Why would Tim Ronalds like to go back in time? Would he have made a better surgeon? Are his theatre projects his favourites? And where does he stand on the computer vs pencil debate?
Tim Ronalds, 72, is the founder of Tim Ronalds Architects
When did you decide you wanted to be an architect and why? Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision?
When I was about 16 I thought I would be either an architect or a surgeon. I was good at art and maths, and interested in making things, so architecture seemed the thing to do. In my second year, finding architecture a bit stressful, I dallied with changing to medicine, but was dissuaded.
Was architecture right for me? It is perhaps not a great era in which to be an architect, but it has been an all-engrossing vocation. It is a wonderfully broad occupation. You are both a generalist and have special expertise which is rare. I don’t think I would have made a good surgeon.
Looking back on your work over the years, who or what have been your biggest influences?
There have been many influences. John Hix, who taught me in my first year at Cambridge, gave us a wonderful introduction to architecture. Then there was Bill Howell and John Partridge who I worked with afterwards at Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis (HKPA) – that was a great apprenticeship. On my bookshelves there are some volumes that are much more well-thumbed than others – late Corbusier and Louis Kahn certainly, but then the Scandinavians – Gunnar Asplund, Sigurd Lewerentz and Alvar Aalto. Having pored over their photographs and drawings for years, it was only recently that I travelled to Sweden and Finland. You worry that your heroes won’t live up to your expectations, but they absolutely did – they were brilliant.
You’re currently celebrating 40 years in practice. What have been the ups and downs of leading your own practice?
I set up in practice because I wanted to stand on my own feet – to find my own way in architecture. Becoming a junior partner in an established firm didn’t appeal. There have been lots of ups and downs, projects pursued and lost, agonies over elevations, wife and children neglected. But we’ve sailed through quite a few recessions without ever running out of work. It has been stressful at times, all-consuming and exciting – particularly combining teaching and practice. Throughout I was fortunate to have had my wife Bibra working with me, keeping the show on the road.
One of the best aspects has been collaborating with the young architects who joined the practice – wonderful, clever, talented people who shared the endeavour. We recently had a reunion party for everyone who had worked with us – they came with their families and memories. We have had one outstanding client, Katy Ricks, head of Sevenoaks School, where we have done 12 projects over 17 years. As for obstacles, I regret and resent the amount of time and effort spent in competing for projects – a fair proportion of our and the profession’s creative time and enthusiasm has been wasted in this way. Only recently, and still rarely, do clients simply invite us to do a project.
What ambitions and priorities did you have when you set up, and have those changed over the years?
I didn’t have coherent ambitions or priorities when I started – not even any clients! I just wanted to prove I could be an architect. And it’s still like that – hoping, trying to be a good, more fluent, more creative architect.
I knew from working on theatre projects with Bill Howell at HKPA that I liked working with creative people on arts projects, and that became the direction of the practice’s work. Commercial clients saw that we were not for them. But I have always had a sense of social purpose and have been drawn to projects with a social agenda.
What do you regard as your breakthrough projects?
There are three I think. The Ilfracombe theatre (1998) was a rare opportunity. I could not believe that I was being asked to design a building on such a spectacular site. Our white brick cones embedded in prosthetic cliff was a wild leap. I wonder if I would dare to do it now. The Science & Technology and Global Study Centre building at Sevenoaks School (2018) is a strong building. Hackney Empire (2004) was a roller coaster of a project – very exciting from start to finish. I like that people like it, that it has given an identity to Hackney. It does most of the things we hoped it would do.
What projects are you most proud of?
The same three.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
Most satisfaction? Going back to a building some years later and watching it in use – an audience gripped by a performance in a theatre, the kids in the Pupil Referral Unit (SILS3) in Southwark settling down to learn and being able to say to the lady outside the Hackney Empire ‘We didn’t spoil it, did we?’.
Have the last 40 years been a good period to work in as an architect?
Few people can think it has been a great period for architecture. Just look at what has developed between Vauxhall and Battersea in the last decade. I’d rather have been an architect in the late 19th century – that period when expertise and innovation were at a peak. Frank Matcham designed and built the Hackney Empire in 40 weeks! Despite the speed of development then, cities and buildings had a coherence and expressiveness that ours lack.
The architectural professional has lost its status. The RIBA has utterly failed to retain the standing of the profession; it has been seriously undermined by project managers and other fringe professions. In some cases, the architect is reduced to the role of being just another technician. The result is that clients, particularly in the public sector, get poorly designed buildings, procured by a design and build process.
I also think architecture has lost its way intellectually. There are no conferences, little collaborative research and the architectural press is sadly diminished. Our hopes lie in the numbers of intelligent, altruistic young people who continue to apply to architecture schools.
Do you think the profession took too long to get to grips with the need to design sustainably?
No, I don’t think so. Architects are generally very thoughtful and responsible people with awareness and conscience. Sustainability certainly plays a big part in what we do now. But it makes the business of design very much more complicated. You now have to go into so much detail at a much earlier stage in order to establish a project’s sustainability. It adds to the list of reports that planners now require to support a planning application, a process which I feel has become a form of white collar corruption.
Do you have any regrets – is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I sometimes wish I had learned to draw on a computer. I’ve spent my life holding a pencil and thinking through drawing. On a computer it seems you have to conceive something first, then illustrate it. It is not the same. The pencil is in some ways slower – and I envy the way people I work with can access information and develop drawings so much faster than I can.
I regret that a large proportion of our education work has been for independent rather than state schools. I’d rather work where we can make more difference – like our PRU project in Southwark.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
We’ve never done a completely greenfield school before and that would be a dream project, but we have just put in a bid to design a whole new school in Mumbai in India so maybe there is a chance.
What is your most treasured possession?
I‘ve never been a collector. It’s people, not possessions, that I treasure.