PrimeResi meets Tim Bowder-Ridger, principal partner at top British interior design and architecture practice Conran and Partners, to discuss the legacy of the studio’s legendary founder, the key to creating desirable buildings and places, and why architects and designers have to be the world’s greatest optimists…
It has been over a year since the passing of Sir Terence Conran; how would you describe his legacy, and how is the studio adapting without its legendary founder?
Naturally, the passing of Sir Terence was a very sad moment for all of us and his legacy runs deep, not least as the partners and I all cut our teeth as architects and designers under his leadership. That said, as Terence had not been active in the practice for some years, the practical impact has been very limited.
Terence was the most intuitive designer I have known, and he was adamant that people’s lives and desires were never as segmented as our industry seemed to assume (he could never understand how architects could specialise in one ‘sector’ without equally understanding ways people live and behave as a whole). In fact, technology and then the pandemic have very tangibly accelerated the interweaving of people’s daily lives, meaning that homes, hotels and workplaces all refer to each other quite literally…in a way he and we have been championing for a long time.
The studio has moved to a new HQ in Clerkenwell after three decades in Butler’s Wharf; why did you choose this location, and have you made any long-term changes to working practices as a result of the pandemic?
It has been a big moment for us to leave our home of decades (I joined that studio in 1997). But it was also an ideal moment to recalibrate, not least due to the loss of Terence but also in response to the world that has so changed by the pandemic.
After two-plus years of suffering seemingly endless Teams and Zoom calls, there is a tangible and desperate need to come together in person.
Our choice of Clerkenwell was very much about wanting to be in the heart of London’s architecture and design community, and to be amongst our friends and collaborators. We have designed our studio with an emphasis on connecting to this (our front door and ‘shop’ window facing directly onto the street), but also ensuring that we prioritise collaboration in the studio.
For a studio with a capacity of 82 work stations, we have 10 break-out and meeting spaces, each with their own personalities for different tasks, and with a tone leaning towards what you would expect in hospitality rather than traditional offices.
The “escape to the country” has been a key theme over the last couple of years, but many are now talking about a “boomerang effect” bringing people back to the city; how would you describe clients’ current levels of confidence in the capital as a place to live, and do business?
My direct experience of this is in London, which remains one of the great cities to live in, and probably the greatest in Europe. The predictions of its demise post the vote to leave the EU and then during the height of the pandemic, were clearly made by people who did not understand its history and dynamic nature, nor the reasons people have flocked to it throughout its very long history, despite what has been happening in the wider world…including previous pandemics, traumas and political upheavals. There simply has not been a large-scale rush to Europe after Brexit, and the novelty of country living has clearly worn off for many – like a holiday that has gone on for too long?
If you speak to our clients, they understand the nature of London very clearly and simply adapt their product to suit the evolution of their clients’ needs. But in some ways the scare stories have been a healthy thing, as they make architects, designers and developers recognise what is special about our unique cities and what needs to be adapted and improved…just in time for many of those who left to realise their mistake!
Your current roster of projects includes luxury resi developments in Canary Wharf for British Land, five-star hotels such at The Peninsula London and Hong Kong, new workspaces for GPE and British Land, and retail and restaurant spaces around the world; is there a common thread or ethos that runs through all Conran projects?
We do not have a strict ‘house style’, instead we approach every project from first principles albeit, of course, our clients have invested into our accumulative experience and tone. Furthermore, we undertake a very large range of project types around the world as both architects and interiors designers, which all need to be considered in their own cultural and physical context.
Our job is not merely about problem-solving but is to offer the possible
However, we do have a common ethos, championed by Terence decades before anyone else, of understanding that people’s lifestyles are ever more fluid (the pandemic has just accelerated this) and their expectations quite naturally keep growing. Our job is not merely about problem-solving but is to offer the possible.
You are also working on the regeneration of Portobello Road, where new homes, cafes, shops and public spaces are being created – the first time the world-famous street has been physically extended; how are you ensuring the neighbourhood’s spirit isn’t lost along the way?
People are often surprised about how much regeneration work we undertake bearing in mind our reputation (and Terence’s before us) for up-market buildings, spaces and experiences. However, it was always Terence’s ambition (achieved through Habitat and many of his restaurants) to make good design accessible to everyone. We continue with this rather Scandinavian ethos and therefore get very excited by projects such as Portobello Road, especially as they are focused on a very plural mix of tenures.
In terms of the spirit of a place, and before we consider the physical character of our designs, we firstly embark on a substantial consultation process with the existing community. This is with a view to them having ownership of the big ideas and even down to quite detailed requirements. We find this an extraordinarily positive process and gives us confidence the heart of the neighbourhood, and then the real personality, is retained and built on.
Only then do we consider the physical form of our proposal and the influences of the physical context. Our starting point is to understand the history of the context and what is already there inside and outside of the project red-line. We try to retain as much as possible from a cultural as well as environmental sustainability point of view, and endeavour to make the building or neighbourhood a better version of itself. Where we are unable to retain existing buildings, as in this case, we endeavour to knit the new buildings into the wider context.
The practice has a studio in Hong Kong and is very active across Asia; are there plans to expand into other key territories around the world?
Whilst we have been working in East Asia for over 25 years, we more recently opened the Hong Kong studio as a way of engaging with that market more consistently as an international practice within similar time zones to our clients.
The final decision to go ahead with this was triggered by the Brexit vote and our immediate need to spread our risks and opportunities in a very uncertain environment and,notwithstanding the pandemic, this has proven to be a successful strategy so far.
However, it is still quite clear that the true ramifications of Brexit are only now becoming visible as the Covid fog lifts. In particular, the huge inflation in connection with material costs and the shortage of skills is currently the biggest risk to the UK business.
As with many of our peers, we did lose a number of staff who returned home to Europe during the pandemic, and only time will tell if they will return, bearing in mind the additional barriers that now exist. This, above everything else, does make us wonder whether we should have a European studio, but that discussion is currently only embryonic.
The portfolio bridges a number of high-end sectors; which is currently leading the way in terms of new design trends?
The hotel industry has long understood the ever-changing and increasing demands of it audience, and residential developers have recognised that the hotel experience is now the key reference points for their residents’ expectations. But more recently this has now also become fundamental in workplace, not least as employers have to work harder not only to get people back in from home-working, but also attract and retain the best talent in a very competitive employment market.
Residential developers have recognised that the hotel experience is now the key reference points for their residents’ expectations
From our perspective this is good news and completes the circle of our belief that mere functionality is never enough in creating places for people, and a blended and rounded approach to creating desirable buildings and places is key.
Is there a relationship between the studio and other Conran-branded ventures?
For the majority of my 25 years in Conran and Partners, we were part of a wider group of design, restaurant and retail companies, and this informed a wider view of creativity. But, other than Conran and Partners, these have all now been sold.
We still do, nevertheless, occasionally collaborate on specific projects, such as The Conran Shop in Seoul, and more regularly work with their contract furniture supply team (Conran Professional). But the relationship is now a simple client-consultant-contractor relationship, as with companies that do not share the heritage or part of our name. For instance, at times we are asked whether we are limited to specifying furniture that you can only get in The Conran Shop? The answer is absolutely not, and we work with a whole range of suppliers. We do, nevertheless, subject to the project, sometimes recommend Conran Professional to our clients, but purely on the merit of the service and quality of product they provide, which is very wide in its range and not limited to what we see in the stores.
The pandemic changed the way we view our homes; what are resi clients now prioritising, and which preferences do you think will endure post-pandemic?
I think there are two key elements that have gone up the priority list for homes due to the pandemic:
Firstly, the need for genuinely useable outside space…the more generous the better.
Secondly, and probably more material to changing how residential projects are designed, is to provide proper home-working spaces that are not the kitchen table, nor sitting on the edge of the spare bed, nor just a corner of the living room next to the tv.
Hybrid working is here to stay, but people still want to be able ‘shut the door’ on their laptops and Teams calls at the end of the day, or for that matter not impose their work life on their family or housemates. This inevitably will mean homes will need to get that bit bigger to allow for even a modest accommodation.
Failing that, having the equivalent of co-working spaces within residential buildings (without the need to put your coat on to get to it) is the alternative. Nothing that new, especially at the higher price-points, but I believe that these expectations will become mainstream if they are not already.
Where do you personally look for, and find, inspiration?
Great architecture and design always appears simple, even if the process to realising it can be extremely complex, but is should also have a sense of place and personality.
The understanding of the value of doing fewer things, but really well, influences my outlook enormously
There are a lot of inspirational reference points from looking back to the likes of Louis Kahn and forward to some of the emerging practices. But for me, I have travelled to Japan on business some 36 times, and the understanding of the value of doing fewer things, but really well (think of Japanese food or traditional buildings), influences my outlook enormously.
Having had the privilege to work with Japanese developers and contractors in Tokyo, where a collaborative sense of care and craftsmanship is at the heart of the project, somewhat spoils the experience of working in places where such a commitment is missing.
You are a big believer in re-use and sustainability; can you give us an example of a building which has been successfully repurposed and given a new lease of life – rather than knocked down?
This ethos has been central to the practice from its beginning and before everyone was talking about it. For instance, when Terence decided to acquire the five acres of Butler’s Wharf in the 1980s everyone else was proposing to flatten as per a lot of docklands at the time. His attitude was very simple: he hated waste. And of course that is central to a sustainable approach even if he would not put it like that.
More recently we were very lucky to be invited by Mike Hussey of Almacantar to revive and repurpose Centre Point Tower in the heart of London’s West End. Whilst Terence was not personally involved he was very excited by it.
This was a very ambitious and complicated brief that was to greatly extend the building’s life by making it relevant again – thankfully it lent itself very well to be converted from out of date office to high quality residential use. Being a Grade II Listed building we took a conservation approach, that meant that those who knew the building beforehand would think that is what it should have always been, whilst those who didn’t, would think that is, of course, how it has always been and all we did is tidy it up.
48% of all embodied carbon is in the superstructure of buildings
What was a quieter part of the brief was to bring the building, that leaked heat and noise to shocking levels, up to modern standards. We managed to do this to far higher standard than we assumed at the beginning. But what is particularly pertinent now is recognising that by retaining and reusing the vast majority the concrete and inserting a new skin behind it, we took a fundamentally environmentally sustainable approach before Embodied carbon was being spoken about – 48% of all embodied carbon is in the superstructure of buildings.
Taking such an approach must surely be the way forward for us all?
Furthermore, by doing so we not only make a credible response to the climate emergency, we also add to the cultural richness of cities like London by adding to rather than taking away from its layered memories.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Don’t let the b*****ds grind you down!” It came from my father, but I feel it has been particularly useful during the tawdry experience we have had over last few years. Furthermore, at the end of the day architects and designers, if they are going to be most useful and offer the possible, have to be the world’s greatest optimists.