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Pierre d’Avoine: ‘Working creatively with others can be an almost ecstatic experience’

Pamela Buxton

The founder of Pierre d'Avoine Architects looks back on the satisfactions and frustrations of 50 years in practice and explains why two of the projects he is most proud of were never built

Pierre d’Avoine (second from right) with StudioDA.
Pierre d’Avoine (second from right) with StudioDA. Credit: Peter Landers

Pierre d'Avoine set up Pierre d'Avoine Architects in 1979 and co-founded studioDA with Pereen d’Avoine and Nilesh Shah in 2017.

Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?

I think so, although I suppose it depends on how you define architecture. What I’ve been doing since qualifying isn’t always just architecture. I have been quite single-minded – some might say simple-minded – in doing what I’ve done. It is hard to imagine doing anything else.

I probably would still try to be an architect if I were starting out today. I feel it is still full of intriguing possibilities. The world of architecture has really opened up in my lifetime. It was quite straight-laced when I started but now there are more opportunities.

You’ve been in practice for 45 years. Has your career turned out as you expected?

I didn’t anticipate a particular sort of career; things just worked out to a greater or lesser extent and it became a way of life that includes family and friendships. Mostly, my career has been affected by things beyond my control but you can choose whether to go with the flow or be resistant, and I did both at one time or another. 

I started my own practice in 1979 after working for Fitzroy Robinson & Partners. After I left they generously gave me packages of work that helped keep me going while I found my feet. Another project that really set me off was designing a London shop for fashion designer Michiko Koshino in the early 80s, which led to work in Japan.

What do you regard as your breakthrough projects?

A small terraced house in Twickenham, which I bought with my then partner, Jacqueline Pitfield in 1973 when I was doing my year out. I experimented on it for a long time, opening up the interior and bringing sunlight through the gable wall. The house was a building site for several years, and roofless when our daughter Pereen was born –just after I had set up my practice.

I entered it for the AD Projects Award in 1981 and although it didn’t win, it was singled out by Jeremy Dixon, one of the assessors, for its ‘quality of invention and lightness of touch’. He ended by saying: ‘Too many ideas perhaps, but how much better than too few.’

Having a project published for the first time was a great thrill and it made my mother very happy.

Pierre d’Avoine with daughter Pereen, 1979.
Pierre d’Avoine with daughter Pereen, 1979. Credit: d’Avoine family archive

What projects are you most proud of?

I am happiest with a project called The Invisible House, which I designed, with Gerard Roberts in the late 1980s for a back garden plot in Acton, west London.

The Invisible House is partly buried in the ground and concealed behind a garden fence. You park on the roof of the bedroom, then go down via a lean-to conservatory into a sunken U-shaped living arrangement around a courtyard.

Despite the absolute discretion of the design, it was my first confrontation with how resistant neighbours and planners can be. The neighbours objected to it in droves and it was rejected by the planners and again at appeal. Although it was approved after some modifications, we didn’t build it because by then we’d decided to live in Camden.

The project was fuelled by my academic interest in interwar suburbia. I’d grown up in Chiswick and Acton after emigrating to London from India, and found it weirdly exotic after central Bombay. I made a map of west London showing how the Invisible House could densify suburbia by stealth. I still contend that it would easily solve London’s housing need. The Invisible House’s oriental/occidental arrangement of living around a courtyard was a precursor to Slim House (1999), 60 houses for Crouches Field (2011-18) and several other of my residential projects, so was a very important project for me.

Another important one was Pleasure Holm, an entry with Jonathan Vining of WYG Group for the 2007 competition held by Urban Splash to revive Birnbeck Pier in Weston-super-Mare. Our shortlisted entry provided 1.2 million sq ft [100,000m2] of development under a carapace in the shape of a small island outcrop to the existing headland. It was shortlisted as the first choice of 11 of the 12 judges at Stage 1 but at our Stage 2 presentation, we were told the project budget was only £18 million. That was the end of that as we knew our 20-storey scheme would cost in excess of £200 million. It was a salutary lesson but sadly not the only time that has happened to us.

  • Model for adaptable designer shops in Tokyo for Michiko Koshino.
    Model for adaptable designer shops in Tokyo for Michiko Koshino. Credit: Peter Pfanner
  • Model for Invisible House, Acton, late 1980s.
    Model for Invisible House, Acton, late 1980s. Credit: Studio d’Avoine

Has it been a good period to work in as an architect?

For me, it has been an immensely frustrating period. I started in 1979, when the Conservatives got back in, and have found it harder to get decent, socially inclusive projects over the years, partly because of the way projects are procured. I came here in the heyday of the welfare state and I believe its subsequent dismantling has been disastrous for the greater good of our society and the built environment. Now there is widespread poverty and homelessness. Commercial development in London, I feel, is the result of an exclusive, venal coalition of businessmen and politicians, which diminishes everyone, even the people who benefit from it financially. What’s happened and is continuing to happen to London’s skyline and riverside is deplorable.

So it’s been a very difficult time to maintain a practice. There’s an architectural apartheid of large commercial practices and the rest. In London, most architects operate around the margins while the big changes are going on in another realm.

I see the issue as one of scale and pace of change. Even London, which stayed the same size for 50 years after the Second World War, has been subjected to unnecessary overdevelopment in misguided expressions of mayorial ego. Some infrastructure projects may be worthwhile but, for me, HS2 is a white elephant of mammoth proportions, sadly not quite extinct.

I strongly believe we have to slow down the pace of how we live our lives and not pretend everything has to speed up to benefit people’s lives.

What have been the ups and downs of leading your own practice?

Going through several financial recessions has been very difficult. Cash flow is a challenge for a small practice – getting paid properly, getting paid on time, and trying to make sure we have enough income to pay staff. The ups are when projects are going well and when things come together working collaboratively with great clients, consultants and contractors.

The planning system has also been quite oppressive, and that’s very frustrating. You think you’re doing something with real architectural merit and there’s absolute resistance. There are personal agendas and political agendas.

  • Front elevation of a prototype of Slim House, 1999, built at the Ideal Home Show .
    Front elevation of a prototype of Slim House, 1999, built at the Ideal Home Show . Credit: David Grandorge
  • Plan for Slim House, winner of Concept House 99 competition.
    Plan for Slim House, winner of Concept House 99 competition. Credit: Studio d’Avoine

Did you ever feel like giving up?

I’ve never felt like giving up. There are many ways in which to be an architect; making buildings is only a part of what I do. I’ve been lucky to have been invited to write and lecture about my work abroad and in Britain. I came to teaching in my forties when I was invited to teach fifth year at Bath by Patrick Hodgkinson who was professor and ran sixth year. I’ve taught in several schools including Oxford Brookes, the RCA, the AA, London Met and Kingston. I was also visiting professor at WSA, Cardiff and at the RDAFA, Copenhagen. I’m now back again at the AA teaching with my daughter Pereen, which is a delight.

I’ve recently published three books – the latest is Nonsuch: Tudor Palace Social Condenser about a programme Colette Sheddick and I ran at London Met in 2015-16.

What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?

Riffing off other people in my practice and experiencing things coming together can be an amazing buzz – a visceral thing. Working with students and colleagues in academia has also given me immense satisfaction. Being part of a collaborative process and working creatively with others, whether designing and making buildings and environments or making books, can be and often is an almost ecstatic experience. It can be quite euphoric when things come together.

Has your approach to architecture changed over time?

One becomes more humble about what one can do as one gets older. My approach has probably changed a lot over the time I’ve been in practice. Understanding that it is not just the outcome that matters, but the process as well.

Monad House front view, runner-up in the Welsh House of the Future competition in 1999.
Monad House front view, runner-up in the Welsh House of the Future competition in 1999. Credit: Studio d’Avoine

Looking back on your work over the years, who or what have been your biggest influences?

I became an architect because my father was an architect and I was good at drawing. He died in India when I was nine but has been a great influence on me – discovering his work in my 20s when I returned to Bombay was amazing. He was a very good athlete and cricketer and designed the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay in 1937 before he was 30. He was a partner in Gregson Batley & King, a well-known colonial practice. He became the senior partner when the British partners retired at Independence and, apparently, was the first Indian-born principal of any architectural practice in India. My mother was a primary school teacher and I think she too has been a huge influence on me in the way she conducted her life with grace and modesty.

My architectural influences are ever-changing depending on where I am, who I am working with and what I am reading. I have been influenced by my colleagues in practice, my students and colleagues in academia, and also by places I’ve lived in. The Bombay of my childhood, overlooking the Arabian Sea to the west, the harbour to the east, with the Shiva Trimurti cave on Elephanta Island, and the wild hinterland of the Western Ghats. London and the English landscape are equally influential although very different. I enjoy the great Elizabethan houses in the Midlands, especially Hardwick Hall. Robert Smythson and Bess of Hardwick made a great team. There are so many architects I admire and whose work I love – too many to list. Architectural writers I would mention, include Fred Scott, a great friend and mentor, Mark Girouard, Esther McCoy, Vincent Scully, Clemens Steenbergen, Robert Venturi, Colin Ward …

My partner Clare Melhuish has also been a huge influence. I’ve learned so much from her as she has developed her academic work in urban anthropology and ethnography at UCL, where she is a professor and director of the UCL Urban Lab. I constantly refer to the writings of anthropologists James Clifford and David Graeber and Mark Fisher the cultural theorist.

  • Pleasure Holm from Town Beach, 2007.
    Pleasure Holm from Town Beach, 2007. Credit: Studio d’Avoine
  • Pleasure Holm section, 2007, shortlisted in the Urban Splash competition to redesign Birnbeck Island and Pier in Weston-super-Mare.
    Pleasure Holm section, 2007, shortlisted in the Urban Splash competition to redesign Birnbeck Island and Pier in Weston-super-Mare. Credit: Studio d’Avoine

You won the Concept House competition in 1999 with your energy-efficient Slim House. Do you think the profession has taken too long to get to grips with the need to design more sustainably?

I was lucky to have worked with Max Fordham in the 1990s and 2000s. His early involvement in some of our projects was fundamental to evolving an appropriate environmental agenda. This included Slim House, a competition we won when we had a great team in the office: Miraj Ahmed, Alex Ely, Tom Emerson, Kim Fichter and Noémie Laviolle.

I think we should mostly adopt a passive, low-key approach and upgrade the thermal performance of houses by insulating from the inside if possible. We took a passive approach for Monad House, which was runner-up in the Welsh House for the Future competition in 1999. It was much influenced by Peter Bond, who I worked for when I left architecture school in 1975. I had a minor involvement in his Wates House, designed and built (1975-77) for the National Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. This had 450mm-thick insulation in the diaphragm walls and predated Passivhaus by over a decade. It has been a great influence on me in terms of its environmental approach and also its ‘infraordinary’ appearance.

So yes, I think the profession has taken too long to get to grips with the need to design more sustainably. Why? Vested interests and a lack of advocacy by ARB and the RIBA. I feel it has taken a groundswell of student concern and groups of young architects like ACAN to demand that the construction industry and the profession take immediate action. I think this is having a positive influence.

How should the architectural profession be responding to the climate crisis?

The architectural profession should respond by advocating building less and retrofitting more where possible, cutting down the scale of development and generally making buildings smaller and more easily maintainable.

The RIBA should promote a competition to retrofit Canary Wharf responsibly – it’s supposedly 70 per cent empty – including evolving an approach that understands the environmental crisis as concerning all species – plant and animal. Advocacy should be more radical across the profession.

  • Peter’s Park - view from Gordon Street, proposed at Euston Station, London, 2024.
    Peter’s Park - view from Gordon Street, proposed at Euston Station, London, 2024. Credit: Studio d’Avoine
  • San Salvatore, Montione, Italy.
    San Salvatore, Montione, Italy. Credit: David Grandorge

You collaborate with your daughter Pereen d’Avoine (of Russian for Fish) as teachers and as Studio DA. How has this come about and what sorts of projects do you tackle together?

Pereen and I run separate practices but share the same office and collaborate often. We have undertaken counterproposals on behalf of communities challenging large commercial development, such as at Belper in Derbyshire. We are often invited to make exhibitions and use these as research opportunities. Teaching too is an opportunity to engage students in issues that Pereen and I consider relevant, including ethnographic methods to evolve their own critical positions regarding their design theses.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

It’s impossible to say. We live the life we live. Life has been full of positive things, which sometimes compensate for the things that haven’t gone well. There are many things I wish I’d done differently. I regret the many competitions we didn’t win, and the competitions we won that were then abandoned. I regret small-scale details that didn’t work out because they weren’t drawn properly or were misinterpreted by someone else. I regret not being persuasive enough with clients.

Will you be one of those architects who never retires?

Probably! But we’re busy, so I can’t complain.

Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?

Peter’s Park, a proposal I’ve just made for a new park on top of Euston Station with Emo Yimeng Shi, Ray Zhilei Xu, Harry Togi Mathew (recent graduates of AA Housing & Urbanism) and Aran Chadwick, director of Atelier One. I’d love that to happen. I’d also love to make a haveli – a traditional Indian courtyard house – in Wales, for Clare and our sons Ivan and Rey.

What is your most treasured architectural possession?

A shield was presented to my dad after he hit the first six at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay, which he designed, as mentioned earlier. It’s great to have it. The Brabourne commission came about because of his sporting connections and he designed several stadiums in India, including the National Stadium in Delhi. Just before he died, he was commissioned by Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, to build a national stadium in Addis Ababa.