The ACME director inaugurates our new series in which architects invite us into their lockdown workspaces, and muses on how the pandemic is affecting architecture
I live in King’s Cross, a 15-minute cycle from the Shoreditch office. I could go there, I just haven’t in weeks. I’ve lived here for 10 years. It's a small house from the 1860s/1870s that would have been built for the labourers in the potato or coal drops behind the station. It was a hand-me-down from friends studying for PhDs in architectural history and theory at the Bartlett.
The house survived Islington slum clearances because residents protested. They also got the council to take over an NCP car park that became a communal garden. There was a vote on whether residents wanted more individual garden space or a communal one. I’m lucky that I can sneak out to work in that - some architects are in flat shares with three other architects. But most of the people who fought for the garden in the 1980s have moved away and the people who moved in don’t understand what it is or why it is there. I’ve been quietly gardening in it for six months, and more intensively in the past four weeks. It has actually informed some of our projects. We’re trying to incorporate communal gardens on our Folkstone project so parents can let children run around playing with the other kids.
In my workspace I have proper chairs. I swap around, some I can sit in for the whole day, some just a few hours. I’ve tested all four sides of the table, changing every couple of days. I enjoy moving over so in video calls I have the Gursky behind me, then swap back so I can look at it. The flowers are the fruits of the gardening, whatever I chop off. The tea and coffee set was one of my grandmother’s engagement presents. The timber model is of Hunsett Mill and normally sits on the windowsill. I’ve moved it over as a reminder to keep things simple – particularly on this church hall we’re working on in Swansea.
The space is basically a model room – flower models in the window, mushroom models on the cabinet, astronomical things, sculptural things I made when I was young. There are things from my grandfather’s watchmaking business, like machinery for grinding glass. There’s a little gypsum head my dad made of me when I was one. There are all sorts of things from my previous life as a cinema projectionist, like 1920s-1950s advertising slides. There are couple of human bones I found along the German-Polish border when I was doing my first-year project. On the other side are shoes. As people no longer see the lower half of you, I don’t know how useful they are now. The antlers on the wall were taken from a derelict house near Lübeck where I grew up. They used to be in a green tiled bathroom and the green coat has never really come off.
My parents left when I was 16, so I started earlier than most with an empty flat. At that age, you fill it up with stuff. I used to have a 1930s projection machine, just in case anyone that came round needed it. Quite a lot is stolen. I spent a long time travelling through France with my girlfriend and dog when I was 18. You see all these ‘a vendre’ signs in the countryside. Grandma dies and the kids that moved to Paris or Bordeaux aren’t going back. After a while the sign falls over, then the first roof tiles break, the house gets a leak, then another and the walls begin to crumble. You can unapologetically push the door, everything is there. A life someone just one day left – the sofa, everything. I’m thinking: ‘I don’t think I can save everything’. Now I’m getting older I don’t think I need so much so I’ve given a lot away. The heavy stuff has bitten the dust. But I use my collection of French glasses every day.
I’ve got three screens looking at me – one laptop for talking to people, another connected to the office and an iPad for sketching. I don’t have a printer and don’t want one any more. I get pdfs, work on them and send them back. Some things you do in person are harder – misunderstanding increases exponentially. We’ve gone from Teams and Hangout to Zoom because it’s better for sketching over the screen. Six people can do it at once, you don’t need to ask permission.
I think we all understand this is not forever. Architecture is a slow business. A few months can’t sway too much
Same as other offices, ACME was not really prepared for lockdown. We grew up quickly. I had some time ago bought myself a laptop so I didn’t have to go to the office on weekends. From that point of view, it was not totally new. We had tested ways for people to work from home – mainly mums and dads. When it came, we just had to commit to one of them. It’s functional. We aren’t working at 100% efficiency but maybe 80%. Some things are better. Distances have diminished. You are further from the office, but closer to places previously far away. You are as near to Melbourne as Folkestone.
We are busy, not busier. We have a couple of projects where the client asked for them to go on hold for some months. I think we all understand this is not forever. Architecture is a slow business. A few months can’t sway too much. Most clients have taken that view. Some in hotels and retail have asked to be charged less now and pay more later. They’ve shown flexibility with us, so we have with them. What’s clear is as an industry we can do most things. The Berlin office is more relaxed, they are saying ‘yes, yes social distancing’ then going to the park together. Construction sites haven’t stopped. They took it more seriously sooner, so things have not had to be so black and white.
The Berlin-London office relationship has changed – that equalising distance thing. It feels closer than seven weeks ago. Before there was no possibility of joining Friday drinks in the other city, now we’re having them together. I’m reluctant to say what the pandemic will change in future, I’m not seeing it. I’m not saying the nature of offices or museums will change. Office space on the Continent has always been more than here, 10-12m2 per person rather than 6-8m2. Same for residential. I would love space standards to change but I don’t believe they will. I’m more interested in what it means for the way we work. We can’t say people cannot work from home now, because clearly we can.
As told to Isabelle Priest. Friedrich Ludewig is a director at ACME