Being an Architect/Being a Writer: Ian Ritchie and Witold Rybczynski in Conversation

By Witold Rybczynski September 30, 2014

British architect-educator-author Ian Ritchie talks to U.S. architect-educator-author Witold Rybczynski about Ritchie’s career, including the making of his latest book, a two-volume opus; the favorite project he didn’t get to build; and why he writes poetry.

Being: An Architect, volumes 1 and 2, by Ian Ritchie and Roger Connah, designed by James Ritchie, 2014 (Royal Academy of Arts)

Witold Rybczynski: This is an unconventional book—not exactly a memoir, but with a lot of personal information; not exactly a monograph, but a diary of the work of Ian Ritchie Architects; and not a theoretical book, but with a certain amount of reflection about the profession and practice of architecture. Could you talk about how this all came together?

Ian Ritchie, architect and author of Being: An Architect. Photo: Jocelyne Van den Bossche

Ian Ritchie: I wanted to write my memoirs for my family and I did not want to leave an incomplete manuscript. I recalled the fact that my erstwhile partner, the brilliant engineer Peter Rice had not completed his own memoirs, An Engineer Imagines, to a publishable state before he died. I shared in the creation of Rice Francis Ritchie—a design engineering practice set up in Paris in 1981 to work on the La Villette Cité des Sciences, and which subsequently contributed to most of President Mitterrand’s Grands Projets, including working with I. M. Pei on the Louvre Pyramid

Having decided to write my memoirs, I was impressed by Roger Connah’s book Writing Architecture (awarded First Prize, International Book Award in Architectural Theory and Criticism 1987–90 by CICA, the International Committee of Architectural Critics), which I had come across in a bookshop in Milan in 1999. It is a very heavy book, with 463 pages, and is described as an odyssey across 20th-century architecture through the buildings and writings of Reima Pietilä—a hugely respected Finnish architect but to some extent an outsider, a cult figure or even a shaman. Each page spread in this book appeared as if one were looking, day by day, at the surface of this fascinating architect’s “desk”—a collage of extracts of music, photographs of people and buildings, sketches, texts, and poetry. Perhaps I have a cooler aesthetic approach, for at times I found the book a little difficult to read. However, a seed was sown.

Detail of of the Cour Marly, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1993. The roofs of the sculpture courts were designed by Arup (Peter Rice with Alistair Hughes) and Ian Ritchie Architects (Ian Ritchie and Gordon Talbot) for I.M. Pei

I contacted Roger and explained that rather than follow a classic biographical model I wanted to explore other ways of writing an “archiography.” I wanted to present the story of my life as an architect but enriched with an openness about how I start to think about a project—writing (often poetry) before drawing, engaging with colleagues, learning from others, collaborating, exploring and expanding design horizons—and also to reveal the important social and ethical concerns that seem so distant in today’s stand-alone architectures. Monographs have never appealed to me because they are usually anesthetized versions of reality, and emotionless. They are for marketing purposes. I wanted to include both successes and failures, and the struggle that so often accompanies the realization of the architectural dream—so central to being an architect.

Interior spread from Being: An Architect

Interior view of Leipzig Glass Hall (opened 1996), looking up at the glass vault and the apex "butterfly" ventilation panels (photo: 2007)

I was lucky, or observant enough, to recognize in Roger Connah’s writings an analytical, questioning approach similar to my own. This was borne out during the ensuing years as the book began to take shape. He saw how I try to promote the “complete” architect—comfortable in thinking, composing, and making in the physical and virtual worlds—with all the skills. This completeness, passion, and breadth of activity is what I wanted to convey in the book.

WR: Being: An Architect has two authors; there are alternating chapters by you and Roger Connah. Could you talk about how you decided on this unusual organizational device? 
IR: I start all projects without preconception. When beginning this book, it was the same. I had no preconceived idea of its structure, content, or title. I followed my intuition—sensing that there were professional, pedagogic, technical, artistic, and ethical aspects to this project. Also, during my entire career I had received very little architectural criticism other than from those within the studio. I sensed that a critical overview of the young maverick turning professional and then trying hard to deliver dreams required a critic, and one prepared to get to know the author of the work and his working methods and those of his practice.

The Book

Being: An Architect Ian Ritchie
Roger Connah

Roger recognized the merit in this and explored many scenarios as he began mapping my professional career. We enjoyed sparring on and off during the following years, challenging ideas, the writings, and criticisms—often from a pedagogical viewpoint. He came to the studio several times, attended some of my lectures, and met independently with a few of our clients. The structure began to emerge through the idea of the critic introducing my texts—placing them in a wider context for the reader. Later, it was decided to reverse this order in the second volume, with Roger’s short essays completing rather than introducing my texts. We realized that the material began organizing itself into two parts: my life as “Being” (Volume 1, about the person) and as “Architect” (Volume 2, critiques on architecture, theory, ethics, etc.). This became the title, and by opting for two volumes it allowed space for images, interlude essays and poems, my texts and lectures, Roger’s critical overviews, and for a documenta—a reference for researchers—to be added at the end. It also meant that each volume was a comfortable size to hold.

WR: In the book you describe an episode in the early days of Ian Ritchie Architects (1989) when you invited a number of architects to the office to discuss the question of whether the firm needed to have an identifiable style to be successful. Peter Cook, Cedric Price, Deyan Sudjic, and Peter Rice all thought that the future of architecture would favor a practice with a “house style.” Yet you decided not to pursue a single distinctive design approach. Could you talk about this decision?
IR: It was very personal, but we had begun to discuss this within the studio. I had seen the media targeting the world of design and architecture and its personalities. Film, theater, fashion—fields that need to promote icons and rely on the media—had become not exactly passé, but the media needed new “heroes.” I had always explored, and in architecture, as in some other fields, exploration requires design freedom—which implies no preconception. I accept that many architects and artists can develop a style, refine it—in fact need it almost to define themselves. I may have been informed and influenced by hi-tech, but I knew that my imagination had a more expansive alphabet.

I am not critical of those architects known for their style, but it is not something I could live with personally. If I woke in the morning and the next project were already preconceived because of my style of design I would feel mentally dead. I do not know what I am going to imagine or execute tomorrow. Life does not deliver such guarantees so developing a style becomes a bit like an insurance policy against life’s un-insurability. It may work and comfort many designers, but for me it becomes boring. I do not want to know what I will do tomorrow, and this keeps life and design vital—independent of fame, money, and media interest.

Royal Shakespeare Company Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, completed 2006

WR: You write: “I decided that the studio would shut out the world of the design media, even though I understood that both image and personality were becoming the essential ingredients and culture of the professional press, and a powerful tool in the marketing of architects.” Do you still feel this way about the media? What are the trade-offs of keeping a low profile, positive and negative?
IR: Yes, that was 25 years ago. I know that all journalists survive on nudges, whispers, leaks, and reported conversations from secondary sources to build an incomplete picture, but I had always expected a little more from those that report on the profession of architecture. I was deceived in 1990 by someone I had respected and trusted as a writer and a journalist. That does not mean I do not have a few friends in the media, but I choose not to engage them in our private design world until the project is realized, and then only if the client wishes or encourages it.

The media is probably even more invasive now, but perhaps our “bastion” is not as strong, as we, like every other designer, have become our own publisher through the web. Obviously, viewed from outside of our practice, keeping the media at bay would appear to be a perverse decision because every architect and designer wants as much publicity as he or she can get. I took the view that “time”—time together with my colleagues—was precious, a peaceful sanctuary where we could develop and research ideas without the need to service the media. The media sucks time. We have never had a press department. For me that is not what architecture is about—that is about profile, public perception, and business. I did not create a studio to grow the bank account, but to grow minds, our social responsibility, and to improve the environment we live in, and to have fun together.

WR: You include both built and unbuilt works. What is the favorite “one that got away”? Why?
IR: The National Maritime Museum of the Boat, which we were commissioned to design in 1984, is one of several wonderful projects that escaped. The brief required spaces in which to fabricate replica ethnographic boats inspired from around the world and to exhibit and launch them, and to provide a social and information center for the great yacht races—Volvo Ocean Race (then known as the Whitbread Round the World Race), Route du Rhum, etc. The commission came from the director of the National Maritime Museum, Neil Cossons, who went on to direct the Science Museum and then to chair English Heritage.

Concept sketch for the National Maritime Museum of the Boat. Drawing by Ian Ritchie, 1984.

At the time I was also a director of RFR, a design engineering firm in Paris working at La Villette, the new French Cité des Sciences. There I had met the young American landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson, and it was she who told me about the Land artists—Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, et al. The concept evolved into a semi-buried, non-air conditioned architecture, which enabled the whole composition to become a landscape and enlarge the public park on the edge of the Thames opposite the beautiful Wren-designed Greenwich Naval College.

Not only does this design remain one of our favorites—and I say this on behalf of my colleagues who have remained with me since then—but I'm guessing if it had been built it would have positioned our practice, then only three years old, near the front stage of creative architects and it may have shortened the wait before receiving our first major UK commission in 1987.

WR: Ian Ritchie Architects has done some very large projects, although yours is not an extremely large office. Could you talk about how you organize the work and how the office functions? At one point you mention that you decided not to take on any projects whose site was more than 4 hours of travel time from your office in London. Have you followed this rule?
IR: What is a large project? It is usually measured by the construction cost. Currently we have several projects at various stages of realization totaling about $500 million in construction value, including a Neuroscience Research Laboratory in London ($125 million) which is almost complete, and an industrial heritage scheme in Malta ($170 million) in its early stages. We led the design of a billion-dollar project (1998–2005)—directing more than 70 different consultancy firms—at Westfield London (formerly White City for Chelsfield). We had more 70 architects in three cities working on it seamlessly.

Plymouth Theatre Royal Production Centre (TR2), driftwood and woven phosphor bronze-clad rehearsal pods, 2002

The scale did challenge our structure but did not change the ethos of the practice, as, during the period of this project (1998–2005) we completed several significant projects—Spire of Dublin, Alba di Milano millennium light monument, the exhibition “Blue-Gold” at the Oberhausen Gasometer, London Regatta Centre, and Plymouth Theatre Royal Production Centre—as well as research and development, masterplans, and several competitions.

The structure to do this, and one which allows us keeps our London studio at about the same number over the past 20 years, is based on accepting that our studio is, for some, a “finishing school” and accepts that those with exceptional talent will want to start their own practices. The idea first happened at the end of the Leipzig Glass Hall project and it has ensured that since 1996 our practice in London has remained relatively stable while expansion occurs in “sister” offices in Europe, directed by former, very talented colleagues who had worked with us for quite a few years in London.

Spire of Dublin, 2003 Photo: courtesy Barry Mason

These are autonomous practices with their own name. Helping the next generation is vital, and the payback for us in London is that they do help whenever the “elder statesmen” have need. What they need is independence and support, and what our practice does not need is European or global expansionism with a nametag/brand attached. That is not architecture but a business/marketing concept. This approach reflects the fact that I have tried to maintain a four-hour journey from studio to site by whatever means of transport is appropriate, and only exceptionally further—for example, we did accept the invitation to compete for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new courtyard in 2004, and I have been to Hong Kong recently—partly due to the presence there of a former studio colleague, and partly because we were invited.

WR: All large building projects require a design team, but your idea of teamwork is more than just having a lot of consultants. Could you talk about that?
IR: The project is central. It is through the project, not my project or your project, but the project. No one owns the project. I talk of the triangle of confidence: client, design team, and contractor. The lines that join us are the lines of trust. If one breaks, the project becomes a nightmare for one of the parties, if not all. Selfishness, or super-ego, is not in the interest of the client or the project. It might be the architect, or a contractor trying to exploit a situation to increase his or her bottom line—i.e., not focusing on the project but on individual interests.

Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London, 2014

Colonnade of Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London, presenting Bach's musical offerings on 1,000 suspended “pixeli” that move in the wind

For the design team to act as one, all ideas are placed into the design arena with a sense of sharing, examining, and ultimately agreeing what is right. All our projects start by having all the key people at the table from the beginning. At times this may include people with skills outside the normal convention—an artist, a poet, a musician; at each stage of a project certain skills have to come to the fore. It is our role as design team leader to ensure that everyone genuinely feels they are at the party when it starts—and feels comfortable contributing to design disciplines other than their own. For our first session together on the Neuroscience project (about to be completed) we invited everyone to come with their sense of what the project might be about. Some came with photos, others with texts and poems. It was a way for all to have an appreciation of the other members of the team—where their minds were at, and who, if any had already formulated design pre-conceptions!

WR: Like many British architects of your generation, you have pursued advanced building technology as a touchstone in making buildings. Yet technology does not appear to drive your work, which is often handled with a light, even poetic touch.
IR: I am a generation younger than Foster, Rogers, and Piano, all of whom found both the Eames approach to design and assembly and the Ehrenkrantz School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) so attractive. Whether this was advanced building technology or finding off-the peg industrial products that could be dry-, pre-, or site-assembled is a question. What was clear was the fact that there was an aesthetic decision involved. Systems thinking abounded in the U.S. in the late 1960s and the idea that architectural construction could be an assembly system had appeal, for it chimed with the other drivers of the time—efficiency of means, economy, and efficient delivery—often quoted as analogous to car and airplane fabrication. The mantra was sold.

I have written much on this subject, but the essence is that there is an aesthetic predilection for dry-assembly and that the language of construction is visible in its totality and in its detail—that is, the architecture is coherent at every level.

As time went by the influence of this on me waned and my own ideas became more mature, and the potential of composing with a deeper understanding of materials, of light, of long life and low maintenance began to find expression.

La Villette Cité des Sciences, 1981–85. Detail of facade using world’s first high-performance toughened glass structural fixing, patented by Rice Francis Ritchie (RFR)

Understanding technology means first trying to understand material at the molecular level—how molecules combine and separate (chemistry)—then working with this knowledge to choose the right materials and combinations and finding better ways of predicting their long-term behavior. This is not what advanced technology or hi-tech presents to us. In contrast, today’s technology is invisible, and thus does not attract the architect, for there is no aesthetic to latch on to. I do not find the physical and visible construction technology of the curved or warped surface that interesting. Although often spectacular, it says “Do not touch me” to the neighboring building, perhaps a metaphor of the selfish world that we appear to increasingly inhabit at every level?

WR: Being: An Architect includes previously published essays on a wide variety of subjects. One of the chapters is titled “Why I Write.” So, why do you write?
IR: I love words. They are at the root of our communication and culture. Books are central to our existence. To write without reason is difficult, to write without imagination is impossible, and memories are essential to knowing and grounding oneself at any given time. Good books have these characteristics.

I enjoy poetry and find writing poetry the most challenging. I enjoy removing the superficial—the reductive process. Perhaps this is also why aphorisms appeal too. To find a sharpness or crispness is vital in writing, as it is in architecture. This is an aesthetic position, where the right words are in the right place and convey the essential I am seeking. It is not the absence of words, but simply the presence of the right ones, communicating with clarity what the mind has seen. Inevitably they reveal something about the person and the way they think and feel.

I believe that the architectural poem, the brush stroke that follows—calligraphic architecture, as my friend, the artist, Norman Ackroyd called it (as published in Lines)—and ultimately the constructed space all seek to capture the essential, the spiritual, and universal emotions. Their synthesis in time unifies the original thoughts and connects them back to our mind and senses, and to our hearts.

All images of work are from Being: An Architect, © Ian Ritchie Architects, unless otherwise noted

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