How do you approach projects differently as a result of your international work experience?
I’ve worked in the states and Canada and England, when I was in the states we did work in china and around the world. I think things are different in the way the construction industry is set up. As I lived in America for several years, I noticed people had different expectations I guess. So that changes my design but it’s difficult to say how, it’s subtle things.
In England, when I started people were concerned about authenticity, what you made things out of were meant to reflect how things looked. China just wanted to build things cheap and quickly and they didn’t care too much about regulations. The way I go about things tend to stay the same. Designing here the climate is easy to design for, in the summer in the states its hot and humid everyone needs air conditioning to escape the heat. In the Summer in the UK we just think open all the doors and play outside. In the winter you can get 6ft of snow, there’s a lot of details and understanding things can be different.
I have designed leisure centers and sports buildings the attitude to leisure centres here are very different to America. When I first went to work there I made fundamental mistakes. It definitely effects the way you work, I’ve usually lived where I’ve worked. When I was working in Toronto I was working on the Pan American pool. Then we would commute to Toronto and stay there Monday to Friday, so I was living there.
I think in America opposed to England its less formal, the relationships. In England you work for your client and your contractor work is separate. You design everything and in a professional role, you’re responsible for the builder. In America there is much more of a fluid relationship. That is just to do with the difference between the two countries.
The construction industry. As an architect a client will come to you saying exactly what they want you to design, for example at the moment I am doing a leisure centre in Brent. The client is the local council who have done loads of leisure centres and they know what they want, you’re deigning and you’re trying to fill their expectations because they’ve got a very rigid way of doing things. Sometimes they have a vague idea but have never done a large building. Your relationship with your client is different on every project.
In America actually, you know, they have these university’s with strong ideas that their campus is going to be a place and it’s going to be brick and this and that. They want this campus in the middle of no where to be like Harvard, and its not you know, it’s just not. You design something and they look at it and say oh no, it’s far too modern and there’s too much glass.
I have always been really excited about structure and expressing the structure of the building. A lot of the buildings I have done have worked very closely with engineers that contributes to the shape and the form.
I’ve been an architect for 30 years when I first started working everything was very formal we wrote everything by letter. We got a fax machine, and everyone said that we didn’t need it. Now with email everything is decided so quickly and has become so formal, so you end up in a much closer relationship with clients and consultants. When I first went to the states in 2002 things were really changing, when I went to work in America they were more technologically advanced.
There’s been a couple of things where I’ve thought this is going to be fantastic and you present it to the client and they don’t like it. You feel like your bubble’s been burst. You can’t believe. Often it is because you didn’t understand what their aspirations were. You hadn’t listened to them.
Have you ever had anyone who wasn’t happy with what you’ve produced?
Yeah… I’m trying to think. There are clients that while you’re developing a design I’ve had people not like designs. I’ve had people say they’ve not like things during designs.
As designers, we have to be slightly arrogant, you have to be. You have to believe in what you do don’t you? Even if they tell you they want a slate roof over a swimming pool – which you can’t have. You’ll always think I know better. Then occasionally they turn round half way through and say they don’t like it and that you realise completely misjudged it.
Why have you focused on sports? Do you think it is important for society?
I fell into doing sports buildings because the first firm I went to work for after I left uni are famous for doing sports buildings. I designed a couple of swimming pools for them but from an architectural point of view they have a community role but it’s the engineering and it’s a fun building.
Here there aren’t many specialists however in America there are architects that specialise, in my case sports buildings because the markets so big. It puts me in a better position to get more jobs that are similar. They don’t tend to use the same architect because they want new ideas and different styles, it is something I notice, it’s very easy to find you’re doing something in the same way, you get someone else on the team who hasn’t been doing leisure centres or sports buildings, suddenly they’ll question it and ask why we’re doing it like that.
About putting back into the community with a lot of social good, however in America I was working for the universities, they compete to have the best facilities. Designing a recreation centre it becomes a huge story. In a sense it’s still fun and they’re good clients to work for. Designing housing is very personal, the concern I get because it’s such a big investment for them. It’s a lot of pressure for them.
I must say Ive always been a bit of a worrier, I find the client looks to you for this new building, they’ve chosen you because they trust you. They look at the drawings and they’re often glazed over, they understand but they’re looking at you and wondering if it’s going to be alright. And eventually when it opened you’re thinking do they actually like it now it’s really there.
Out there and you really, oh I mean, still last week I was, I had to look at this new swimming pool for the common wealth games and I was pinning up the elevations to show the client for the very first time. You know it was just like being at college again. I was pinning it up saying, this is the side and I thought we’d make it out of this material – we’d use brick here, metal here. You’re looking at them thinking, do they like it? You know? It feels very personal.
After 4 years I was thinking I really want to go out and do it myself. That’s when I went out to the states. When I came back this time, I finished in America and came back to the UK to Coventry university, setting up an architecture course. I was teaching undergraduate, which is slightly different.
Do you see how it has changed through having to teach architecture as now the syllabus is probably very different from when you were taught?
There was a couple things I’d realised. First, was that I’d been practising for over 20 years and all of the stuff I’d learnt in college was still relevant, but more as history, you know? When I first started studying, you know the Pompidu Centre in Paris, with all the pipes down the side. That was built in the late 70s and I started college in the early 80s, so these were fantastic, unbelievably modern buildings. The Loyds building in London was just being built. So to me, that was the peak of the art. So, 20, nearly 30 years later I’m teaching again and all that stuff is history and the kids doing it weren’t even born then.
That makes you see things different, it was a real – sort of – jolt. It makes you realise the worlds different and you can’t carry on with these preconceptions. When you’re in an office, I tend to work in large offices, there’s lots of graduates. They’re all smarter than me, they’ve done their degrees in Harvard or whatever. You get a lot of fresh ideas, but the people running the office are the seniors.
Has working as a lecturer changed your outlook on design and does seeing new people with new ideas help inspire you? So like the younger generation of designers. Do they help inspire you in your own work?
Yes to both of those. I’ve always taught, even when I first graduated, I worked teaching part time. I worked for 8 years and then took a full time job teaching and I loved that. It was fun, because in college you, in practice, work on one thing. The buildings I work on often take 18 months to design and then 18 months to actually construct. So you’re talking 3 years from when you start on something. Although you have other things going on, that’s a great chunk of your life.
The great thing about working in the university setting, for me, working at Newcastle, I was doing their final year – their main project. You have all these projects, all these great ideas coming out. It was fun because you had all these people, all these ideas coming out and you had to respond to them. So a student presents something and you have to start looking at it with an open mind. It stops you from doing the same thing over and over again, which I was saying about earlier. It stops that to some extent.
You have all that experience behind you of course?
Yes, you have that experience and everything else. So these people are coming in, and you’re not taking them as seriously. Then you go back to college and you have to asses them and you realise they do really genuinely have good ideas. I hope that it’s sort of like a jolt that sparks you out of your set opinions and your set way of working.
Have your influences changed in your design throughout your career?
Well things have changed a lot in architecture, so my influences have changed. The architectures that I admire are really the sort of modern, classic. My favourite architect is someone called Louis Kahn. Someone who worked in America in the 1960s 1950s who’s work is just amazing.
The thing that’s changed is that when I was studying, the modernist tradition was prominent. It was all about functionality, materiality, function etc. With post-modernism, which was beginning when I was at college, brought the idea of narrative of a building. When I was teaching at Coventry, I set a project for the final year students to design a piece with a sense of reconciliation. People would do buildings that were all about the bomb damage from the war, they all had a story that inspired it. 20 years ago though, that didn’t happen. You would design a building in a practical theme, it was about setting and theme and context. Whereas now it seems to be about narrative, the story of a building. I’m not sure it’s changed the way that I design though.
That’s why I love teaching, you get to explore ideas that are much more open. You can be so much more open to going down blind alleys. Often it’s the things that don’t work that you learn the most from. I think a client does want an underlying idea, something that they can clasp on to, something that can drive the design forward. When you’re a student, it’s those sort of ideas that become a real focus of a design. For instance, I had a student who was interested in thresholds, going in and out of buildings. She was designing a building and the whole design became about moving between these spaces. Whereas, in practice, those are good things to carry in to your design, but you can’t make the whole thing about that, but that can’t be the overriding thing. That’s what I like about education, the depth of investigation the students go into.
If you look at the Beijing bubble building. I think it takes a very special person, like if I went into a meeting and said this buildings all about bubbles, they would just think I was completely mad and lost it. But if a student came to me and said I want to design a building that’s all about bubbles, I would work with them, asking what does that mean, how would we inform that. As a student there’s so much more opportunity to intellectualise and to really follow through an idea that seems to be crazy. Whereas, as a professional, this seems bad, but you’re concealing your underlying ideas and explaining to the client all the practical ideas and things. You’re not expressing an underlying concept, you have to underplay that sort of. Unless you’re Zaha Hadid, and you’re famous and can do what you like. Or Daniel Libeskind, who designed this museum that was this shattered world with bits flying everywhere, to look like an explosion. A very literal symbol. Whereas if I told my clients that I wanted a building that looks like it’s exploding, they’d asked what the hell are you talking about? We want a swimming pool. So it’s difficult.
Interview by Ruairi Madine, Dan Schneck and Rachel Bonner.
Russell Stevens is an architect and educator, and has been so for years. He’s worked mainly between America and England and is currently based in Gloucester. Within Architecture he focuses mainly on sport facility buildings. He currently works in a studio named Roberts Limbrick ltd.