FAT Reimagined Living & Working Space Competition Judge Victoria Whenray shares with us where she looks for inspiration and the design principals that guide her amazing projects plus much much more!
Partner at world renowned Conran & Partners, Victoria Whenray is a truly gifted Leader, Architect, Designer and Academician at the Academy of Urbanism. Alongside leading a fast expanding architecture team, she is instrumental in the design and delivery of highly prestigious projects both in the UK and internationally, spanning a wealth of creative mixed-use regeneration and masterplanning projects. Much like her wonderfully bright and spritely personality, Victoria strives to design vibrant and uplifting architecture that enriches cities and improves the quality of people's lives.
FAT Q&A WITH
WHEN YOU FIRST READ THE COMPETITION PROPOSAL, WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS?
My first thoughts were, what a great idea and its apt given the situation we are all in at the moment. I particularly liked the aspect of Art. Art is easily accessible to lots of people and I think it is a great vehicle to convey thoughts, feelings and aspirations and to create a personal story – which is what we are after isn’t it? Rather than focusing on specifically designing a room or a building, art takes us somewhere else and therefore, the journey can be slightly different. [Art] can be quite a cathartic experience and I think that is really important.
Interestingly, every Wednesday morning we catch up as a studio and talk about various topics and today, our talk was about Mental Health. We discussed this idea of pressure release and just being able to do something different. I thought this competition is actually a really good tie into that in terms of creating space for people to express their experiences. I am also a firm believer that with a pencil in your hand or anything that is not a computer, you actually think differently – I believe this is also really important.
WHAT ROLE DO YOU FEEL THAT ART PLAYS IN ARCHITECTURE TODAY?
The classic view of architecture is that it is a piece of art. I think it was Frank Lloyd wright that said “Architecture is the mother of all art” which basically encompasses, certainly today, so many different fields that are within that. There is an element of science and technology, but I don’t think we can take away the fact that actually architecture is a craft, and like art, is about stimulating the senses - or good architecture can stimulate the senses, as can good art. So, this idea of being able to capture light, movement, modelling, relief, materiality, is all still there, there are just more parts of the conversation to get us to that point. It is an evolving organic typology.
In terms of the role of art within architecture, I think it is still important, it is intrinsically there. There will be departures naturally, but even in the most utilitarian pieces you can still discover beauty - in how it is composed or put together or the thought behind it - and again, that is like art. It is not classical in the sense that it is an extension or physical representation of a picture, it’s very different, but it doesn’t mean to say it is any less worthy.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE FROM ENTRIES TO THE REIMAGINED LIVING AND WORKING SPACE COMPETITION?
First of all, I would like to say I think it is an excellent brief and I am really looking forward to seeing what people present and working with the rest of the panel to look at this. I don’t want to say too much as I would like to keep it open and the truth is, I don’t want to guide anyone. But, I think the competition is about raising curiosity and making us think - it should be an artistic proposal which feels like it is a personal approach. It doesn’t have to be polished or finished at all, but something that has personality and, going back to the idea of stimulation, it stimulates a conversation or thought process in ourselves. That could be through anything: colour, quality of line work, through the media used - it is completely open.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON HOW OUR LIVING AND WORKING ARRANGEMENTS MIGHT CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THIS PERIOD?
My feeling is that in any case, we have been living in an increasingly blended world. In our projects in the studio, we have an idea of work which [is presented] almost as a diagram. Work, living and play all cross over and there have been ever increasing cross overs. When we design hospitality projects, we bring in a sense of ‘home’ with a warmth where people feel comfortable. We infuse our residential or home projects, with our hospitality experience, an extra layer if you like. The smart phone has completely changed our lives so our working is extended and overlaps with other activities - connecting with people and playing. Life has become smaller in that respect and more intertwined.
I think what we need to be creating are spaces that are agile and flexible so that we don’t feel trapped. That is part of the problem at the moment and one of the challenges. We should find space within the constraints of our home where we can do all of these different things. It is about zoning and creating those corners, nooks and crannies where we can actually close the door and put things to one side for a while.
We have been more connected with our personal living environments, perhaps more than we imagined we ever would be. But by being more connected, the niche in the room that you have never really done anything with, can be something completely different, you can get your chair in there and discover “actually this is a lovely corner”! On a personal level, I have reconnected with my neighbourhood - I am lucky enough to live close to a great independent high street - as well as reconnecting with my home during this period. I am finding little corners I like, but then I ask myself, where is that power socket or end up following the sun around the house!
DO YOU HAVE AN OVERRIDING ETHOS THAT GUIDES YOUR DESIGN APPROACH/ NARRATIVE FOR EACH PROJECT?
What is really important to me is understanding the people who are going to use the space as an environment that I or the team are going to be designing and, understanding the context. This is partly about the people but actually, it is more than that, it is the physical, historical, cultural and social contexts. From there, I think then you can build something which is authentic. That is really important to me.
It is embedded in place and it is relevant to the people - it all starts with a people centric approach - they are at the heart of everything. Quite often the conversations we have in the studio are “imagine I am a such and such a person, walking through this, how am I going to feel?” Then, it is about the senses that you create while you are designing and that is when we start sketching. We start sketching how it might feel to walk through these spaces or pass through the building and then, the architecture stems from that. That is how we design and that is how I encourage that we design - it is always people at the heart which is then followed very closely by the context.
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION IN YOUR WORK AND YOUR PROJECTS?
I very much look at the city for inspiration. It is very important for me to be a constant student. I think as long as I remain interested and engaged, I will keep doing this job, it just excites me so much! Just observing how people respond to different spaces, different buildings, and different materials - they can elicit so many different feelings. It could be the same piece of wall but depending on the materiality of it and how connected one feels to it, it can actually create a different sensibility. Just really thinking about how you are going to engage with the senses and just being a constant student. People love making places their own if they are given the opportunity and so, it is understanding what people would do themselves. It is creating a space for people to take ownership so it feels like it is theirs. At the end of the day, they will be the custodian of that space, we won’t be. We are creating a space; we are enabling and in fact, we are enablers.
We try to return and watch and keep going back and learning. One of our projects is Butlers Wharf, a four-and-a-half-hectare site that was one of our master planning projects and where we had our offices for 20 years. Working there and in that building was great for me. I would literally walk there every day and I could see straight away what works, what people like and where they would stop and pause, which doorways they like to walk through and how materials had weathered over time.
IF YOU COULD RECOMMEND ONE BOOK, EXHIBITION, PIECE OF ART, ARCHITECTURAL OR OTHERWISE, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I really had to think about this question and I decided to go with a piece of art. My first thought and a series I really enjoy is Hockney’s 1960’s and ‘70’s LA Pool projects. When I studied art history as a teenager, I was presented with these quite exotic images of a different world in colours with incredibly punchy blues and pinks, bearing in mind as you can probably tell from my accent, I am a girl from the north-east, I was just blown away. I studied them in great depth, especially the Paper Pools, and lithographs an extension of the series, the energy, expression and what they conveyed in just a few lines and movements. I really enjoyed - and still enjoy - their expression of freedom, expression of the fluidity of the water. You get a sense of sunshine on the page.
The Salts Mill, in Saltaire, a world heritage site, has the most amazing collection of his lithographs including a selection from his Pool series. I didn’t realise this until quite recently and it’s nice since in some ways, there is a big loop coming all the way back to Bradford which is where David Hockney is originally from.
IF YOU WERE TO GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF ONE PIECE OF ADVICE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Be yourself! This can be incredibly hard, especially when you are starting out but definitely be yourself. And also believe in yourself! Have confidence and just pursue something that means a lot to you. Don’t be encouraged by what other people close to you think that you should be doing, actually just engage in what you would like to be doing. It’s quite straight forward to say, but it’s actually very hard because lots of other things come into play.
WHAT ONE THING DO YOU THINK ARCHITECTURE COULD ACHIEVE IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS FOR THE GREATER GOOD?
I sincerely believe that good design improves the quality of people’s lives, and this also relates to architecture. Today more than ever, working together and collaborating is hugely important. It can be quite a tough profession and it needs a lot of players, especially at the scale we often work at. The making of buildings can be quite a challenge!
We should always remember however, that at the end of the day, people are going to be using these spaces or, people are going to be walking through these spaces or sitting in front of this building so, it is always about thinking beyond the brief and how it is going to impact the wider neighbourhood. It has to be a generous and collaborative process - which doesn’t mean to say the big idea needs to be watered down, it is actually just a coming together of parts so that you can choose the best version of what it is you are trying to create and recognising the power in that. Importantly, it requires thinking beyond the purely functional. Architecture is still intrinsically linked with art, it is fundamentally a craft, and it still has to be joyful and pleasurable.
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