London Calling: The 'Practical' Architect

London Calling: The 'Practical' Architect

Recently the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pledged £30 million towards Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge over the Thames. It was an easy offer to make towards a conspicuous piece of design by the author of the 2012 Olympic flame. Contrast this with the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s remarks about the contribution that our profession might make to schools: "We won't be getting Richard Rogers to design your school. We won't be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer."

Together, these events indicate that our government does not understand our profession. Genius minds may be called upon to make exceptional contributions to a built environment that otherwise need not be exposed to such frivolity and impracticality. And yet, every day architects make practical decisions that lead to great buildings. It’s about time the politicians here in the UK and abroad listened to a very ‘practical’ profession.

In his essay "Chicago Frame," published in the 1950s, architectural historian Colin Rowe describes how the ‘practical’ architect in the city of Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s was expected to abide by his speculative client’s objectives - not to embellish upon or undermine their commercial intentions: ‘Magnificently undisguised, the office buildings of the Loop owe something of their authenticity to their being no more than the rationalization of business requirements…they are scarcely, in any deliberate and overt sense, cultural symbols.’ (1) He writes as if this version of an architect was not the norm. Still though, when commentators write about architects, they rarely dwell on the practical, and yet, it was just this practicality that led to a uniquely rich seam of architecture in downtown Chicago at that time.

Today, the building industry is a more practical place and the people who commission buildings are on the whole very practical people. Yet, the fact that there is a practical tradition in architecture – not to be mistaken for the plainly commercial – is little understood; furthermore, that this practicality takes many forms. The phenomenon is present in many of the most complex works of Architecture and our failure to communicate this must, in part, be responsible for our loss of influence. What do I mean by the ‘practical’ architect?

Reliance Building, 32 North State Street, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress,

Nineteenth Century Chicago is synonymous with the structural frame and the skyscraper - buildings like Carson Pirie Scott by Louis Sullivan, Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store by HH Richardson, the Reliance Building by Daniel Burnham and the Monadnock by both Burnham and Holabird & Roche. What they all have in common is their simple box-like shape. Each occupies the whole site and all are as tall as the structure would allow, maximizing development and rent. But commercial as this may seem, each has carefully composed masonry or faience facades and finely detailed windows and entrances that gave them their distinct quality and collective form. Today Maccreanor Lavington seems to exemplify this practical approach with its large masonry apartment blocks with their richly detailed homogenous facades. But there’s more to it than masonry structures with simple plans and elevations.

Saxon Court & Roseberry Mansions – Maccreanor Lavington’s London Housing scheme. Image © David Grandorge

More than half a century ago the Team 10 architects were developing plans that gave structure to use. Aldo van Eyck’s Orphanage was planned for the ages of the children and how they might play. Candilis, Josic, Woods & Schiedhelm’s Berlin Free University addressed the question of growth. They mapped out an urban model of streets and building blocks all under one roof. In this model academic departments expand and contract, emerge and evolve, just like activities in a city. These works addressed the contrasting themes of individuality, communality, growth and adaptation. Of course, that generation chose to build in the Brutalist style disguising their humanist principles.

Berlin Freie Universitat, 1963-1974. Image Courtesy of

And what could be more practical than an architect who declines to build? The most famous proponent of the “no-building” solution was Cedric Price. Uniquely pragmatic and visionary, his Potteries Thinkbelt (1966) and ATOM project (1969) both offered models for educational facilities that all but dispensed with buildings. The first would have used the rail network and rolling stock; the latter combined existing media and facilities already available to the community.

Potteries thinkbelt. Image Courtesy of

Similarly, there are instances where Norman Foster is believed to have made a case for doing nothing. Of course, Foster’s hero was Buckminster Fuller: an early environmentalist whose credo was always to use the minimum and to waste little. Foster was very proud of the fact that the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia was lighter than a Jumbo Jet. It was perhaps a spurious statistic given that one was designed for flight while the other simply need stand on the ground. It nevertheless proved his point that buildings could use less materials (although not necessarily less energy) in their production, be lightweight and ultimately as High-Tech as a car or a plane. High-Tech architects often used practical criteria to validate their work.

Sainsbury Centre / Foster + Partners. Image © Xavier de Jauréguiberry

Practicality is a legitimate architectural methodology that infuses much of our work. Take our model prison that sought to reduce recidivism and improve the prospects of resettlement. Our humanist model relied on simplifying the morphology of the prison plan in order to make a direct connection between a cluster of cells and the outside; this all-but eliminated the need for the prison officer to shuttle inmates around the prison, thus freeing up money for a wide variety of specialists – teachers, gardeners, chefs, sports instructors etc. It was an architectonic model, but one whose efficiency could be proven by a mathematical formula.

Model Prison. Image Courtesy of Henley Halebrown Rorrison Architects

Now, the profession is understandably preoccupied with sustainability. The High-Tech knights, with their form-finding icons and architectural 'brands,' have been reincarnated as environmentalists. But these obsessions blind society, and many architects, builders, clients and politicians from the many other dimensions of the practical. Ever since the late Nineties when the newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair uttered the words “Education Education Education,” school design has been much politicized in the UK. It is a field where the practicality of the architect might serve society well.

New Labour invested heavily in the somewhat hyperbolic Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. BSF had high ideals – seeking to forge links between buildings and pedagogy – and drew on the thinking of the Italian educationalist Loris Malaguzzi, who described the physical environment as the “Third Teacher” (after staff and peers). Unfortunately, BSF did not produce architecture but it did produce big and expensive schools – easy prey for the new Coalition administration. They were right to be critical of these leviathan structures, often deep open plan spec office buildings planned around an atrium with the obligatory Scandinavian wide stair-as-auditorium. Each school was big, the container industrial, the model a mish-mash of fashionable ideas pieced together by a committee of client, contractor, architect and educationalist. But the Coalition blamed the architects. In a campaign designed to stigmatize the profession they accused them of squandering taxpayers’ money.

When the Government scrapped BSF they embarked on a slimmed-down school-building programme to house their new generation of Free Schools. These are independently run “all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.” Although the brainchild of the political right, the idea that the state might offer alternatives with a unique pedagogy, much as independent schools have done for centuries, is a liberal one. Of course, the success of these schools will depend on their founders’ ethics.

The austerity of the Free Schools programme appealed. I presumed that Gove’s words were simply political rhetoric and that schools, even Free Schools, need architects - practical architects. So, when we were commissioned to design a Free School in London, I was hopeful. However, like many public projects, our team is contractor-led. The model disempowers the architect. Contrary to what the politicians would have the electorate believe, this approach is no more practical and no more able to control costs. Buildings built this way are rarely good value, some are cheap, and many are expensive but still poor quality. It is a mistaken approach that the UK government pursues at its peril. Many clearly exhibit severe shortcomings that will in time impact on other government departments, causing collateral expense. It is an outcome we fear and one that we work hard every day to avoid for our school.

Mechanisms of control - withholding information and legal contracts - inhibit cooperation. Processes are complex, but too many people involved, too much ill-informed correspondence, and too many meetings all distract the team from its goal: a building. Those who wield power impose stock solutions, whereas good design comes about as a result of a multitude of inter-related decisions, a lot of provisional thought, and estimated outcomes. When parties come to the process with a closed mind (as opposed to an open one) and a single-issue agenda, it is increasingly difficult to arrive at an intelligent outcome. Society, with its tightly defined roles, strict and often hugely unrealistic timings, and verbose communication spend time – not exploring - but “boring” towards disintegrated solutions.

‘The National Health Service is similarly under huge pressure to cut costs, or at least find efficiencies that allow money to be redirected to new treatments. Much as the government is turning - not to our profession - but to contractors, in the case of the NHS the Coalition is looking to managers and private companies, not the practical doctors, for efficiencies. So, to garner support, the Chair of the British Medical Association wrote to his profession announcing ‘a major campaign to put professional values – like integrity, evidence-based practice and patient centredness - to the fore’. It is a statement, with a few words substituted, that could apply equally well to our profession.’

Governments, quangos and other large commissioning bodies public and private must stop obsessing about management and procurement and focus on purchasing expertise and professionalism. They should go directly to the professions and have the confidence to ask us the questions, for example: how do you design and build schools that are significantly cheaper than the last generation’s? They must allow us to answer the question. We are capable of responding with a new paradigm. We are qualified to judge when a solution should no longer be considered a reasonable one. We are not all form-finding and obsessing about how to assemble buildings. We are genuinely interested in how the physical environment serves society, and to that end, how we serve society to the best of our ability. We are uniquely qualified to balance usefulness, quality and economy. We, the architects, are practical.

Works Referenced

(1) Rowe, C., ‘Chicago Frame’, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays, MIT Press, 1976

Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column, London Calling, looks at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub; above all, it will explore how London is influencing design everywhere, whilst being forever challenged from within. You can follow him @SiHenleyHHbR and be a fan of his Facebook page, HHbR Architecture.

About this author
Cite: Simon Henley. "London Calling: The 'Practical' Architect" 11 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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