Walking out of windy Farringdon Station and towards the studios of David West and Christophe Egret you get a sense of the recent built milieu of the area. The building that houses the studio has been restored and has a loving SEW designed garden, filled with potted shrubs and comfy wooden seats. Upon entering the studio space you're at one with the joyful people who work there. The mini kitchen which overlooks the studio has two busybodies cutting up a pumpkin for a curry lunch. Lunches are something the studio-clan try to do at least three times a week. To get together, eat and talk about the creative processes taking place in this warm inviting atelier. True, with a tranquil buzz.
Tell us about your working environment? We are a studio first and foremost, not an office. That’s really fundamental its caught in our title of our studio, studio egret west, it’s really important to the way we work and the way we practice. When we set up the studio 8 years ago we had that classic are we egret and west because you need to put your name on the door and say what you stand for, or are we more than that and we definitely feel and believe quite passionately it is the people that work with us and create with us and commit to finding architecture and urban design with us that is the sum of the parts so we’re a studio. Hence the actual working environment is very much a studio. Its open plan, it’s non-hierarchical, its free, people can work and talk and meet and draw and sketch and model and pin up and compute absolutely anywhere, really, we don’t separate our client or consultant meetings away from the studio environment, we involve them in it, so when a really important client however important they are comes to see us, they’re in among the activity of the studio and obviously that comes with some noise issues sometimes too, unless they’re desperate for privacy we really allow them to see the workings and goings on in the studio. And they seem to enjoy that and get more out of it so we try to share the vibrancy of the design process; the pinups the sketches the model making etc. with them.
How do you approach a large scale project like Koza Park, the competition housing project in Istanbul? I have to say it has not really come to anything which is a bit disappointing. As we are a fusion of architecture, urban design and landscape architecture, it means that the studio has work across all scales, so we can be working on an individual house right the way up to ten thousand houses. And we can be working on a really small scale community building all the way up to a super stacked really high density very tricky complex mixed used building and we can be working on a small infill site all the way up to a huge either brown filled or indeed a green filled site. So, because of that we offer what we refer to as strategy with specificity and specificity with strategy, two funny words but two really key words to our practice which means that often when we’re appointed to just a building we always look way beyond the site before determining the future of the building. So we’re not architects that plop design ideas out of the air onto the site, and you buy an icon. So we definitely don’t fit into the “starchitect mold” of you know what you’re going to get. We genuinely start with a very open brief as to discover what a project can be. But we always go bigger and quite often a lot bigger than the site we’ve been given, whether it’s a city district or a particular plot and then we try to get to know the site and its story really well, and partially that’s to do with its history and the hidden layers that we may not be able to see on the surface now, it’s very important to us. Its narrative, its story, and the story the site wants to tell us. If one sees that as the preface, or the first few chapters of the story of the architecture or the design, we then think of the new story the new chapters the next chapters as the sphere in which were working today and so that’s the discussion with what the clients, politicians want what the other stake holders want what the community desires and so were forging all of those stories and layers together but of course what we aspire to as designers too, we see those as the new chapters for the site and then we gently fuse them together, which means that all of our projects are quite particular and very specific which means we don’t actually have a house style, there is no house style. Literally every single project can turn into what it needs to become. So were designing buildings that are very strong contemporary industrial looking things in a project called the old vinyl factory where every single building has its name again and it has a second chance to be called what it should and always has been. And it’s got such a different aesthetic to our project in Cambridge where we’re designing a community stadium and it’s got a different aesthetic and feel to a project in Bromley, a hotel and conference centre and public realm so it’s a process that’s full of surprises. When you say that there’s a story that fuses together your architecture, could we say, what does your culture, being British, add to a project in say, Istanbul or another part of the world because it’s a very different history and landscape. Do you add from yourself or do you just take from the site, landscape, the geography? I think it’s impossible not to add something from yourself. But I think strangely the British culture is very eclectic and in a sense there is not a British culture. The British culture is so
multinational and I think the interesting thing about a particular British designer being part of a team, process or group is that often it’s very open minded and again very eclectic and very interested in discovering the particularity of someone else’s culture and adding those layers. And I think because there’s such a history British designers or indeed any professionals being able and lucky enough to be able to work anywhere because of that strange tradition of Britain, being such a small island has for being allowed everywhere and having the red carpet treatment in most places, I think you can’t help but gain a sort of accessibility of so many different ways of doing things. So we don’t follow and American model and bring that American model to Istanbul and say have that, you know, because it works at home. Instead we’re very much more, well hey we can pick and draw from a myriad of different models and maybe even discover a new model from anywhere in Europe, anywhere in Asia anywhere in America and if it fits it fits, if it works it works but rather than trying to impose an absolute specific way of doing things from somebody else’s culture we’re more open to layering a variety of things and questioning; would that approach work here? Would that be responsive? So any designer can’t help but bring their own baggage and experience and inspirations but I think our baggage is less and that our inspirations are far wider
Also, I think you’re more sensitive, because of the multicultural backdrop Britain has? I think so, I think so. Strangely were doing some projects in Russia at the moment and we’ve been really surprised at how we’ve been able to unpick and unravel really challenging sites just by listening to the history and to the layers and concerns of people, rather than just trying to push something on to the site that just doesn’t fit and actually we’ve ended up finding solutions that are being far better received because of that and we’re happy with them to, because it doesn’t feel like we’re forcing our signature onto a site rather than listening to what it really needs.
What inspires you? This is a really interesting question, the question of what inspires us; we actually took part in an article about what inspires us, Christophe and I and we went to zulvrine? In the Ruhr valley which is a quite extraordinary place both transforming industrial architecture into a new kind of environment and I think rather than the finished product, we actually just loved the process. Its ability to go back and see things in a different life, to give buildings and structures, which may not instantly be beautiful, a second life because actually they can be beautiful and they can have a very different use and to look at not sanitising a place by cleaning it up within an inch of its life instead of giving it a more raw, more open more accessible sort of tamed wilderness feel which is something we like to inject into all of our projects; that sort of nature first, strong flexible responsive structures that have a variety of different programs and uses over their lives. I think that by thinking about buildings from the past having a second life it makes you really consider the buildings youâ€™re designing now need to be capable of having a second life too, thatâ€™s what inspires us. Thatâ€™s the balance of what we have in this studio, we have a number of large scale conversion, rehabilitation second life projects and we have a lot of new build projects too and we often fuse the thinking between the two together for our ideal projects of where we can actually retain as an obstruction on a site as many things that are even slightly interesting that give us a layer to work with and then add to that the layer of the new and that makes the most beautiful projects.
Which architects, urban planners, theorists are you in to? I don’t know, I’ve actually been working for eighteen years and I think it’s a start up question, because I think when you first study clearly you’re reading everybody else’s thoughts and that shapes your own. Then to be honest, far more importantly than that you practice and you learn and your thoughts continue to mature. So, I'm a massive believer in evolution of thinking and I actually find it really strange when someone wants to pigeon hole somebody else's work as a particular theory, particular belief system when if you actually follow their entire career it’s very clear that their thoughts change. I attended a lecture the other day in Oslo and there was a big discussion about conservation and heritage and Rem Koolhass’ theory and he hasn’t just got one theory, he’s evolved his theory, his architecture, and his process massively over the last thirty to forty years. There is no pattern in that other than other than the fact that his profile and his practice has changed. So, what one says when one is fresh out of school is completely different when ones three years in a struggling for that first major commission, is actually completely different to what one says when you're ten years in and you have to challenge things in a different way and you’ve learnt from your own mistakes is completely different from what one actually believes in and says when you're twenty years old, actually, that’s what I believe and that’s why I find it so difficult to say I like one person rather than another because I can genuinely see that the way that I think and the way that our projects have grown and shaped has changed and will continue to change with response to not just my personal age, my personal beliefs but also the political climate the investment climate the economic climate the way that architecture and design is constructed inevitably means you are continuing to evolve your thinking and so because of that I don’t really have a great answer. That leads me to ask you the projects you are working on right now? The old vinyl factory is very live project for us, it’s the transformation of quite an extraordinary site next door to a cross rail station called Hayes, which is going to connect central London, Paddington to Heathrow and be one of the stops on the way. Its got great history, it used to be the home of His Majesty’s Voice, latterly EMI which basically is the music production, recording and sound equipment, generation of vinyl records, and so here we have this lovely perfect project for us because it combines existing buildings which we are not only preserving but transforming giving it a second life and adding a whole new layer of not just architecture but quantum and critical mass of population and mixed uses and programs to create a lovely mixed use really rich really specific environment and we’re responsible for the overall master plan, the architecture of numerous buildings and the design of the public realm. So it’s a perfect project for us. We’re on site building a bridge in east Croydon which is the first phase of a master plan, which coordinated a variety of different land ownerships and landowners to gain agreement and consensus on the approach to connecting up the public realm. So that’s the first phase on site right now. We
just finished this project in Clapham which is a spiral library with a fifteen doctor surgery and health centre with 136 apartments, in five gently curvaceous up to thirteen story buildings behind. So again live in the studio right now we have a stadium project in Cambridge which is going to be a new typology of stadium. We create a 10,000 seat arena and wrap the entire structure with active uses, so you almost can’t see the stadium. Indeed you really see and experience offices, education space, training space, fitness space, health centre, youth accommodation. What that does is it actually allows us to mesh the stadium in with the urban environment around it. And that’s really a special a new typology to not push the stadium over into a desolate car park, so we think that’s exciting. And we are working on a couple of secret projects in Moscow, but we can’t talk about those. But we are also transforming a town hall in Ealing. We’re looking at a variety of different ways of keeping a listed structure but giving it a completely new quantum and accommodation side, whether it is a hotel or offices or residential accommodation. Were also working on a couple of large estate regeneration programs as well, 2,500 home transformations of existing parts of London, which are very interesting projects. We have about 20 live projects based here in London. We’ve been trying to gain projects in Turkey. We’ve competed on numerous occasions, so far we’ve won two out of three competitions, but the commissions haven’t actually then come through to us (laughs) which we found a little bit frustrating, so I have to say we’ve cooled our boots somewhat. I’ve been to Turkey seven times now; we paid for everything and not got a single dime back. And that’s left us a little bit cold. We’d love to do a project, we love Turkey we particularly was inspired by Istanbul and the projects there, really interested in Ankara too, I think it’s at a great point in its life and I think there’s this opportunity to do something really special, and I think it’s just on the cusp of “come on, you’ve got to do better”, you’ve got to think more holistically. You can’t keep delivering these disconnected islands of branded up mixed-use living; live here - don’t live there. You can’t keep doing it. There’s a great opportunity for bigger thinking. It’s just we don’t have the forum to do that in, and it comes to a point where you have to stop spending money. Turkey is chaotic in a wonderful way and I think it’s really ready. It goes back to this evolution thinking and evolution of place. London is in an extremely amazing period in its life right now and everybody is working hard to transform every single bit of it. There is not one spot of London that is not getting attention right now and I'm not just talking about central London, I'm talking about external areas, edge condition neighbourhoods, edge of centre, mid centre, central. And people are working harder and harder on the capacity of the site on the feel of the site the brand of the place the special qualities of the neighbourhood the quality of the public realm the lifestyle the offer and it’s amazing to be working in that environment which is why so many people are investing in London. It’s not just us being home, it’s the best city in the world. It’s extraordinary and it’s on a real curve. But I actually feel that Istanbul, and possibly Ankara to a certain extent, but definitely Istanbul is in the same sort of position but it just needs to get a little more coordinated in
terms of the bigger projects. The infrastructure, care a little bit more about the public realm and the connectivity between buildings and also care about the cumulative effort of all the projects that are taking place and bridging between the old and the new. I have to say some of the projects we’ve seen in Istanbul are downright scary. Really blunt tools of just demolishing whole areas of community, of history, as if they didn’t exist and instead of actually learning from the fabric of the past, the fabric of the tradition and the vernacular and giving it a new contemporary twist, there’s a kind of shunning of anything that’s the past and instead a strange adoption of what is simply an Americanised model of a plot with car parking and a tall building, and it’s an absolute disaster urban-wise, it’s very concerning. What’s your impression of Turkish architecture? Impressions of Turkish architecture, I think like anywhere there are a few protagonists out there, there are a few really great designers, obviously there's a lot of talent. I think it was clear from the architecture school, the training was good, and the output was great. It was clear that the level of concern and interest between getting a balance between contemporary architecture and working in the historical structure which is there. However, you can only be as good as the climate you're working in, in terms of the development climate and the political climate. If there's no political leadership to expect better and if there's no development impetus to be more responsive to many layers of the past, then
you're just going to end up with a very blunt tool which is, demolish everything, clean it up make it cosmetic, build a wall around it and then plop building in a strange private landscape. It’s safe. It’s easy, its commercial and it kills cities. It totally and utterly kills cities, dead. The nature of civic life, community, neighbourhood, belonging is destroyed and that’s the biggest risk because it’s happening it’s not penned its happened to a certain extent but it’s been replicated over and over and it’s the new simple de facto model and it’s repeated until the destruction city. The outer edge of Istanbul’s city centre is a disaster waiting to happen. Some projects are nice, better than others as they all follow the same model. Some architecture is slightly higher quality than others, often with collaboration between an international architect and a local architect. And the actual architecture can be okay but the actual place that’s created is detached pockets, little islands of investment which is just simply a financial model put onto a site rather than a piece of urban design, thinking about the wider whole. Which I think is something which really has to be arrested. That’s what we would be interested to do, we worked on a number of projects and tried to offer that but there doesn’t seem to be anybody really listening.
Thank you David for your time and letting us explore the Egret West Studio.
an interview by ayse chasan with david west of studio egret west