Chantal Wilkinson, acclaimed architect and one of the judges of this year’s RIBA House of the Year competition, on the importance of architectural awards and why better domestic architecture is relevant to us all
Interview: Viel Richardson
You are a judge on this year’s RIBA House of the Year competition. Why are awards like this important?
Firstly, it is nice to recognise people for their work: designing houses is a complex and challenging process, so it is good to recognise excellence. The competition means you get to showcase the different ways clients and their architects tackle the issues of creating a contemporary home. Although there is a real diversity of scale—some are huge in terms of a domestic dwelling and others very small—it can be easier to get a holistic overview of a house project and relate all of the information present in the design than it is with larger commercial developments. Also, everyone has a home, so it is of interest to us all. Design ideas from these individual projects can inspire developers about ways to improve their own designs.
Are architects willing to take more risks with smaller projects?
I think so. I think it is easier to look at things from a new perspective and to take different approaches without the baggage that the complexity of a much larger project brings. There is a kind of freedom to it. You have to deal with the way people live, their family dynamics, the work-life balance, and you get to address these kinds of questions for a single client. Traditionally, architects have been more experimental with houses. If you look at the first projects of many of the great architects, they used houses and private commissions as a kind of testbed for ideas. You would later see elements of those ideas play through into their larger projects.
What do you look for as a judge?
One is looking for excellence. I think of architecture as an art, and as with any work of art, great architecture should have a premise: what questions is the design trying to answer, what issues is it trying to address, what does the design say about use of materials, and so on. You try to look for the idea and then judge how successful the design has been in fulfilling it. You also ask questions about how it relates to its environment. If it is urban, how does it co-exist with the buildings and houses that are often close up against it, and the street it sits on? If it is in the countryside, how it is talking to the space around it, both the distant landscape and the local texture of the garden or open country? It is a complex task, because architecture is a complex discipline.
Do you talk to the clients about what their expectations were?
We talk to them wherever possible. A project has to have met or exceeded the brief to be considered successful. We will seek to understand the clients’ expectations and how they feel these have been addressed. The core job of being an architect is to realise a building and there is a legal and technical side to the job which must be done well. Part of judging is to assess the prosaic as well as looking for innovative design.
Do you make a distinction between design innovation and technological innovation?
You cannot actually separate the two. Architectural design is essentially the process of answering the question ‘how am I going to achieve this?’ in relation to space, form and function. How you answer that will depend on the materials you have available and the technology you have to shape them with. Therefore, any technological innovation available to you feeds into the design process.
For example, in my firm’s Sussex House project, which was a a finalist in the 2015 competition, the roof was built using a material called cross-laminated timber. That is a technological advance where you sandwich pieces of timber together to produce these huge and very strong plywood sheets. These are then precision-cut with computer-controlled lasers, allowing you to make extremely complex joints. The roof at Sussex House used a folded geometry designed to mimic the folded hills in the distance. It would have been extremely costly and difficult to do this any other way. The technology allowed us to realise our design within our budgetary constraints. Architecture is a materials-based discipline, so technological and design innovation always go hand in hand.
We have all heard of the superstar architects like Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Has the increased awareness of architects led to greater public understanding of architecture?
I think it helps. It means people are engaged in a debate at some level, even if the work seems distant and removed from us. We know these architects for their huge iconic buildings, but it is a sad fact that most of them are abroad. While it is something to take pride in, it does lead to an important point: we don’t have that much really excellent public architecture in this country. People here have been reluctant to commission contemporary architecture with the budget and creative freedom needed for great work.
I see architects as part of our artistic movement. And while, like other artists, we take lessons from the past, this is a very different thing from looking backwards. Whatever inspiration we get from the past has to express itself in contemporary ways in order to reflect contemporary life. Repeating the past is not a useful way of tackling the issues of today and the future. Eulogising past styles can close down the debate about what good architecture is. What makes fantastic spaces, what makes people feel comfortable and uplifted, how should architects serve the public? These question are stifled when you only judge new work by a stylistic comparison to old buildings, no matter how beautiful they are.
So, seeing great architecture up close is important.
You have to see excellence to understand what excellence is. If you never get to interact with great architecture, you won’t develop an understanding of what excellence in architectural design can be and what it can bring to an environment. Seeing it allows you to understand the ambition and the talent behind something, even if it is not to your personal taste. It gives you a mental framework from which to judge the built environment around you.
How does an increased architectural understanding change your perspective?
It shows you that looking at buildings from an entirely stylistic standpoint does not work. You need to understand the design’s function, the problems it tried to solve, the materials used. For example, if you look at Victorian terraced housing, which has a bit of a bad reputation for being dull, I think that was an incredibly successful design. You stick lots of houses next to each other, yet everybody has a view both front and back, often with garden space. You borrow heat from the adjoining houses, meaning there is less heat wastage. They were laid out on streets, which I believe are very, very important for building a community. Too much contemporary architecture is based around blocks, which do not address the ‘street’ at all well. Good architecture resolves issues like where the kids will play, how you prevent social isolation, how you encourage the community to develop, how you encourage pride in the area. ‘Contemporary architecture’ is not just a look. It is a reflection of our current concerns.
Is domestic design getting better?
I think in the world of contemporary architecture we are getting better. We are getting more confident, technological advance is giving us more options and clients are becoming better informed. When I first started practising, there was a real resistance to contemporary architecture. I think programmes like Grand Designs, where the RIBA House of the Year winner is revealed each year, have opened people’s minds to many aspects of contemporary architecture. I do think there has been a change in the approach to it in this country. But as I mentioned before, I think we are still a long way behind other parts of the world in commissioning this type of work.
Why does RIBA matter?
Firstly, it means that architects have a place to gather, to discuss ideas. It provides a place from where they present British architecture to the world. It is also very welcoming to non-architects and holds exhibitions, talks and engages with the public about architectural ideas. Part of the organisation’s remit is to try to raise public knowledge of, engagement with and understanding of architecture. This is important, because the bottom line is that to make a good building you need a good client, one who has an aspiration to push the boundaries and achieve a great building. This is why I believe competitions like this are so important. The more people engage with architecture, the better the architectural design we will get, and that is something that benefits us all.