The advantage of architects doing more

Yesterday I visited two fascinating buildings as a part of the judging process for the Wood Awards, the WWF headquarters in Woking by Hopkins and the Ditchling Museum by Adam Richards Architects (disclaimer: nothing I say is an indication of what the final decisions will be – many great projects were entered and the full judging panel will meet to make a decision in early September).

What struck me about these two very different buildings was that in each case the architect had a larger responsibility than is common, and that this paid dividends. At the WWF, Hopkins was appointed at a very early stage – long before the client had a site. It initiated a space-planning exercise with Alexi Marmot Associates to understand the client’s needs, and it played an active role in finding the site. That site, above an at-grade car park on the edge of the heart of the city, was very influential in the evolution of the building form. It was not just an available piece of real estate – it was an appropriate and exciting location for WWF.

At Ditchling, Adam Richards was responsible not only for the design of new buildings and for the restoration and conversion of existing ones (and in proposing how those buildings should be used) but also for exhibition design. This meant that he was able to carry his ideas through from exterior to interior and to make the most of the selection of quirky spaces that history had gifted to him.

The result – two really intelligent buildings, where one can see the application of architectural intelligence from start to finish. So many clients are eager to restrict their architects to a limited role, often in the interests of ‘efficiency’. Yet Ditchling had an extremely tight budget, and WWF is not in the habit of splashing the cash.

Obviously, if you are going to let an architect play such a major role, you have to be confident that they are a good architect. Yet who would wittingly appoint a bad one (although evidently many do)? We are all taught to be wary and mistrustful these days, but if an intelligent client gives a talented and sympathetic architect an intelligent brief and a large involvement, it can pay dividends. Will more think this way?

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