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Thursday31 July 2014

Interview: Ian Ritchie

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Ian Ritchie is an architect prepared to break with convention. He tells Amanda Baillieu how his involuntary departure from the Westfield development at Shepherd’s Bush hasn’t deterred him from standing up for what he believes in

Ian Ritchie has a reputation for being difficult, at least around journalists. He distrusts the media and still nurses a resentment against the late critic Martin Pawley, who slipped into his review of the architect’s Ecology Gallery at the Natural History Museum that Ritchie thought its patron, Princess Diana, looked like someone in a soap opera because of the amount of make-up she wore.

His throwaway comment made the front page of the Evening Standard on the day the gallery opened and Ritchie had to be smuggled in through the back door, where he came face to face with the princess.

“We were lined up and she stopped at me and said, ‘I thought you were meant to be working in France’. She was very well briefed.”

But while he claims to dislike being under the media spotlight, he’s found it hard to avoid. Earlier this year, his housing scheme at Potters Field next to London’s Tower Bridge was already on site when it was brought to an abrupt halt after a bust-up between the client and the council. The eight flowerpot-shaped towers had been described by the planning inspector as “world-class architecture… which people would experience with marvel, wonder and delight”.

Ritchie was incensed at the way he’d been treated. “The leader of Southwark Council, Nick Stanton, wouldn’t even talk to me,” he says. He retaliated by issuing a statement in order to put his side of the story. “The decision by Southwark Council and Berkeley Homes to agree to seek, from other architects, a new design upon the same site, to a very similar brief, is regrettable,” it said. “It is difficult to comprehend, and is beyond the issue of architecture.”

This summer, there was another disappointment when clients cancelled his proposed new bridge at Stratford-upon-Avon, claiming the cost of the project had spiralled from £2 million to £3.3 million. Once again, the Ritchie PR machine swung into operation. His statement disputed the figures, which he said were a result of “delays and inflation”. The clients were taken task for “bowing to nimbyism” and “hiding behind figures which were of their own making”.

Gutsy use of materials

His exasperation may come from that fact that despite being one of the stars of his generation, he has built rather less in this country than one might expect. His work always gets enthusiastic, even ecstatic reviews, partly because of his gutsy use of materials and technical ingenuity. Some of his best work has been for arts organisations, including the concert platform in Crystal Palace Park; the temporary home of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford; and the production centre for Plymouth’s Theatre Royal — shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2003 — which takes its cue from the strange, awkward beauty of the shoreline.

But he also needs clients who enjoy and can respond to his provocative way of working. “I like to go inside the brain of the person I’m meeting and see if I can influence them in three meetings’ time,” he says. So when Ritchie was introduced to Chelsfield directors Nigel Hugill and Robin Butler in 1997, it seemed he’d found a developer who liked his approach and who, despite his lack of retail experience, was prepared to commission him to design a big new shopping centre next to London’s Westway.

He started by making a series of wordless presentations simply showing them a picture of a hat on top of a hill town. When pressed, he used the analogy of a typical Yorkshire village, explaining that instead of a mall with standard shop fronts, there’d be open streets and columns, and no doors to lock. He also wanted to have 1,000 sheep grazing on nearby Shepherd’s Bush Green.

“The building he’d designed broke all the rules of retail,” says Hugill. “For a start it was naturally ventilated, with a high-tensile roof to keep it cool in summer while protecting shoppers from rain, but [which would] still allow a feeling of connectedness with the outside.” The other image he drew was of a heart, showing how this part of London could be revived by shopping and new public transport to connect it to the wider city.

When Australian developer Westfield took over the development in 2004, the shopping centre was already on site, but it was clear the new developer didn’t like the scheme it had inherited. It wanted to build a traditional US-style mall — bright, big and brash. Ritchie needed to be kept on board, however, because he had won the planning permission for the previous developer. He recounts with dry amusement the experience of negotiating with Westfield. “Let’s just say that over the three or four dinners I had with [Westfield] in Mayfair, I was never allowed to bring anyone with me.”

For the Westfield shopping centre, he’d wanted to have 1,000 sheep grazing on Shepherd’s Bush Green

Public infrastructure

He said he wanted to be kept on board to do the new public infrastructure, which included two new tube stations and sidings for Central line tube trains under the site. “They couldn’t believe it. They said: ‘But you’re walking way from £10 million of fees.’ I told them that the stations would be here a lot longer than their shopping centre.”

Yet the Westfield building, which opened last month, has been built “virtually as we designed it”. Although, he adds, “the external architecture and urban spaces were trashed”, referring to the replacement of the fabric roof and the cladding — which was to have been specially treated copper that would have turned blue instead of green — and, of course, the sheep.

Ritchie admits that losing the project was a shock, but says good things came out of it. ‘‘There was the scale of thinking about the city on a big site like that, and actually doing it rather than it being a theoretical thing. It was exciting and challenging as a studio, and we handled it quite easily. The tragedy was that it was being built, and then it stopped.”

The office’s first UK exhibition is now showing at Liverpool University. He chose the city because it’s where he studied. He has been a passionate Liverpool FC supporter ever since, and one of the exhibits is a proposal for a new Anfield stadium, which he designed in seven days after seeing the club’s own scheme by US firm HKS.

“I wrote to [Liverpool FC’s] chief executive Rick Parry and listed all the things that were wrong... I told him: “The designs you’ve got are rubbish”. He replied that they would be changed during RIBA Stage E. I sent a new design to New York, where Parry and the club’s owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, were meeting but didn’t get a reply. So I posted the entire lot on [fan website] Liverpool Way.” His design received a lukewarm response as most preferred the HKS design and couldn’t understand why Ritchie was getting so worked up.

But getting worked up is what makes him unusual and, despite the prickly exterior, surprisingly likable. The notion of public duty, of a civic and civil society, is still something he cares passionately about — the list of public appointments he has held runs to several pages — and he feels a great injustice when those around him don’t see the world the same way. Local authorities, journalists, “the unrestrained market that’s enveloped English football”, Australians and even princesses have all been given a dressing-down for their failure to see the big picture.

His latest target is Bovis Lend Lease, the developer of the athletes’ village for the 2012 London Olympics. As one of the most respected of the 43 firms on the framework list for the project, it seemed Ritchie would almost certainly bag one of the first housing blocks, especially since he’d worked before with Nigel Hugill, now boss of Lend Lease boss.

But it didn’t quite work out . He left the project this summer, claiming on the firm’s website that this was partly due to too much other work. Now he says he just didn’t want to put his name to a project that “felt alien to London’s urbanity”. Like others on the framework, he fears that architects were being bought in too late, and he worried that the scale was wrong. He proposed a scale of between six and eight floors, and was concerned that the 10-storey block of flats would only have one lift.

“I told [Bovis Lend Lease], there’s a risk we’re building slums. But the answer came back: ‘We’ve got to deliver, the Olympics must go on’, which is what I feared. It does seem the scope for the architect is very limited, but I don’t do window-dressing.”

With that thought, he’s off to see Leonard Cohen, sitting in Hugill’s box at the O2 Centre, after telling me he wants to read a draft of the interview before its published because, knowing journalists, it’ll probably be all wrong.

The life and tastes of ian ritchie

University Liverpool and Westminster, graduated 1972
First job Foster Associates, 1972
First building Fluy House, France, 1976
Favourite book Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Favourite film Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
Favourite play Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
Favourite buildings Suleymaniye complex, Istanbul by Sinan; Crystal Palace by Paxton and Fox Henderson
Favorite maverick Leonardo da Vinci
Can’t live without My family and friends
My life’s mission is To express and share my knowledge

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Writing from a specialist subcontractors point of view, there are some architecs who have a bold concept but with no idea and little interest in how that concept is realised, and will sit back and let the specialist do all the work whilst claiming the credit. There are others who understand the language of materials and structure, and have an inquistive, pragmatic and hands-on approach to the practicalities of realising concept. I worked with Ian Ritchie on the Plymouth TR2 bronze mesh cladding, and can happliy write that he and his practice fall into the latter category. I do not recognise the "Mr Grumpy" characterisation in an interwiew that fails to explore any of his work or to seek any understanding of the thinking behind it. I missed opportunity

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  • Have to agree with Adrian, that Ian Ritchie is unrecognisable in this article. Sorry to BD but often this seems to occur with the well known more complex, say artistic, designers in some fruit salad write ups. Back to the project there are vestiges of his input in the finished building which hopefully get credited in history books.

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