The architect speaks candidly about the excitement of making an idea into an artefact, the essence of success, and dreams, disappointments and personal integrity
James Gorst worked for Sir Denys Lasdun and John Outram before founding James Gorst Architects in 1981.
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?
It’s been creatively rewarding and it has connected me with some great people. However, I’m not so sure I’d make the same choice today.
I switched to architecture after two years studying history at Cambridge having been turned down to read architecture there straight after my A levels. The change afforded me an additional reprieve of five years indolence before I had to address the cross examination of reality.
Towards the end of my extended education, I was lucky to cross paths with Peter Carl, the Robin Williams of architectural pedagogy. He convinced me, in a way the course hitherto had not, that architecture owned a central position in the matrix of the arts. That inspired me and I was off. Whether it was the right decision is hard to say.
Looking back on your work over the years, who or what have been your biggest influences?
There’s no single influence – I draw on all the stylistic dialects of architecture. I’m interested in all the great architect forebears, starting with Alberti and going all the way through to now.
My first house was a stripped cubic villa in Hertfordshire inspired by Soane. The second was an Arts and Crafts house in Chelsea (Glebe Place) inspired by CFA Voysey. I like to think of both as original but authentic homages to each architect.
I didn’t begin to ‘get’ architecture until I was 45 – I didn’t know how to make it a personally expressive medium. After turning away from architecture for a few years I came back determined to strive for a less derivative expression that was more in tune with current practice. However my absorption in the cadences and proprieties of English classical and romantic architecture has been an enduring source for my current work.
You’ve been in practice for more than 40 years. Has it been a good period to work in as an architect?
We are increasingly hamstrung by a multitude of social, political, environmental and professional obligations, which we fail to observe at our peril. Added to this there’s the paranoia of litigious clients, the financial burden of inflated insurance premiums and the Procrustean bed of software license agreements. On top of the above, after 40 years of immersion in the practice of architecture, I now must endure guidance on how to design by young planners fresh out of geography at Reading – ‘context, scale, materials’ indeed:
“Mr Bramante, thank you for the pre-app and apologies it’s taken three years to get back to you. Of course we all admire and respect your work on the Tempietto but I think my colleagues and I are all of the opinion that your new big church for Pope Julius is hopelessly out of scale and, well, contextually inappropriate…”
It’s extraordinary what we have to put up with. The planning system is totally fucked.
Has your approach to architecture changed over the years?
I think my approach remains the same, although I’m obviously not immune to stylistic movements. I’ve always tried hard to achieve work of some integrity without too much surrender. This has often resulted in periods of quietude and the financial implications thereof. I’ve tried hard to maintain a sceptical distance from the currently fashionable – to aim for work that looks to the deeper verities of architectural practice.
I have also relished the several opportunities I have had to complete the internal decoration of our buildings. To leave a house with white walls and timber floors alone is to leave a story unfinished. The balancing of furniture, fabric, pattern and colour is a fiendishly complicated task. Good decorators have my utmost respect. Not that I would want to work with them – after all, this is my story, not theirs.
What have been the ups and downs of leading your own practice?
The ongoing anxiety is the financial volatility of running a rather niche practice in a country where most people with money chose to live in old rather than new houses. The practice has nine people now but we have been down to two or three – we’re totally vulnerable.
That apart, I’ve been blessed to have worked and collaborated with some wonderful, talented young architects. Seeing some of them go on to found their own successful practices has been a real positive.
A new and thrilling experience for us was winning the invited competition, against some very good architects, for a new temple for the White Eagle Lodge in Hampshire – our first public building (see the RIBA Journal review of White Eagle Lodge). Completing the Castle Community Rooms in my hometown of Framlingham has also been a lovely experience – our second public building.
What has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?
Overcoming a certain diffidence is an enduring problem. I see other architects who are fantastically hale and hearty and persuasive with clients. I’m a lot more shy and tentative, and tend to rely on what I’ve done.
You once nearly left architecture. What made you come back?
I was working on my own in the early 80’s and a series of events made it all seem too much. I’d been let down by two clients who didn’t pay, and I could see no fun or value at that time in what I was doing. This was a conflation of the personal and the professional. I left London and went back to live in my home county of Suffolk, where I spent time doing up a seriously derelict house.
Just when I was on the point of interviewing to be a probation officer, I was drawn back to architecture by a chance meeting at lunch with an American who asked me to work for him on an apartment he had just acquired in Chelsea. He went on to become a good friend and an incredibly supportive patron over the past 30 years of my life. Life and architecture is often serendipitous.
Your practice is particularly known for its design of private houses. Did you make a conscious decision to focus on this typology?
Absolutely not but I’m happy at the way things turned out. The individual house remains for me a most exciting and demanding architectural challenge. They are the chamber music of architecture and we understand the formal and stylistic evolution of architecture through their existence, from Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai to Mies’s Villa Tugendhat. All possibilities of invention and expression are contained within.
What do you regard as your breakthrough project?
Fulford Farm in Northamptonshire, completed in 2009. This was the most exciting and heart-breaking project of my career. As a house, it was not only very large and in a beautiful landscape, but it was architecturally completely uncompromised, from the abstract ashlar clad severity of the exterior to the spatial unfolding of the interior. The client had total trust in me, and didn’t change a single thing.
After winning a RIBA National award, the client, who was difficult at the easiest of times, refused Channel 4 access for filming for the run-up to the Stirling Prize, telling me that I’d had my fun and that we had to withdraw. It was so upsetting. I had put five years into the project, completing the interior design as well as the architecture. To be denied the vital oxygen of publicity and summarily excluded on a whim was something that took a long time to overcome. The house is now lived in by a gracious new family and we are once again involved in its maintenance and forward development. I think it would be a great and generous idea if the RIBA awarded Fulford Farm the Stirling Prize retrospectively.
What buildings are you most proud of?
I’ve built about 10 new houses in a span of 35 years. Looking back, each one seems like a snapshot in a personal family album, each summoning its own particular sweet and bitter memories. I’m proud of them all.
What do you put your continued success down to?
That’s a flattering question based on an assumption I don’t really recognise. I don’t have a sense of myself being successful. I’ve never had an overdraft but I never know where the next job is coming from. However, I’m successful on my own terms in that I feel successful creatively, and that’s the key thing.
We care about what we do and I think people who come to us have acquainted themselves with our back catalogue. They see a form of practice in which a kind of restrained modernism is imbued with concerns around craft and materials. I have built two large houses for prosperous clients – Fulford Farm and Hannington Farm. However, the greater part of my work has been on houses with relatively exigent budgets.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
The positive judgement of both my peers and of non-practitioners.
The gestation of buildings is one of the most enjoyable things of doing architecture. I’m also endlessly amazed at the drawn-out process that moves from an initial contact from an unknown stranger to preliminary sketches and doodles right through to a busy building site realising those early ideas, and providing employment for scores of work men and women. This metamorphosis of the idea into the artefact, from solitary thought to collective endeavour, is both exciting and humbling.
Do you have any regrets – is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I’ve no regrets. We contribute to our own misfortunes and to our own small successes, but so do other forces, over which we have no control, so we have to endure and enjoy in equal measure.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
My main dream project is a good night’s sleep! I’d love to do more public buildings – maybe libraries, or theatres, anything civic that isn’t about making money. It’s tragic how the quality of civic buildings has declined since the 1930s.
Will you be one of those architects who never retires?
I imagine I might carry on for a while until my fellow director quietly takes me to one side.
Do you think the profession took too long to get to grips with the need to design sustainably and if so why?
I’m not sure. During the time I’ve built a handful of private homes, large housebuilders have covered our scepter’d isle with over 2 million with varying degrees of failure. The first world has created this situation and now we must do all we can to escape it. Whether there will be any escape remains to be seen. Whatever the final outcome, we do what we can.
Do you have a most treasured possession?
My children (who of course are not really possessions) Alexander, Theo, Frank and Honor and a painting my father gave me by Reginald Brill, called The Painter.