Red House by Tony Fretton Architects
©Hélène Binett & Peter Durant
An interview with Tony Fretton
The following interview was conducted via ZOOM in August 4th, 2023 by Ștefan Simion and Radu Tîrcă
I propose our talk to touch three chapters: your formation, office and teaching. Let’s start with your formation: how were things back in London when you studied architecture? Can you tell us something about how you decided to choose architecture?
Well, when I was quite young in my early teens I wanted to be a painter, and by accident, I read an article in the Sunday Newspaper about city planning and a very adventurous scheme that was never realized in the English provinces. A scheme by a city architect. This was the mid 1960’s, a time of fantastic optimism, and I was entranced by architecture because of its social dimension. It was a social art rather than a personal art. So I decided I would study architecture, and, eventually, I went to the Architecture Association (AA) school at the age of 21, which was quite late, after I had worked in construction. My family were working people. In the 1960’s, the education system in England positively supported working people. All of fees were paid and I received enough money to live on, even though I had a family.
So you received the money as a student?
Yes, if you were offered a place at an accredited university, the municipality had to pay your fees and a maintenance grant. That has changed, and now our students have to pay a lot of money. UK universities are run on a business model. The music of that period by bands such as The Who, and later in 1970s` Punk, originated in Art schools. My five years at the AA were very unstructured, which I found difficult, but in some ways, they were also a wonderful time of experiment, and there was a strong ecological movement in the school that predated current attitudes. At the same time the technocratic vision of Buckminster Fuller was a very big influence.
Archigram were influential in the school in ways that I disliked. My final year tutor was James Gowan, Sterling's former partner and co-designer of the Leicester Engineering Building, a very intelligent, and ironic Scotsman. Gowan taught students of every ability and got the best out of them. A tutorial with him would include a discussion of the Lancaster bomber which had a geodesic structure so it could still fly home after part of it had been shot away. At that time he was producing very strange, rather surrealistic buildings. He understood the role of irrationality in design processes, which I described in the foreword to the last book about his work. His teaching career was long and among others he taught Stephen Taylor and Stephen Bates of Sergison Bates.
Trade ad for King Biscuit Flower Hour featuring The Who, 1974
Buckminster Fuller, United States pavilion for Expo 1967, Montréal
Stirling Gowan, 1959-63, University of Leicester Engineering Building, Leicester, UK
So at that time, was the AA more pragmatic than today?
It was a school of experiment rather than a formal architecture education, although we studied construction and engineering. After a period of study, the very charismatic Alvin Boyarsky became head of school and under his leadership designers such as Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid came to the fore. The other candidate for head of school was Kenneth Frampton. If had won, the AA would have been a very different, more academic and perhaps better school.
Reading your other interviews, I discovered that you had been a member of the performance group Station Opera House. I wanted to ask you if this experience was important in finding your voice as an architect.
Working with them coincided with a moment of disillusion with architecture. I couldn't see that it had the expressive and enquiring capabilities of the visual arts I was looking at. I looked for a way to make architecture as capable, and I found it through working in performance. Station House was working with the same material as architecture: situations, paces, objects of furniture, and use but through their orientation as conceptual artists, were revealing their political and social content. I was able to apply that insight in a number of small architectural projects that were not built, such as Mute Records, and then in the first Lisson Gallery, and then in the second building that is better known and was very significant for the younger generation of architects such as Sergison Bates and Caruso St John. They and I and others from their generation – Mark Pimlott, Ferruccio Izzo, Diana Periton, formed a writing group called Papers on Architecture, to make writing by practitioners that reflected the emerging issues of that moment. Sadly that group fell apart after a year, but some of its members went on to become professors in European schools and to write from those positions.
I was visiting professor in EPFL in Lausanne in 1995-6, which was perhaps the happiest time of my life. There I met people who are still friends and with whom we still work with. In Switzerland I found a very rigorous, academically proper architectural culture, which I also recognised when I later became professor at the Technical University of Delft in 1999. I had wonderful colleagues in Mark Pimlott and Christoph Grafe and together we educated two generations of significant Dutch architects. We hired the best young practitioners and academics from everywhere to work within the architectural department.
Lissons Gallery, Tony Fretton Architects,
<<I was visiting professor in EPFL in Lausanne in 1995-6, which was perhaps the happiest time of my life. There I met people who are still friends and with whom we still work with. In Switzerland I found a very rigorous, academically proper architectural culture, which I also recognised when I later became professor at the Technical University of Delft in 1999. I had wonderful colleagues in Mark Pimlott and Christoph Grafe and together we educated two generations of significant Dutch architects.>>
The Public Interior as Idea and Project
Mark Pimlott, 2022
Oase Journal #101 bookcover
I was thinking, of course, that practice and teaching are so interconnected that it's difficult to set them aside. You wrote in your monograph ‘Buildings and their Territories designing, constructing and establishing meaning in buildings are collective activities, and that the skills of your colleagues are intrinsic to the work. I was wondering, has this plurality of voices been important right from the start, when you began your practice, or the discovery of who you are, the testing, is a more solitary endeavour?
At the beginning, it would have been good to have had people who thought like me, and we could have worked as a group, but without being immodest, there wasn't anybody thinking like me. So, I had an office like everybody does, an office driven by me with capable recent graduates. We did that until, let's say, about 1990. It was a moment when I thought I needed a structure and I invited Jim McKinney who was working with me to become my partner. Later David Owen came to the practice and became a partner. Jim has extraordinary skill in organisation and finance. David is a polymath with knowledge that extends from construction to computing and he also teaches as I continue to do. We pass our knowledge on to younger staff; the office is small and undivided so they overhear all of the design and management conversations.
So when you say tiny, how many people are in the office?
There are five of us now. We were 20 about 15 years ago. Being a small practice when we worked outside the UK, you have to work with an executive office, who knows the local culture of building and legislation, and they make all of the production information based on our design intent drawings.
Holland and Belgium have superb technical offices, that are very sympathetic with the architects they serve. Because they work with a wide cast of design architects they bring very interesting technical knowledge to our projects.
In various places architects say that this is like a loss for the architectural practices, not being able for one single office or architect to hold everything together.
We do not find that, provided you have the right executive.
I want to go back to your question about collective working. My practice started to emerge at the time of star architects, and little by little, it became very clear that I rejected architectural stardom. I have always worked fairly with people to engage their talents as much as I could, but to lead as well. But it is crucial to recognise and promote your own personal talent. I had an interesting conversation with a young colleague at London Metropolitan where I teach. He said something that reminded me of a moment in my early career where I couldn't see why my design was better than anybody else's in the office. My view, which I gave to my colleague is that among architects only a small percentage have inventiveness and an even smaller percentage of those have the strength and ability to form an individual practice. If you evidently have those qualities then you have a duty to lead. There has to be leadership for there to be architecture and there has to be fairness for the people who give part of their lives to work for you.
What you're saying now brings back to mind what you said about the fiction of the city and to this idea, which is much debated these days, about the authorship - the architect as an author. You were talking about the buildings in British cities being made by builders and functionaries, work which is authorless because, as you said, like architects, they don't have a position. I was wondering if this idea of authorship entails a responsibility to society or to the self-evolving architect.
<<We are living in a stage of capitalism that commodifies both architectural talent and the desired outcome>>
If we only have authorless, or to say it better, uninformed and uncommitted architecture, cities are horrible. For any quality we rely on people who deeply commit their lives to architecture and are better thinkers about the built environment than everybody else. I should be clear about what I mean by a better thinker. By this I mean a thinker with a real and developed social sense, rather than an ability to conjure imagery.
We are living in a stage of capitalism that commodifies both architectural talent and the desired outcome. We can see this very clearly in the appetite of corporate clients, leaders of cultural institutions and oligarchs for architectural gestures with no longevity. The outcome is cities like London or Moscow full of preposterous monuments. My mind goes back to a time, when design professionals used their scientific skills of thinking to make pieces of work that were beautiful, good and beneficial. Ove Arup, the engineer was a wonderful example of this. A great professional with intellectual authority. Underlying this, you need effective politics producing, implementing and maintaining, which was what Richard Rogers, a humanist and a political player of some skill, aimed for.
My office, like many others, is outside that realm of control but we have shown that quite ordinary work can be progressive and thoughtful and can work with two polarities: on the one hand satisfying ordinary need with pleasure, light, sun, and a feeling of wholeness, and on the other making a contribution to visual culture.
Artsway Visual Arts, Tony Fretton Architects, Hampshire UK
You have designed an important series of projects related to art, besides galleries and museums. You also made houses and homes for very well-known artists.
Our most inventive work has been made for cultivated clients who are sensitive to architectural creativity independently of how wealthy they are.
Private houses of small scale are very interesting in themselves and can be made to have a public presence. When designing the Red House I was thinking of a Dutch canal house or a palazzo in Venice, both of which are right on the public street, and reveal some of their interiors. The proximity to the street of something that was very private and beautiful has fascinating possibilities, and to think of them I had to look at historical examples.
I like very much the Anish Kapoor house, how the star-shaped courtyard took form in his imagination and how it’s been used after that.
I can't say how he imagined it, only how I imagined it. I design aesthetic things that might become significant to people who encounter them. I seem to be successful in this. People say they like and enjoy the buildings we design, and feel comfortable and at ease in them. The Lisson gallery is quite an abstract building, but lots of people find it extremely pleasing. Mark Cousins wrote a beautiful article on the Lisson Gallery. He said that much contemporary architecture is concerned with angst as my work is concerned with pleasure, a rare phenomenon.
I have another off topic question. I was thinking about the idea of composition and the fact that composition, as a method, has been recently blamed or, somehow, overcome. For example, I think Jacques Lucan has written a book, which addresses the way of doing architecture beyond composition and lists alternative strategies.
I particularly like, as you mentioned somewhere, this generous idea that you are happy when your architecture is open to use and misuse by people. I think this is very appealing; the idea of the open-building, as an open-oeuvre.
Yes! And at this point, I think I would like to touch upon your interest in the history of architecture – as you put it, as an architect, not as a historian. I think it was during the pandemic that you gave these lectures that are online now, on the topic of modern architecture. I was particularly struck by the fact that you said that all good architecture has been modern. I wanted to ask you, how can history become instrumental in producing new architecture?
<<The need for known objects becomes very important as we have to change construction and form of buildings in relation to climate change. Those changes need a comforting and credible architectural narrative.>>
Let’s say that intellectual history, history of politics or ideas has value in removing subjectivity from facts and showing what really happened. But that's not the history that architects are involved in. Our history of architecture is something different. Instead of ‘history’ I should really say “buildings and construction that went before” that have lessons for the present time. Think of a window, thousands of years ago, somebody made a hole in the wall to let the light in and then put an animal skin over it. Then, glass was invented, but it was only available in small pieces and probably only used in churches. Later it became used in houses, but only with small panes and single glazing. Then, it became available in larger panes with double glazing and then triple glazing. Then, it became available in window frames, which had thermal insulation in the frame and proper seals, so that you can build a passive house, where you reduce the amount of heat loss or air leakage. So think of that. So a window is full of practical history, which can be made to be felt intuitively by someone who uses or encounters it. But the door of the house might remind them of something they saw when they were a child. As a designer, you can be conscious of the associations and emotional, affecting qualities of parts of buildings and, through ambiguity, make them the imaginative property of others. The attitudes I describe come directly from performance. For an architect, the door is just a thing with hinges and a handle that you can design to look in different ways. For me, it's an experiential object. The need for known objects becomes very important as we have to change construction and form of buildings in relation to climate change. Those changes need a comforting and credible architectural narrative.
As Stefan mentioned, we all watched your lectures. I think you beautifully stated that you are interested in the term of calculated ambiguity in your architecture. Is there a certain relationship between this idea and Allison and Peter Smithson’s idea of ''as found''?
Yes, if we mean the way that people use buildings differently from their original intention, then that is a valuable insight into the capacity of buildings to be used in different ways without much structural alteration. That's how I would interpret “as found”. I try to make plans as open to interpretation as possible. The occupants of the Prinsedam apartment building we realised in Amsterdam invited us to see how they had reworked their homes. Some were very beautiful and others were bizarre but all expressed the idea of habitability of their owners.
You should make plans that are open to re-imagination by the people that live there while providing credible symbolism for how their building works in the city.
Let’s go back to this simultaneous activity of teaching and practicing. For me, it’s somehow a complicated relationship between the two. As a teacher, you must allow the voice of the student to grow and, in doing so, you are open to the plurality of possibilities in architecture, whereas being an architect, you must get to your own convictions and always narrow the path you're taking. As a teacher it's opening, but as an architect it’s narrowing. Have you thought to this relationship?
<<Design thinking is not logical. It's intuitive and, like all intuitive things, it has structures and realities, but it doesn't have logic. So, I get them to enjoy their creative minds by being unafraid to explore possibilities that may initially not seem good.>>
As a teacher I guide students’ individual responses critically to a programme and show them how that response can be refined. All of the programmes I set have a real site brief, schedule of areas and a description of the culture of the building. My approach in part is to show that briefs need to be interpreted and how to work by designing and redesigning to produce a workable whole.
The projects I set are often buildings themes that I've designed for example the Warsaw Embassy and Camden Arts Centre. To do this, you have to go through the scheme and take out some of the reality, such as client interaction, legislation, politics so that the project stays realistic in some ways.
Then I get the students to make three studies in different forms, working quite pragmatically, so that they learn how height and plan shape affects the utility and appearance, and have them develop a single scheme from their studies. This helps them generalise their knowledge, commit to some decisions and develop them. Sometimes it is productive to put the scheme to one side and do some other course work, like writing an essay and then come back. I show them how design thinking can work. Design thinking is not logical. It's intuitive and, like all intuitive things, it has structures and realities, but it doesn't have logic. So, I get them to enjoy their creative minds by being unafraid to explore possibilities that may initially not seem good.
My question was somehow in this area. To my view, there’s a certain trend among the much mediated architecture studios in Europe where, if you look to the student projects outcome of a certain studio, you'll see more or less of the same project, with minor variations. This might be the model of the student who is being exposed, experienced to his teacher's way of doing.
I think that your described method seems the alternative, where the teacher creates an environment of test, or even of mistake, of debatable issues. To my view, it's very healthy to have the courage to propose the mistakes as a teaching device.
A studio being taught by a master has real value. Somebody like Hans Kollhoff would teach such a studio. It's very confined and the work does look like Kollhoff's work, but the students learn an enormous amount from it. They learn discipline. They learn a certain power of thought, so I wouldn't replace that with what I'm teaching. I teach in another way that shows students their ideas and how to develop them.
Sylvia who I taught some time ago and still talk to, said “You have to understand that not everybody has your ambition or talent”. I learned that you have to show students their talent, get them to value it and be more critical than they would naturally be. The UK schools educate all students as if they will be lead designers, which does not recognise the wide range of skills that are needed in an architectural office. When I was Professor in Delft, if a student found that they did not have design abilities, they could transfer to project management or construction architecture with complete honour. When my office realised projects in Holland, we met project managers who had begun by studying Interiors before graduating in project management, and they understood that design was a very important part that they could not imagine, but they could make it happen.
It's a pragmatic approach. Listening to you, I was thinking to the many debates we have in our university about how our school should be. It's the biggest one in Romania, having about 350 students per year or maybe more if we count all the faculties. There’s always talk of how can we perfect our university. It’s about this ideal school of architecture that's always floating around us. I was just wondering if the search for an ideal school of architecture is necessary or should it be more pragmatic and more anchored into the real world?
<<I don't believe in a perfect school of architecture. I think the ambition of a very good school of architecture is to be very aware of changes in architectural practice.>>
I'm much more of an idealist than a pragmatist. A pragmatist is somebody who will always do something that's expedient rather than good. I would always try to do the good in a bad situation. There's a great line from an American President, Theodore Roosevelt, who said “I did what I could, with what I had, where I was”. You could see that as pragmatism, but in fact it is highly creative.
I don't believe in a perfect school of architecture. I think the ambition of a very good school of architecture is to be very aware of changes in architectural practice. ETH Zurich has a very valuable system. Its course provides a very thorough educational base, examinable lectures, calculations, building construction. There are good long term professors that are optimistic, not bureaucratic or difficult who run the school. Then there are visiting professors, for one or two years, where students’ lives can be touched by wilder ideas. Most important is the political and financial structure by which a school is governed, whether that structure allows proper intellectual study or whether it doesn't. The British schools have suffered through the diffusion of neo-liberal ideas into areas where it is most inappropriate. Universities used to be places where internally they generated the ideas that spread out to the world. The system in the UK imposes constantly changing socio-economic ideas on universities. And, so, you lose intellectual power and the respect for intellectuals is taken away, which is very damaging.
I didn't see that in Holland and in Belgium, where architects are understood to be people who are capable of doing certain things that nobody else can do, and they're allowed to do it. These are factors in the formation of a school of architecture that are very, very important.
It's a mix of all that. When you come here, we'll show you and get into things more. Thank you very much for your time. We’re looking forward to your presence here, in Bucharest.
Leibnizkolonnaden am Walter-Benjamin-Platz,
Hans Kollhoff Architects
Tietgens apartments, Tony Fretton architects,