Interview: Kees van der Sande of Formation on the architecture of ultra-prime

PrimeResi meets Formation Architects’ Kees van der Sande to get the inside track on some of London’s most talked-about luxury projects – and how the practice is planning for the future…

Here in a former taxi factory about four miles south of Mayfair, some of PCL’s most important residences are being fashioned by a surprisingly under-the-radar firm of architects.

Formation has been in business for a good 55 years, but the last five have seen its emergence as a bona fide design powerhouse, taking on and delivering everything from city masterplans to ultra-prime mansions of the highest order.

Few songs or dances have been made of these super and ultra-prime projects – a small green logo on the plans often being the extent of the promotion – but those in the know, know.

We’ve travelled into deepest Oval to meet one of the directors, Kees van der Sande, to find out how this forward-thinking practice likes to operate, and get the inside track on some of the most talked-about luxury projects of recent years.

After successful stints at KPF, Terry Farrell, Patel Taylor, and a period managing part of his family furniture making business (founded just around the corner from here in Vauxhall in 1876), van der Sande joined Formation in 2008. You won’t see his, or any of his fellow directors’ names above the door, though. In fact, that’s about as much personal profiling as we’re afforded. Often it’s very much the other way around.

The company set-up is an interesting one. Officially launched as an Employee Owned Trust last year, the shares are no longer owned by any individual or group, but held in trust to make sure that everything is run for the benefit of its employees, whilst encouraging succession from one generation to the next. So what kind of culture does that require – and create?

‘We are keen for our staff to be entrepreneurial because they will be the ones who need to drive it forward now and in the future’

“The Trust structure means that the although the company has key directors running the business, we’ve sought to grow our senior management from within”, he tells us. “We are very open about how the practice is run, and there is no figurehead personality shouting people down or the behind doors secrecy that you find in many design businesses. We are keen for our staff to be entrepreneurial because they will be the ones who need to drive it forward now and in the future. We also have social outreach programs with charities and schools in Lambeth which the staff have been keen to initiate since our move to Lambeth.”

The buzzy open-plan studio clearly isn’t designed for building big egos, and the low-key attitude is all the more impressive given the level of projects now being delivered, in a run of form kickstarted by a certain high-profile refurbishment in Mayfair…

Dudley House at 100 Park Lane (Credit: Philip Durrant)

Van der Sande describes the transformation of the iconic Grade II* Dudley House at 100 Park Lane into a 44,000 square foot super-home as a “game-changer” for the practice: “The project originally came from our relationship with Hammerson. Having a very grand office on Park Lane didn’t really work for them, so we were appointed to work on the planning consent.

“We obtained a number of permissions for apartments and a single house and worked with Savills to market the opportunity. It was then picked up by the current owner, who appointed Alberto Pinto as interior designer, with Formation retained as heritage, planning consultant, and architect for the rest of the project.”

The vast Grecian-inspired pile, first built for the Dudley Ward family back in 1827, would be painstakingly reinstated as one of the largest and most valuable private houses in the capital, with conservative estimates putting the finished article in £250m-plus territory. Fully restored to its original Regency and Victorian glory, with gold leaf and soaring ceilings throughout, the 21st century iteration has 17 bedrooms and 14 reception rooms, including a show-stopping 50-foot ballroom, an 81-foot art gallery, and exquisite furnishings said to be worth £100m in their own right.

‘The quality is better than anything else I’ve seen’

“Despite being such big house it genuinely feels like someone’s home. That is the unique skill of Pinto – the collaboration with the artwork and antiques allowed it to really work far better than any project I’ve seen. The quality is better than anything else I’ve seen. It is extraordinary and represents client patronage at its very best.”

The timing, in the fallout of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, could have been seen as unfortunate, but one “brave” client and a team of contractors hellbent on making a success of the situation delivered something “very special”, he says: “Everyone in the depths of the recession realised they had to get this right and they gave it everything.”

The Grade II* mansion is now one of the largest and most valuable private houses in the capital

So after a project like that, surely the requests just came flooding in? Well not exactly… “We got to the end thinking this is amazing – on time and on budget – and waited for the phone to ring. Except it didn’t. It took quite a while.

“But we eventually moved on to work on Connaught Place with 1508, then Halkin House, The Glebe, Upper Phillimore Gardens and most recently Forbes House. The challenge was trying to manage that growth – we didn’t want to say yes to everything – and that DNA that started with Dudley House is still going through to all of those projects.

‘We didn’t want to say yes to everything’

“I am very proud that seven of our original team of nine from 100 Park Lane still work with us including a Part I student who is now qualified and expertly delivering a 7,000 square foot house in Belgravia and another junior assistant now in charge of Lots Road Power Station. We’re all spread out amongst the firm now, but the DNA of what was delivered for Dudley House is present in every project.”

Formation is working with Collett-Zarzycki and Gumuchdjian Architects to create seven luxury dwellings and two villas within the retained walls of the former Jamahiriya School on Glebe Place in Chelsea

Now finding itself scaling the AJ 100, with 42 registered architects, a 70-strong team, and clients ranging from Cliveden to Crest Nicholson, the capability and capacity is there to take on an unusually wide variety of projects from single dwellings to regional regeneration programmes: “We’ve got the skills to be able to work on two or three complicated £50m projects at the same time and do them all well. At the same time we’re doing a lovely £400k spa project. The flow of people between teams is quite fluid – the opportunities are here so they don’t have to go to another practice to work on what they’re interested in.”

A recent project on Upper Phillimore Gardens

And while international expansion surely beckons, it seems there’s no place quite like home, especially when it comes to finding the best artisans and craftspeople: “London and the UK is somewhere where we can deliver the best quality in the world. Other places keep talking about it but they’ve never really proved it in my opinion. As a consequence quite a lot of our collaborators are exporting their expertise internationally.”

The UK property market may be facing its toughest test in a decade, but van der Sande says he has “huge faith in London as an entity”, and points to numerous examples of the city reinventing itself (“Belgravia was once a speculative development”). A few things clearly still gripe, however: “The attitude towards residential basement development is based on envy; it’s very petty British thing about people making money from their properties. Why is it that when commercial properties are allowed to extend four storeys below, no one will question the consent or disruption, but the moment someone want to put a pool under their house, they’re taking liberties!”

As it’s fairly rare to get unbridled insight into the workings of a top architecture practice, we move on to how the team approaches an important new brief – what goes on behind the scenes?

Interior at 7 St James’s Square (CGI by V1)

“Well firstly there’s an element of panic, as they never come in when you think they’re going to! But we break the whole thing down into construction packages. It’s like the old saying: How do you eat an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time, so we strip a project down – get everyone comfortable that it can be built, on the level of finishes and what the challenges are – and then there’s a delivery plan.

“We are able to focus on both ends of the project chain really well; the creative inspiration and clients are at one end, and we can translate that into what the contractor wants in a very clear manner, while herding the myriad of other consultants and specialists in between. We take on quite a large project management role, but importantly, never get in between the client and the interior designer.

“Managing a great scale of interior design talent, be it Pinto, Hoppen or Marino, and being able to adapt to their style to make sure the delivery is seamless, is something we’ve developed over the years.”

A deep mutual respect for talent is clearly an overarching theme, and is allowing super-challenging schemes to reach new heights in terms of finish – and perhaps even more impressively, on time. Many would crow to the rooftops about the myriad projects casually pinned up on the back wall of this bustling studio, but that wouldn’t be Formation’s style.

We always thought of ourselves as frustrated builders’

He adds as we leave: “It makes it sound a bit unromantic, but there’s a lot of nonsense spoken about architecture, and people taking themselves too seriously. We always thought of ourselves as frustrated builders – that activity of building and seeing how it goes together is our great skill. We’re there to make sure it happens.

“You’ll find all these people doing incredible things in city centre workshops – making beautiful violins for example. We’re not that different – we may be doing super-posh things, but we’re doing it in a place that used to make taxis.

“We just happen to be fortunate enough to be building the world’s most beautiful houses.”

The splendid St James’s Square mansion was remodelled in 1911 by the great Sir Edwin Lutyens