Denise and Rab Bennetts look back at their architectural careers – from the financially precarious beginnings of setting up their own practice, to the projects they are most proud of
Rab Bennetts, and Denise Bennetts, both 69, are co-founders of Bennetts Associates. The practice has been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize three times – for the Richard Attenborough Centre (with Ian Taylor), the Jubilee Library in Brighton and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?
Denise Yes, it was the right decision. I was the first person in my family to go to higher education, and studying something such as architecture, which wasn’t just a continuation of an academic subject, was doubly different. I did also consider planning but when I talked to someone who was both an architect and planner, he said he thought I’d end up too frustrated, so I went with architecture.
Rab I’d wanted to be an architect since I was a kid. Like Denise, I was the first in my family to go to university. My dad became a building surveyor after training at night school, and my mum was quite artistically talented but was a housewife.
What sparked your interest in architecture?
Denise Being born and brought up in Edinburgh, where there are such incredible buildings of different characters all hugger-mugger together, from the city’s medieval core to post-war estates.
Rab I was interested in drawing buildings from when I was still at primary school in Aberdeen. Having moved to Edinburgh when I was 12, I later made sure I did the right Higher Grade subjects for architecture, although I wasn’t particularly academic and just managed to squeak into university with the minimum grades required.
How did you meet?
Denise We met at Edinburgh College of Art in our first year. There were only 44 of us architecture students, including four women, and by the end of the first year only 32 of the men were left but there were still four women. I think we girls were determined to prove we had made the right choice!
Rab We got married at the end of the third year and had a year out in London at the GLC before returning to Edinburgh. When we graduated, there was a photo of us in the paper saying that we intended to start up our own practice, although at that point it really hadn’t crossed our minds! We were part of a group of four who persuaded the university to create a special course in the final year that ran counter to the specialisations on offer. We called it Design Detail as it was intended to extend our nascent design skills from conceptual design right through to the finesse of construction, finishes and furniture. After we left, it ended up running for 12 years. It was a stimulating, rigorous course, and we organised loads of site visits and met interesting architects including Peter Ahrends, Peter Aldington, James Gowan and Christoph Bon. At the end of the course, the two of us jointly won the final year prize.
How did you end up setting up in practice together?
Rab It took a while. After university, we still weren’t thinking of working together; our plan was to earn enough money to travel the world. We were working in Edinburgh – I was at Leith docks, Denise in bars and at John Lewis, but the money wasn’t coming fast enough. So I thought I’d go to London with my portfolio and drop in to various practices to see if I could get work, and ended up walking into Arup Associates on the off chance. I met Peter Foggo and ended up staying 10 years. Denise then came down and got a job at Fitzroy Robinson and then Casson Conder, where she worked on the Ismaili Centre. We got our Part 3s and never did do the trip! But after those 10 years, we felt pretty well equipped to deal with the construction industry.
Denise We’d both made the mistake of marrying someone who wasn’t of independent means. We really enjoyed working on big complex projects and thought if we had our own practice we might only be working on small projects.
Rab Eventually I got restless at Arup and took the plunge in 1987 to set up, and we got a substantial job immediately. So after a year, Denise was able to leave her job too. We took lessons from both past practices: the multidisciplinary Arup and more traditional Casson Conder. It was a big financial risk. We had nothing to fall back on. We certainly didn’t have parents who wanted a house designing! We were surfing on the back of the 1980s property boom and were successful quickly, but it all started to go pear-shaped after a couple of years when recession hit. We owed the landlord half a year’s rent and the bank eventually said we would have to hand over the deeds to our house on 31 May 1991. We put them off and stopped opening any official-looking envelopes, and fortunately landed the job to design Powergen’s HQ in Coventry on 2 June 1991.
What was your breakthrough project?
Rab Powergen – the job that rescued us. It was a low-energy building and our first design & build. By the end, we were converts to that process. It certainly got us going but we didn’t want to only be known as an office practice, so we went after all sorts of other projects, such as Hampstead Theatre, which we started in 1994, and which led to other public projects like Brighton Library and, eventually, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Denise Powergen was a £25 million new building and at the time we were only four strong. Our other important early projects were a refurbishment on Carlton House Terrace for the Royal College of Pathologists, who were to become long-term clients, and a five-storey, 140m-long extension to Gatwick North Terminal.
What project are you most proud of?
Rab It’s difficult to put a finger on one building that does it all. Brighton Central Library (2004) was our first multi-building urban project, and New Street Square in the City of London (2008), with five buildings around a square, was quite an achievement.
Denise There are so many candidates. Maybe Hampstead Theatre, where the client chose us even though we had no theatre experience because they wanted to go on a voyage of discovery – which is just what we like to do.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
Rab Our office in Clerkenwell. When we bought the site at auction, it was a very derelict cattle barn and an old printshop, which we wove together and extended. Designing and using this space has been incredibly rewarding. People do stay a long time – it seems to be a nice place to work.
Denise Collaborations over the years. Whether the people who came as graduates and are still here many years later, or clients that we’ve kept in touch with long after the project like Wessex Water in Bath (2001).
What has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?
Rab Financial instability. We went to hell and back in the late 1980s but we got away with it and, in many ways, it was the making of the practice as it showed us the real importance of financial management, which Denise turned out to be very good at. After nearly going bust, we formed a limited company in 1992 and vowed never to owe anyone anything again. You have to find a way of keeping stable through recessions so we built up a fund for rainy days during the 1990s and were, therefore, able to put down the deposit when the property where we are now became available. Together with our co-directors, we made the decision to become 100 per cent employee-owned five years ago as a way of securing succession.
Have your priorities in practice changed over the years?
Denise No. We've always been concerned with producing work of the highest quality, and enjoying doing it.
Rab It’s all about keeping a good office. It’s been exceptionally enjoyable. We constantly pinch ourselves when we realise that we’ve been able to do such notable projects.
You established your practice 35 years ago. Has it been a good time to be an architect?
Rab It’s a really tough time to be an architect now, but we’re fortunate in being well-equipped with the right expertise to deal with it. The architectural profession has been undermined to such an extent that architects aren’t even trusted by lawyers on certain jobs to look at tender returns. And a lot of clients, egged on by some project managers, think architects are just stylists. We have to find a way to stop that from getting worse. Perhaps sustainability is the way for architects to get back to the heart of the process, as we are best placed to lead on this.
Denise With the current procurement rules, getting a project like Powergen now would be an utter impossibility for a practice as small as we were then. We’re now 80 strong, but even middle-sized practices are in danger of being caught in a sort of no-man’s land between a hands-on, high quality service and the low fees offered by larger competitors.
What do you think has been the secret of your practice’s success?
Rab We always deliver 100 per cent of what we say we’ll deliver – better to judge it correctly and do a brilliant job rather than over-extend and fall short. When people visit our buildings, they do seem to be very taken with them.
Denise Being able to use our broad range of skills to work on a wide range of buildings and enjoy doing it. That’s why repeat clients want to carry on developing their relationships with us. We’ve designed four buildings for Argent at King’s Cross and are now doing a fifth, and we are still working with Land Securities 20 years after our first project for them.
Looking back on your work over the years, who have been your biggest influences?
Rab Architecturally we’d say the same: Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen.
Planning-wise there are a couple of books: Camillo Sitte’s City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1899) and Fred Koetter and Colin Rowe’s Collage City (1979).
Denise We’d have to put Denys Lasdun in there too. The last die-hard modernists were really interesting because they were starting to reach for the humane ways of doing things.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Rab I genuinely can’t think of anything, although with the benefit of hindsight, we were always going to end up setting up a practice together even if we didn’t realise it. It was good I stayed at Arup so long to gather the experience – maybe our natural reticence served us well.
Your practice was an early adopter of the need to design sustainably. Do you think the profession has taken too long to get to grips with this?
Rab I think many practices have been willing but haven’t had the opportunities. I was lucky that I’d worked at Arup, who were early adopters of sustainability. Lots of practices had been doing smaller stuff but we ploughed the sustainability furrow for large projects.
Denise To design sustainably, you have to be willing to collaborate and not be afraid of asking questions until you get the information you need.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
Rab We nearly built a house for ourselves in Highbury but it didn’t happen. Our intention was to design a modern equivalent of a repeatable terrace house. But all the projects we’ve done in the office have been terrific. There’s been a bit of everything so it’s hard to say there is a gap.
What is your most treasured possession?
Rab We’re not particularly materialistic. But in terms of what we treasure most, it would have to be our two wonderful kids, and being able to bring them up while having the practice.
To see more reflections on architectural careers see.ribaj.com/hindsight