Sunand Prasad started building when he was eight, but found his career when he switched from engineering to architecture at university. He looks back at the challenges, rewards and priorities of his career
Sunand Prasad co-founded Penoyre & Prasad with Greg Penoyre in 1988, and was RIBA President from 2007-2009. Penoyre & Prasad is now part of Perkins&Will.
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?
Without question. The only other thing I might have wanted to be was a musician, but I didn’t have the talent, although I studied sitar for a while and have mucked around with guitars since I was 15.
How did you become interested in architecture?
My childhood home was in central India in a Gandhian agrarian community. From when I was about 8 or 9 years old, friends and I played making small mud dams and sluices in the irrigation channels and gullies and also made Meccano models. My father was an artist and teacher and was very handy and resourceful, for which he credited his mother and her craft skills. His close encounter with architecture was designing the bamboo and timber exhibition and conference pavilions for the All India Congress meeting after Independence.
We came to England when I was 12, and I learnt DIY working with him ‘modernising’ our terraced house in Edmonton. I wanted to be a scientist and had to give up studying art at school quite early because it was deliberately timetabled to clash with physics. I went on to do engineering at the University of Cambridge, but something was missing. The School of Architecture was next door, and I got the sense that it might be for me. Starting in architecture was a moment of finding oneself. I’m so grateful that I was given the chance to change course, having benefitted from a grounding in engineering, and also that the London Borough of Enfield funded me for a total of six years of study, the last two at the AA.
What was your breakthrough project?
In any career there are several thresholds, and the idea of a single breakthrough is a bit of a hype. But in the sense of fulfilling what you’re capable of, I’d say it was the first project I brought to Penoyre & Prasad when we set up – an RIBA award winning conversion of a house that Ted Cullinan had designed. Greg (Penoyre) brought a doctor’s surgery project to the practice at the same time, and they were both well received by the clients, and in the press. We had both worked at Cullinan’s – I was there for eight years before doing a PhD at the Royal College of Art on north Indian urban fabric, based on the courtyard house, being selected for the RIBA 40 Under 40 in 1985, and working on the big Arts Council exhibition on Le Corbusier in 1987.
Looking back on your work over the years, who has been your biggest influence?
There have been many. But the simple answer is Ted Cullinan.
What building are you most proud of?
There are a handful, and in all the client’s and often the contractor’s role was significant. They include the Millennium Centre in Dagenham (1997), designed from first principles with sustainability at heart and still performing as it was designed to; the Rushton Medical Centre (1996) in Hackney which has changed and grown just as it was designed to do and looking good; the extension and upgrading of Snape Maltings Concert Hall (1999); our buildings in Belfast embodying a new model of healthcare; Minster School (2007) in Southwell near Newark; University buildings at Portsmouth and Kent of the last few years and now Oriel, the new home for Moorfields Eye Hospital and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
It’s such a buzz when the people for whose use the building was designed spontaneously come forward with their like, and even their love of it. Also, designing collaboratively with people sparking off each other’s ideas. And the dubious thrill of competitions and awards.
What has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?
The procurement system. It presents such formidable obstacles to collectively doing things well, and hinders us from giving our best. It is particularly depressing in the public sector, and unhelpful also to the public who ultimately pay for the buildings, and are denied the best and diverse talents of the profession.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Was your time in practice a good period to work in as an architect?
Some great things have happened during my time such as the rediscovery of urbanism and placemaking, CABE, and of course the imperative of sustainability. My career has almost exactly spanned the period from the publication of The Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome in 1972, to the time now of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, and the shocking tragedy of Grenfell Tower, and the huge challenges that these present.
Do you think the profession took too long to get to grips with designing sustainably and if so why?
Of course we should have woken up sooner. The whole world should have done, even allowing for the deliberate campaign by the oil industry and others, aided by governments, to cast doubt on the science. Looking back, I realise how naïve I was when the RIBA published its guides to carbon and climate change from 2007 onward, in thinking that the penny had dropped, and action would only accelerate.
I am optimistic that we are finally tackling sustainability. The profession needed clients who want to act on it, and now the clients may overtake us. Architects have to step up to the plate – we need to get clued up on the attention to detail that’s needed and innovate as we do at our best. It’s also about collaboration and the right combination of leadership and humility. Divestment from fossil fuels is happening. People who don’t grasp this will be left behind.
Has it got easier, or harder, to get high quality buildings built over your time in practice?
Things might have been simpler before in that there has certainly been a growth in the complexity of buildings, in regulations, and attention to performance, but this is all welcome. Now we also have BIM and digital capability, and our understanding of science is much greater, so I don’t wholly buy the argument you sometimes hear that it’s harder now to achieve high quality. The pursuit of quality and its difficulties are pretty eternal – commodity, firmness and delight, and building in balance with nature.
How do you look back on your RIBA presidency?
It was challenging, but I had a wonderful time. For example, it was fulfilling to have the platform to be able to draw attention to climate change and carbon, both through our publications and by personally travelling around the country doing CPDs on it.
Have you experienced racism during your career?
When my family moved to England in 1962 we experienced a lot of overt racism. That, and some violence, lasted till I went to university. In the genteel circles of Cambridge, the racism was much more subtle unless you were attuned to it. It was much more overt when I worked on building sites during my time at the AA. You tended to have to prove yourself, and people sometimes would talk to you very slowly at first. The particular brand of racism I experienced as an Asian was rather like anti-Semitism – the trope of being greedy, grasping and venal. In 1990 I joined Elsie Owusu and others in co-founding of the Society of Black Architects, and heard about the far worse experiences racism of other members. The Cullinan office was a different world, a place of liberation. Through such luck perhaps, I don’t think racism has hindered my own career.
How are you finding being part of a global practice (Perkins&Will) after so long being independent?
The autonomy you have with your own practice wonderful. But in terms of serving our clients, the digital resources, knowledge and research capabilities of Perkins&Will have given the practice the ability to serve and influence a larger constituency, and access bigger projects. Perkins&Will is also more multi-disciplinary, and that increases our abilities and reach. It’s been very interesting to see a global firm in operation – and we’ve certainly appreciated being part of a larger organisation during the pandemic.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I like drawing and I wish I’d drawn more earlier, and overcome abandoning art in secondary school. I also wish I’d been less afraid to ask questions and to show ignorance.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
To be involved in the making of a settlement – sustainable, collaborative, zero carbon – with fantastic architecture and a patron who wants to give us the chance to show what we can do.
What is your most treasured possession?
Aside from personal mementos, on an everyday level, probably my bike and my guitar. When I’m with either, things are better with the world.