Interview with Charlie Warde

Sean Ronnie Hill, Director of RISE Design Studio, recently interviewed Charlie Warde, a London born artist, who is now based in Marseille. His wide-ranging practise celebrates and critiques the themes behind post war architecture, in particular social housing. A number of his works can be found in the permanent collection of the V&A and 2 Willow Road.

Sean interview RISE Design Studio Charlie Warde

Sean: Why don’t we start with geography, why Marseille?

Charlie: It all stemmed from the project that Mike Davies and I put together for Manifesta Biennale, last year, so that was… what was last year? 2020! As a roaming European Biennale, it was Marseille’s turn to host Manifesta 13. Mike and I put forward a proposal for a large scale project that involved a student exchange between the Beaux-Arts here in Marseille and City and Guilds of London Art School and a big exhibition celebrating architectural and engineering achievements between the Brits and the French… a kind of “f*** you” to Brexit.

Sean: Absolutely.

Charlie: We were all set to go with that and then Covid kicked in. Mike had had some previous health issues and had to shield, so we had to sadly forget about his input in the project. I piggybacked onto a residency in the Beaux-Arts in Marseille and created a body of work which was well received; it all happened from that really. And then with Covid-19, we got stuck out here and Brexit kept us exiled here.

Sean: Yeah, very much for the better.

Charlie: Yes, exactly. But architecturally there’s plenty to keep me here too. There is the Unité d’habitation, the Cité Radieuse, which is something of an anchor point, I suppose.

Sean: So your equivalent to Trellick?

Charlie: Yes, it’s incroyable! Also, Marseille is a true Arrival City, it’s a port city – a gateway to North African French colonies like Algeria. Consequently you have this flow of people settling slab, dab in the centre of the city. You’ll find some of the poorest housing in Europe, in the first and second arrondissements, just off the Vieux-Port.

Sean: Which is quite like the Industrial model, because when the Industrial Revolution happened it was in the city centre.

Charlie: Exactly that, there are definite similarities in that way, one being that the landlords of these properties are private. They own a lot of the city centre which they rent out at cheap rents, which they fail to upkeep. There is a real issue of neglect, a lot of their properties are extremely dangerous, and there have been tragic incidents… in 2018, two buildings on Rue d’Aubagne collapsed, killing eight. There are buildings in the centre of Marseille with cracks through which you can see daylight. In structural walls! There are buckled door frames, that have shifted because of structural creep. So now in Marseille the Marie (Mayor’s office) is emptying a lot of these properties because they are so dangerous; they are pulling them down. There are gaps everywhere.

Sean: Are they relocating the inhabitants elsewhere?

Charlie: To hotels mostly! There are banlieues on the outskirts of the town which are full. I must say Sean I’m not an authority on this, which is partly born out of my lack of French, so any research that I need to do, such as going through city archives, is out of the question at the moment.

Sean: Sure, I mean you are a new arrival there, but it is interesting the parallel there because Ladbroke Grove was very similar with private housing.

Charlie: Yes, Peter Rachman, the landlord who squeezed a lot of the West Indian community out of what little money they had. Indeed it is similar, but what’s really interesting is Marseille has, as a result, you have this incredible mix of cultures, of classes, of creeds. It’s this crazy, chaotic melting pot, and there are town planners from all over that view Marseille as the antidote to gentrification. If you’ve got this density, this mix, it diffuses a lot of the differences. You’re not creating ghettos like they have done in Paris over the years. Everyone’s in it together – it’s a community. I’m not saying it’s an easy alliance, but it works in many ways.

Sean: Yes, yes absolutely, I mean that’s very much the essence and the beauty of these amazing cities. London did it for many years with many different communities living together and it very much benefited the city.

Charlie: Absolutely.

Sean: That leads into another interesting parallel where you’re taking about Unité d’habitation and Trellick: concrete. It was the material “in vogue” at the time…. but there’s a lot of interesting things you got from Trellick.

Charlie: For sure. They are both landmarks. Both are cited as prominent examples of a particular era aren’t they? Trellick being Brutalism, the Unité earlier – 1953 (Trellick was completed in 1972). “The Corbusier” as they call it here, is one of the high points of post war Modernism. And yes, both sculptural essays in the use of concrete. However, I would say the construction of Trellick Tower is superior to Corbusier’s building.

Sean: Do you think it was down to local craftsmanship or down to the timeline?

Charlie: Both – I think it’s a lot of things. I think it is the timeline. I think that structural engineers, architects and concrete technicians learnt very quickly how to improve mixtures and the issues of using certain aggregates. There were advancements in construction skills – for example vibration systems to compact concrete when it was poured into shuttering so that there were less cavities. Trellick Tower did have an advantage in that regard. Also, Goldfinger was particularly adept at large scale construction projects. He finished on time, never went over budget and was absolutely rigid in the way he oversaw a build. He was a very controlling man, he was a bully – larger than life, like his buildings. He was able to force situations into completion.

Sean: I suppose in an industry like that especially back then, maybe that was necessary.

Charlie: Yeah, 1972! From my knowledge of the project, they didn’t encounter too many problems whereas Neave Brown’s Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate was rife with issues, some born out of the complexity of the site (it was built along a curved railway line). There was a major flood because of a burst water main. There were also walk outs and strikes. It ran over time and over budget – it coincided with the demise of a lot of these large-scale estates.

Sean: What attracted you initially to Goldfinger’s work ?

Charlie: My first job in London was dismantling televisions on a shop in Golborne Road in 1996, and that was the first time I encountered Trellick Tower up close and personally, and it terrified me. I had already seen it driving in and out of London on the Westway – as you ride the flyover you meet its gaze – but being on Golborne Road, being under its shadow was something that made such an impression on me. Then I became aware of the legend and mythology of the building — the bad times in the 70s and 80s, the stories of drugs, muggings and rapes, the pirate radio station aerials on the roof. That all changed in 1984 with the resident’s association being formed. In 1987 the council finally installed a concierge to control the flow in and out of the building. It was the “Tower of Terror” mythology that initially pulled me in and then, when I was doing my masters, I began to research it and I began to understand why it was built, who it was built for and more about that period of architecture.

Sean: So Brutalism became your topic of choice then ?

Charlie: Yes, yes it did, after knowing very little about it became an endless source of fascination, and I began to look at other Goldfinger buildings. I had a residency at 2 Willow Road back in 2013 which gave me the opportunity to make a series of radio shows with James Torrance for Resonance FM on Ernö Goldfinger – Homes Of Tomorrow. We interviewed some great people – Neave Brown, James Dunnett (who has written widely on Goldfinger) and Mike Davies among them. It opened up this whole world of post war architecture, from which my practice has grown.

Sean: And in terms of your practice, we’re kind of jumping around a bit now but, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on your upbringing

Charlie: My upbringing was peculiar, I grew up in a stately home in Kent, Squerryes Court, built in the 1680s. It’s a massive doll’s house – red brick, symmetrical, large windows, light filled; very beautiful. My family couldn’t afford to live there without opening it to the public so it became this lovely little museum and wedding venue around which we navigated our lives. We lived in a small part of the building and the rest was shut off and opened to the public. So I grew up in a beautiful environment that was interesting from an architectural perspective AND a fine art perspective as there was a small collection of paintings, furniture and porcelain. I grew up with an appreciation for these things.

Sean: Yeah, because you were surrounded by incredible architecture.

Charlie: So yeah, my upbringing was completely devoid of Brutalism, right ? It couldn’t have been more different and perhaps that’s the thing that drove me in a different direction. And I was into street culture as a kid – hip hop, breaking, graffiti; the Electro albums, Subway Art and Beat Street made a big impression on me. That led me into the more interesting parts of the city…

Sean: So, with a History of Art background, was Art always there ?

Charlie: It was always there. I think my subsequent degree in Art History was a natural progression given my family surroundings, and the people I met from from an academic and research background, so I fell into the art history. I guess that History of Art is interesting from a Fine Art perspective because one becomes an arbiter of style and quality – the stuff you learn about tends to hold up over time and is held as exemplars. If you have a background in Art History, I think it fine tunes you as an artist, raises your standards.

Sean: You have all the bits of a puzzle subconsciously.

Charlie: Certainly! And one is conscious of getting things absolutely right too. If you’ve researched art academically, you become very aware of the way your own art might be perceived.

Sean: Seems like a massive advantage to have this knowledge of the industry.

Charlie: Yup, but also a disadvantage… I’m perhaps too much of a perfectionist! I’d like to talk about some of the pieces you’ve been working on over the years, and the reasoning behind your medium of choice and why 3D and why is that inspiring?

Charlie: Well this all came out of two things really. Firstly, My Masters from City and Guild’s of London Art School from which I graduated in 2012, during which I concentrated on the contextual and conceptual aspect of my practice. I developed the idea of trying to BUILD a painting out of paint rather than simply paint a picture of a building. In 2012 London was full of “luxury apartment” building sites, CGI pasted all over hoardings around large scale construction projects – perfectly rendered lifestyle images of models in slick interiors, you know the sort of thing. Building a painting in 3D seemed like a more honest rendition of architecture than some slick two-dimensional trickery.

Secondly, during my pre-MA life as a portrait painter, I learnt how to grind pigments, make oil paint, cook up and thicken mediums, stretch, size and gesso canvases etc. I had a profound understanding of artist materials and found I could apply that to pushing acrylic paint, mediums and pigments into reproducing concrete ingredients and finishes.

Sean: Do you use anything like a substrate? So you start up with a thin piece and just layer up. No reinforcement?

Charlie: It’s pure paint – Plastic Painting. So yeah, that’s kinda how it happened, but concrete is interesting to me because it is bound up with so much narrative potential. That whole idea of the Sense Of Place, of Psychogeography and telling a building’s story. Concrete is full of energy – the stuff that made it, that it’s soaked up over the years. I think a damaged, decrepit piece of concrete from a neglected building is so revealing. So that sort of narrative is the stuff I’m interested in.

Sean: There’s something beautiful in a weathered building, but often with the architecture that we share an interest in, it would be interesting to see it when it was first built – before the weathering and pollution.

Charlie: Absolutely. Like Thamesmead, the way Kubrick depicts it in A Clockwork Orange, just after it was completed – it’s pristine, the stuff of Science Fiction. Not like that anymore…

Sean: So one of the most important elements of architecture that architects are considering now is sustainability. What is your attitude towards concrete as a material and how it can play a part ?

Charlie: Its a worry isn’t it, Sean? They say that if concrete was a country, it would have the worlds second largest carbon footprint. When one considers the amount of infrastructure that is being built in Africa, China and South America, it is just extraordinary. We are running out of construction grade sand!

I think the really interesting thing is the idea of transformation — architectural transformation. Finding the potential in something that already exists, even if it’s damaged. So you have Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal who won the 2021 Pritzker Prize and their practice is all about transformation. Look at their project in Bordeaux – the Quartier du Grande Parc. They took an existing housing scheme and bettered it. They just altered the scheme, they didn’t tear it down. Mei Architects did an amazing project in Rotterdam — Fenix One. They took a large concrete warehouse and built a series of flats on top of it. I hope there’s a shift into realising that these are the ways that architects can solve existing problems. This is what my next exhibition in London is all about, PLAYTIME. I have asked 10 architects, artists, art critics, curators and a fashion designer to reimagine and transform the entire exhibition each week. Mike Davies is one of the Players, Gianni Botsford another; two brilliant architects that will rebuild the exhibition. Everything will be available to view in real time, 24/7 on the website, because we have HD CCTV cameras positioned around the gallery. The title, PLAYTIME, is based on Jacques Tati’s film, the ultimate cinematic critique of Modernism. As always, It’s all about the architecture, Sean!

RISE Design Studio Charlie Warde

Warde’s latest UK exhibition, PLAYTIME, opens at Cable Depot on 12th November. Details can be found here.

Covid and the rise of co-working?

 

As so many of us continue to work from home, it is not surprising that ‘the office’ as we once knew it has begun to feel like a distant memory. While escaping the daily commute has no doubt been a breath of fresh air for many, we remain faced with the daily grind of setting up work at the kitchen table or a desk in another corner of the home, and seeing our two-dimensional colleagues on the computer screen. Looking forwards, we might seek more of a balance – not travelling as far to work, yet not losing the ‘buzz’ of work around us. This has prompted discussions about the potential for ‘co-working spaces’ closer to home.

Untitled

Going back to the office?

Recent research has found that UK employees are the least willing to return to the office, when compared with their European counterparts. 72% wish to work remotely more often in the future. At the same time, more than three in four managers in UK businesses feel that ‘collaborative’ workspaces will be more suitable for their post-lockdown business models than a full-time, staffed office.

This will perhaps lead businesses to reconsider how they use their costly premises. Companies may reduce the size of their property holdings and instead seek to use space more efficiently, in response to the reduced demand. This might not mean the ‘end of the office’ – instead, expansive buildings that house thousands of workers may become less common.

Hybrid spaces

What is perhaps more likely to happen is that we will see more ‘hybrid’ spaces to work in. These spaces might be something in between ‘the office as we knew it’ and the kitchen table. Shared, neighbourhood offices might replace vacant units on town centre high streets, allowing people to work in a space with people doing different jobs – and network and socialise with them.

There is growing demand for these types of localised workspaces, accompanied by flexibility to continue to work from home and/or travel to a main office for part of the week.

‘Inside the box’

Embedded in the development of co-working spaces, we have been working with our client, [KVE] Coliving, to develop new and flexible office spaces in Wembley. In keeping with our design principles – rooted in the natural environment and appreciation of imperfection – we are re-imagining the opportunities of local land and reused shipping containers. The complex includes office spaces, outdoor amenities and a communal space for resting, dining and interacting with others working in the complex. Read more about this project here.

 

Imperfection and the pursuit of happiness in architecture

 

2020 has definitely not been a perfect year. But what if we accept that any feelings of suffering we experience are a part of life? What if it is not in our remit to be completely and enduringly happy all the time? What if, in embracing imperfection, we can find happiness? These are questions that have been explored by philosophers and expressed in architectural approaches and styles.

RISE Design Studio - Mak and Bium

A philosophy of comfort

Philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, has suggested that ‘the greatest enemy of contemporary satisfaction may be the belief in human perfectability’. In today’s society, we often feel that it is in our remit to be completely happy. However, throughout history, life’s milestones and endeavours (marriage, raising children, pursuing a career, etc.) have been understood to be difficult as well as sources of happiness. Buddhists have perceived life as a ‘veil of suffering’, while the Greeks believed in ‘the tragic structure of every human project’. Christianity has also measured ‘each of us as being marked by a divine curse’.

Seeking a way forwards, de Botton argues that what we can aim for is consolation – accepting that life is a hospice rather than a hospital. Seeking to make that hospice as comfortable, as interesting, and as kind as possible. We should also seek to grasp what our problems are and know that we are not alone with them.

Embracing imperfection

In an earlier post, we wrote about the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – an acceptance of transience and imperfection. By living in the now and embracing the impermanence of life, we are more likely to learn, grow and feel more content. In architectural designs that embrace wabi-sabi, finding beauty in asymmetry and connecting with natural materials brings balance and serenity to the home. The approach also encourages us to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others.

Spontaneity can also be a source of happiness, realising opportunities as they arise and developing a fondness towards the unexpected. The Korean architectural aesthetic of ‘mak’ embodies this approach, embracing compassion for the context in which a building or object is realised. Where buildings may seem raw and unfinished, this is instead an aesthetic statement, acknowledging an innate tactility that is enshrined in Korean culture.  Diverging from the Western architectural focus on symmetry, the concept of ‘bium’ (literally translated as ’emptiness’), allows haste to overcome perfection, perhaps in misalignment of materials or uneven arrangements.

For example, in a traditional Korean house (a ‘hanok’), a courtyard provides a void of calm vacancy and an acceptance of the constraints and conditions of the house’s location. Instead of seeking perfection, rafters may remain unprocessed, or opening/doorways may fit between the warped wooden contours of beams. The unique personality of this type of home acknowledges the natural surroundings of the building.

A series of moments

Despite life’s imperfections, moments of true happiness are always possible. And what more is life than a series of moments? In architecture, we are presented with an opportunity to embrace imperfection. By welcoming the irregular and broken features of existing structures and refurbishing them in a way that incorporates the building’s history, we can acknowledge both the past and present to create the comfortable, interesting and kind life that de Botton supported.

Our top tips to thrive working from home

 

Who knew that working from home could be quite pleasant? Here are our top tips to make it so.

RISE Design Studio working from home reduced

1. If you don’t have space… make space!

Re-arranging a room to fit a desk in the corner, or using that awkward recess in the corridor for setting up a little working space can make wonders to our wellbeing. Did you know that our minds stay calmer and more focused when we assign a specific task to each space?

In other words: eating in bed? Bad idea… Using the kitchen counter as your office? Turns out, not ideal either! Instead, we can get creative by separating the counter in two with a makeshift partition, or temporarily set up the dining table as an office desk while moving family meals to the kitchen.

2. Clean space, clear mind

We know… easier said than done, right? But tidying up is an effort worth making, as it has a huge influence on our mental health as explained by this article by UCLA professionals.

3. Stay connected

It is very important to stay in touch with others even if we are physically apart.
Pay attention to small interactions too. It is easy to make contact about big issues but, with the distance, we lose the little exchanges that are so crucial to our social brains. In order to avoid “losing touch” in this way, embrace communication regardless of the weight of the matter… even if it is to reach out to a colleague or loved one and ask “how’s it going?”.

4. Indulge a little

Cooking a new recipe or working while listening to Bossa Nova can transport us to places that are off-limits for the time being. Finding the energy to change things up a bit brings a lot of rewards, including a more positive attitude and a more productive state of mind!

5. Take advantage of the situation

Remember those days when you woke up wishing you could just stay at home all day and do nothing?

Oh well… now is the time to do all those things we wanted to do but never had the time to. Our best advice is to start a personal project to take your mind off things and have something exciting to look forward too. In our case, it is all about renovating homes! Spending so much time inside has led a lot of clients to finally tackle all those things they wanted to change about their homes.

Until the next time! And remember, stay safe, stay active, and stay positive.

Our professional affiliations

 

RISE Design Studio Ltd is a member of The Green Register and registered with the Architects Registration Board. Our Director, Sean Ronnie Hill, is a Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the professional association of architects in the UK. This post provides some information about these organisations and the interests they represent.

Professional affiliations

The Green Register of Construction Professionals is a not-for-profit membership organisation that promotes sustainable building practices to all of the disciplines within the construction industry. Core activities of the organisation include: training on sustainable building practices; maintaining a register of members (all members undergo at least two days of Green Register training; and networking to allow knowledge exchange. Sustainable architecture is central to our work (see our recent post on the topic) and the publicly-available register of members is a useful source for potential clients looking for architects and other construction professionals who are committed to sustainable building. The Green Register website also hosts a very useful blog for those interested in sustainable building techniques, news, discussion and legislation.

The Architects Registration Board (ARB) is an independent, public interest body that was established by the UK Parliament in 1997 to regulate the architecture profession in the UK. ARB prescribes the qualifications required to become an architect and ensures that architects meet the standards for conduct and practice. All architects in the UK must be registered with ARB. ARB maintains the UK Register of Architects, which lists qualified architects and is available to search on the ARB website. The ARB website also provides a wealth of information for members of the public and provides some guidance on key topics to discuss with an architect if embarking on an architecture project.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)  is also connected with the architects across the UK but has a slightly different role to the ARB. With around 44,000 members, RIBA promotes architecture and provides professional training and support. RIBA also maintains the British Architectural Library, which houses over four million items, including architecture books and papers. Since 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and RIBA have worked together to promote enjoyment and appreciation of architecture, with the Architecture Gallery at the V&A being home to the first permanent gallery dedicated to the subject in the UK. RIBA is also known for running several architecture awards, including the Stirling Prize for ‘Best New Building of the Year’.

Sustainable architecture principles: environment, energy, efficiency

 

Buildings account for about half of the UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Globally, architecture was responsible for 40-50% of waste deposits in landfills at the turn of the new millennium, and 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental integrity of a building (i.e. how it is designed and operated) is now a key consideration in the design of new buildings and the renovation of existing ones. More and more architects and designers are realising that good design improves quality of life and minimises harmful impacts on our health. Clients are also seeing the benefits of more environmentally responsible buildings through future-proofing, reduced operating costs, and comfort and health benefits. As a result, we are seeing more ‘sustainable architecture’ projects, which seek to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy and development space.

Sustainable architects

So, what are the three main characteristics of a sustainable architecture project?

Environmentally-friendly building materials
A sustainable architect typically chooses to use environmentally-friendly building materials. The most desirable materials are those that are recycled or renewable, as well as those that require the least energy to manufacture. There is often a focus on using locally-obtained woods and stone, reducing the distance that materials travel before being used in the construction process and supporting local trades. There is a preference for wood that is harvested responsibly from certified forests and all other materials are non-synthetic and non-toxic. Recycling is at the heart of a sustainable architect’s design. Although recycled building materials were difficult to source in the early 1990s, there is now an active trade in recycled architectural salvage, particularly by specialist companies providing materials from demolition sites.

Energy and resource efficiency
Sustainable architecture is underpinned by a philosophy that advocates sustainable energy sources. Where feasible, steps are taken to design for energy efficiency, including the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar. A sustainable architect recognises that the energy efficiency of buildings can be increased in a variety of ways. A building can be oriented to take full advantage of seasonal changes in the sun’s position, and energy-efficient lighting and appliances can be installed. Energy conservation is also key: buildings can be ‘weatherised’ for maximum protection against the loss of warm or cool air, and appropriate insulating materials and window glazing can be installed to reduce heat loss in ways that do not cause indoor humidity.

Efficient use of space
The sustainable architect recognises the importance of indoor environmental quality for affecting how an individual feels in a space and focuses on features such as a healthy indoor environment with adequate ventilation, temperature control, and the use of materials that do not emit toxic gases. The incorporation of earth shelters, roof gardens, and extensive planting throughout and around buildings is also encouraged. In the UK, a study by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, now Design Council Cabe) of five new academic buildings and campuses found that more than 70% of staff and students believed that the facilities and functions of the buildings they work in improved the way they felt and behaved.

Buildings built to the Passivhaus standard are a great example of these sustainable architecture and design principles in practice. We’ll be writing more about Passivhaus in our next post.

New Website Launched

We have recently launched our new website and part of it is this blog. We aim to add articles of interest and news about RISE Design Studio at least once a month so visit again soon to see what’s going on…