is a nice room. It’s not really architecture. There’s a lot of plasterboard involved. But it’s a nice, anonymous, urban flat, and you can walk to the theatre.”

He and his wife bought it from a Greek shipping magnate. “We moved in, and for the first year, we lived with all the drapes. It was completely chintzy.” How did that feel? “I have to say it was quite relaxing because it [the interior] was clearly nothing to do with us.” Eventually, though, they opened the flat up, and painted it white. “Then we had the idea to divide the space using vitrines. There is a lot of dust in central London, and we have a lot of books, so I thought: let’s make the shelves glass fronted. Then we thought: instead of collecting stuff and putting it in cupboards, why don’t we put everything in them? Whenever we went travelling, the kids would find something, and say: I think this is for the cabinet.”

Chipperfield prefers horizontal living to vertical. “Evelyn used to have this little house in Chelsea, and I called it the Staircase. That big table over there we brought with us from our old flat, and the idea was that the kids wouldn’t go to their bedrooms to do their homework; they would do it there. We all work around one big table.” The table is right beside the kitchen. “That’s part of the public space, the idea being that when someone’s cooking, they’re not on their own, and they don’t have to shout ‘Dinner’s ready!’ down a corridor.”

Does it bother him if things aren’t quite right? (He has just told me that the enormous – and slightly uncomfortable – white leather modular sofa on which we’re both sitting might soon be on its way out). “Not really. It’s the house in Spain that is my complete statement of intent. That’s how I see architecture, and life. Of course, holiday homes are slightly easier. You have one of everything, and nothing more. Every CD we don’t listen to I send back to London, and the books are all culled. Not in a minimalistic way; in a precise way. It’s like a ship: everything on it, you want to go down with. All my values are somehow in it.”

In the end, though, houses that depend on everything inside them being just so are probably a kind of failure. Good architecture is robust, he tells me, with the result that it is also remarkably forgiving. “There’s a tyranny in having to have everything straight. We have a bit of that here, but hopefully not too much.”

Rod Sheard

The leader of the team that designed the Olympic stadium on his new-brick mews house in Putney, south-west London

Rod Sheard, who led the team at Populous, which designed the Olympic stadium, lives in a mews house – in fact, it’s two houses knocked together – close to the Thames in Putney, south-west London. Or at least, his address insists on the word “mews”. In reality, we’re talking about a cul-de-sac; this eerily quiet enclave was built only 20 years ago, by which time the need for stables and carriage houses had long since passed.

Sheard is Australian, and when he first moved to London in the 70s, he lived in Crouch End. But then his practice started to grow, and it seemed sensible to buy an office building, rather than merely to rent one. So he moved west. “A developer was selling six houses here,” he says. “A group of us – we were all friends – got together and negotiated to buy all of them. A few of them have moved away now, but for a while it was our own little community.” Meanwhile, his practice moved into a building across the courtyard, with the result that his commute now involves a stroll of less than two minutes.

How does his home connect to his working life as an architect? “That’s a complicated question. I love simple, clean spaces, but it’s what goes on inside that matters most.” Sheard admits he sometimes lies in bed at night worrying about his buildings (Populous is now in competition to design the French national rugby stadium in Paris). But his own home troubles him not at all.

“If the house were more imposing, we might feel differently. But it’s not sacrosanct. We move things about all the time. Corbusier had it just about right when he talked about machines for living. We don’t dwell on it. It’s a utilitarian thing.” From where I’m sitting, on a pale leather sofa, I can see an Arco floor lamp but not much else in the way of iconic pieces. Where, I wonder, is his Eames recliner? Isn’t it the law that he should own one? He laughs. “We’ve got a Corb recliner.” Is he fussy about furniture? “Only to a minimal level. Architects get things out of perspective sometimes.”

I suggest that it’s surprising such a distinguished architect would choose to live in such a relatively undistinguished building (across the UK, there must be many thousands of houses like this one, built of biscuity new brick with a dash of stucco and the occasional balustrade). Again, he laughs. “I’m sorry to be such a disappointment. But we do have another home in Sydney, and I designed that one myself.”

What’s it like? “Well, I was very into de Stijl [the Dutch artistic movement, founded in 1917, whose leading lights included Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld] at the time. So it’s a series of white cubes, with certain elements – the awnings, the chimney – picked out in bright colours.” With its view of the bay, its pontoons and its pools, it sounds lovely; and perhaps – though this is my interpretation, not Sheard’s – it gives its architect licence not to worry too much about this place, over which, he jokes, he has only “as much control as my wife and kids allow”.

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