To celebrate the release of Conran + Partners: A Way of Living written by Dominic Bradbury, Conran and Partners Principal, Tim Bowder-Ridger, talked to Meris Ryan-Goff about the practice's ethos, inspirations, and aims for the future...
MRG: Sebastian Conran’s foreword to the book describes Conran and Partners’ cohesive and all-encompassing design approach. How, in practical terms, do you achieve such attention to detail and also such breadth as a company?
TBR: Conran and Partners has long based its philosophy on putting the users’ needs first and foremost. To achieve this, we must understand how people experience the buildings and spaces we design, both physically and emotionally. This means that we need to get to grips with the macro and micro scales, which in turn relies upon having a broad set of skills across the team. We must also ensure that everyone understands that every part of the process is creative and critical to the result, whether it is the first thoughts at the beginning of the project, consulting through the planning process, or designing the smallest detail on a construction site.
MRG: Collaboration and teamwork are evidently key to your practice – how do you divide projects and organise work?
TBR: To a large extent our projects come to the practice through relationships built by each of the partners … reflecting the importance of personal chemistry in our industry. The partner team is a very broad church of interests, not just across the disciplines of architecture and interior design, but also across different parts of the built environment. For instance, Tina Norden has a particular passion for the world of hotels and restaurants, whilst Lee Davies is equally passionate about large scale housing regeneration projects. Whilst these are at first glance very different worlds, they do cross over through our approach of placing narratives at the centre and our focus on the context of the location and the users’ experience. They do nevertheless require different design and technical skills, and as such the partners' personal reputations become very key in attracting clients and delivering projects to the highest standard in each case.
However, across the practice more broadly, we are keen to mix teams up with both architects and interior designers contributing to our rounded design approach on projects and creating opportunities for new perspectives to be brought to the table. This also serves an aim to give team members a range of experiences that feed into an evolving world where work, home and leisure increasingly cross over.
Centre Point Entrance, London. Photograph by Mark Luscombe Whyte
© Conran and Partners.
MRG: What does a typical day (if there is one!) look like for a partner?
TBR: Whilst “Conran” represents the ethos of the practice, the “partners” are the human manifestation of that ethos. Architecture and interior design are inherently collaborative disciplines, and the partners therefore spend much of their time meeting with their design teams, clients, and colleagues in the industry, generating discussion and mentoring or workshopping the complex creative and delivery processes involved in making spaces and buildings. Often this is done through sketch books, butter-paper rolls and 2B pencils, and involves fluidity of thought and communication… which is so vital in ensuring the central spirit of a project is not lost in the complexity of the details or different layers of the brief.
Before COVID this would mean that most days partners would rarely be at their own desks but be in the break-out spaces with the teams, or out of the studio meeting clients and attending project meetings - some of the partners would spend a high proportion of their time globe-trotting to enable this very personal engagement to continue wherever the project might be. COVID has clearly put this on hold to a great extent, and we are all now having to learn how to engage as best we can, at least in the short term, through digital screens… Whilst we are coping, the sooner regular personal interaction can be re-established the better, though we will be more mindful of our international travel and the associated footprint.
MRG: In the design process how do interior and exterior considerations balance out?
TBR: They are in fact two sides of the same coin and of equal importance. In an ideal world we are commissioned to design complete buildings as architects and interior designers. This enables us to create fully coherent narratives for buildings in a way that is tangible for the end-users. For instance, when we design residential buildings we often think about the journey to the building, then through the building and into the most private spaces. We then test this in the opposite direction from the inside outwards, recognising that the residents will be spending most of their time in their own apartment.
Where we are not commissioned for the whole design but are, for instance, asked to design hotel rooms or apartments within other architects’ buildings, we make a great effort to understand the concept of that architecture to see if we can create an interior narrative that completes or at least complements it, thereby ensuring the building is at ease with itself.
The Boundary. Photograph by Paul Raeside
© Conran and Partners.
MRG: How do you go about planning the landscape/garden aspects of projects such as Kita Aoyama in Tokyo, or of Stadium Place?
TBR: In our approach to internal spaces we are actually considering the same issues as we do with the external and landscaped spaces.
Ultimately people experience spaces by moving through them so in our approach to internal, external or landscaped spaces, we are considering similar issues. In view of which, we always aim to create a sense of journey.
This journey might start outside of the site, from say the local metro station. As a result, the landscape around the building we have designed will be the first tactile manifestation of our design narrative. It therefore becomes critical that this is coherent with our approach to creating a sense of place in its context and with the end-users’ needs in mind.
MRG: What do you consider to be the defining features of contemporary living?
TBR: There is no doubt that in many cases around the world living spaces have become smaller than those of the middle of the last century. At the same time the family unit in many parts of the world has also become smaller. But notwithstanding that, the way people use their homes has become ever more fluid between the traditional boundaries of work, home and leisure.
Whilst this was something we felt was true some time ago, the current pandemic crisis has only accelerated this change or at least the acceptance of that change amongst our clients. The places we now design, whether they are work-spaces or apartments or hotels, have to be able to adapt to crossing these boundaries and they are all the richer for this.
MRG: If you were to choose 3 words to describe your approach as a practice, what would they be?
TBR: Ergonomic - contextual – narrative-driven.
MRG: Is there a single building or an individual architect, that you can cite as your inspiration to become an architect?
TBR: Before enrolling in architecture school, I travelled widely across Israel, Egypt and western Turkey, studying and sketching many of the historical and archaeological sites of the region. Walking into the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, I instantly knew that I wanted to be an architect. It was purely an emotional response and it was extraordinary how a building that is 1,500 years old can connect with you so dramatically. Ancient buildings like this also made me realise the extent to which architecture can have a long-term influence on people’s lives. I liked the idea of doing something that could have such a positive and lasting impact on the future.
German Gymnasium. Photograph by Marcus Peel
© Conran and Partners.
MRG: Can you give us an example of a challenging location/site for a recent project?
TBR: Helping Centre Point Tower discover what it should have always been. Adapting it from an obsolete version of an office building in the middle of a heavily trafficked gyratory system, to be a building of contemporary apartments at ease with the spirit of the architecture, whilst releasing the potential of how the building meets the ground and sky with people in mind.
MRG: How do you balance the retention of company identity with the desire for originality of character in each project?
TBR: We look at every brief and context from first principles. But by following a consistent approach to building a narrative in each project, with the same questions asked, even if the answers are bespoke, the process generates a recognisable and natural tone to our buildings and spaces. We actively resist enforcing a branded approach onto them.
MRG: You mention Sir Terence Conran’s profound influence on your own work, and the ‘humane approach’ to architecture that he promoted. How does this manifest itself physically in the projects you work on?
TBR: Terence has always kept very true to his mantra of design needing to be:
In buildings these principles, to my mind, translate into:
- Creating legible buildings through the honest use of form and materials
- Taking a complicated process and making the solution seem tangible and at ease with itself
- Ensuring that our buildings perform to their brief – satisfying the users’ needs and desires
By overlaying these principles the aim is to create buildings and spaces that that seem joyful, natural and at ease with themselves. This is what we mean by a 'humane approach'.
The Boundary project was the last project Terence and I directly worked together on and is still standing the test of time as an exemplar of his principles and the architectural translation of them.
MRG: Does your perspective change when you revisit one of your projects a while after completion?
TBR: There is a danger when you have been working on a project for a long time that you don’t stand back enough and can end up fretting about ‘the small stuff’. Trying to be a perfectionist is generally a good thing, but it is refreshing to return to a building after some months of absence and see it from a perspective that the users actually experience. Suddenly that detail that kept you awake night after night may not be quite so important and you realise that the space or building is beginning to relax into itself through the animation of people inhabiting and adapting it for their own purposes.
Baylis Old School. Photograph by Edmund Sumner
© Conran and Partners.
MRG: How do you see the design of luxury communal spaces changing in this post-pandemic environment? How might your design decisions be impacted?
TBR: Communal spaces in residential buildings will become an increasingly important part of the users’ requirements in the post pandemic world - as familiar and low-risk spaces outside of their homes.
Typically, these spaces are carefully controlled and tend not to be heavily populated as residents are able to come and go with flexibility – choosing their time.
The pandemic has almost certainly accelerated the movement towards greater flexibility in the balance of work and leisure, with people settling into working from home at least part of the time and thereby enjoying a far less 9-5 regime to their day. As a result, demand in these amenity spaces will naturally rise as people seek respite from the day-to-day.
MRG: How does your approach change when it is a case of adaptive reuse and reinvention of a building, rather than starting from a 'blank canvas'?
TBR: The simple answer is not by very much. In all projects we take a narrative-based approach, built off the cultural and physical context of the site and the needs and desires of the end-users.
The difference between working with an existing building or a building someone else has designed, is that we immediately have very tangible leads for this approach through its physical constraints and personality. Whereas when we are designing new buildings or masterplans, we sometimes need to look harder and wider for references to build the narrative.
But it should be noted that even when are working on very big open sites, there is no such thing as a ‘blank canvas’ … there is always some kind of physical context – such as the terrain, the views and the sky. Furthermore, there is always a cultural context through the history of the site and its neighbourhood (everywhere has a history whether manmade or natural); and of course there is always an end-user in mind – this might be people directly occupying the buildings or the wider public passing through it – whose needs and desires will immediately generate marks on the page.
MRG: Conran and Partners stress the importance of ‘place’ and have a serious commitment to the creation of both functional and pleasurable spaces. Do you think that the increased desire to work from home or walk to work will mean a greater emphasis on multifunctional living? Will traditional spaces need to be entirely re-defined?
TBR: We have always believed that peoples’ lives are far more fluid than the convenient sector definitions have suggested. The pandemic has merely accelerated this being accepted as the ‘new-normal’. It is our hope that this will be a good thing for neighbourhoods where traditional dormitory districts, for instance, will retain their populations through the day and build layered environments and the dominance of motorised and polluting commuter transport is reduced.
Kita Aoyama Apartments. Photograph by Forward Stroke Inc
© Conran and Partners.
MRG: In the broadest terms, what should we be looking for in the architecture of the future?
TBR: A far greater enjoyment of environmental performance and creating healthier (physical and mental) places to base our lives. Part of this might be sourcing materials ever more locally and thereby creating a rich pattern of new vernaculars across the world and from district to district.
By taking a longer-term view, even in cultures where the recent tradition has been to knock down and build new buildings in quick succession, we might achieve cultural sustainability through the retention and adaptation of buildings. Adapting buildings whilst retaining the memories of their own and their neighbourhood’s history is something that London does so well, and Centre Point Tower is a key example.
MRG: What can we expect to see from Conran and Partners over the next 10 years? In Hong Kong in particular?
TBR: From both a business and intellectual perspective we shall aim to retain and even expand on the range of projects we get involved in in Europe and Asia in particular. Not only does this make sense in spreading our risks and opportunities, but it also continues to widen our cultural and creative reference points.
With modern cities becoming ever more international, having the skills to create a sense of place will be key and the skills to achieve this are only developed through direct experience.
Only three years ago we opened a new studio in Hong Kong to act as a hub for the east Asian time zones, in the way London does in the west, and to tap into an exciting new talent pool. This studio reflects our passion, not just for Hong Kong, but also the broader region, and that has been recognised by an increasing number of new clients. The studio is already contributing as a successful and sustainable part of the practice, moving to larger premises last year, and as the region recovers from the pandemic at a dynamic pace, the studio will continue to expand - albeit sharing its work with the UK in both directions to ensure a continuity of creative approach across the practice.
But whether in Hong Kong or in London, we are determined to stick to the ethos Terence taught us – of designing with an aim to make the world a bit better than we found it.
You can order your copy of Conran + Partners: A Way of Living from our website HERE.
Visit the Conran and Partners website HERE.
Hardback • 176 Pages • Size: 270 × 249 mm
200 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223431 • Publication: September 30, 2020
View the full list of Autumn books in our catalogue HERE.