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Long term collaborators help us suggest and support social interaction

Words:
Stephen Witherford

‘We’ve always sought other voices to inform our work, and these long-term collaborative relationships have been at the root of our practice’ – Witherford Watson Mann’s Stephen Witherford explains

Residents at the Appleby Blue almshouse, Southwark, designed by Witherford Watson Mann.
Residents at the Appleby Blue almshouse, Southwark, designed by Witherford Watson Mann.

Ken Worpole

We’ve always sought other voices to inform our work, and these long-term collaborative relationships have been at the root of our practice. One of the common threads has been exploring the degree to which architecture can suggest and support social interaction, and increase opportunities to share.

The writer Ken Worpole was one of the three key influences on William Mann, Chris Watson and I when we were evolving into a practice – the others were the Europan competitions we did and a series of early morning walks that William and I took, once a week, along different edges of London around 1998. William had come across articles by Ken and we wrote and asked if we could meet him. It was around the time that the influential Katherine Shonfield, an academic and co-founder of muf architecture/art, was writing a piece with Ken on public space. These early discussions led to Ken collaborating on our first paid competition in 2002, when we were selected as part of a group of practices to ‘re-imagine the town hall’ for the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Through his beautiful use of language, Ken articulates how the physical supports the social. As the voice of the generation that came before us, he had a deep knowledge of social practice that we didn’t then have. Ken had played important roles in the old GLC and wrote for progressive social think tanks that looked at understanding how people occupy places, like parks or libraries, considering their significance in fostering sociability.

In that sense, he became a mentor. We were part of a small group of practices who were thinking about things socially from the very outset. This was counter to what we’d witnessed in the 1980s and 90s, when things were privately rather than socially led.

  • Ken Worpole (left) worked with Witherford Watson Mann on the project for a new almshouse for St Saviour’s, participating in workshops with residents.
    Ken Worpole (left) worked with Witherford Watson Mann on the project for a new almshouse for St Saviour’s, participating in workshops with residents. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • Appleby Blue almshouse in Southwark, designed by Witherford Watson Mann.
    Appleby Blue almshouse in Southwark, designed by Witherford Watson Mann. Credit: Philip Vile
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We’ve continued to collaborate with Ken right through to our recently completed Appleby Blue almshouse for United St Saviour’s Charity. We explored with him how older people interact socially, focusing on what care really means rather than medicalised requirements. We visited projects with him – he accompanied us in the initial meetings with the Board of the St Saviour’s charity and also to workshops with existing residents in other almshouses. He was an older person talking to other older people about what mattered in their lives.

We want to know about the fabric of people’s lives. We’re seeking that insight at the very beginning of projects rather than bringing any pre-determined set of ideas. We start with what we find and look to grow the project from that. There’s masonry, carpentry and flesh, and it’s the flesh part – the people – that architects don’t often talk about. We try to understand the people and the organisations we’re making the project for, drawing on an empathetic imagination.

Resident at the Hopton almshouse. Photographer Philipp Ebeling collaborated with Witherford Watson Mann on the early stages of the Appleby Blue almshouse project, talking and photographing residents to gain a greater understanding of what mattered to them in their lives.
Resident at the Hopton almshouse. Photographer Philipp Ebeling collaborated with Witherford Watson Mann on the early stages of the Appleby Blue almshouse project, talking and photographing residents to gain a greater understanding of what mattered to them in their lives. Credit: Philipp Ebeling

Philipp Ebeling

We’ve worked with Philipp for nearly 18 years. In his work, we saw a photographer who was conveying something about the complex mix of characters, activities and psychologies that are present in Lea Valley in east London, where we worked for much of our first 10 years in practice. His photographs managed to capture something of the social complexity of the edge-of-city condition, where marginality and mainstream overlap.

We asked him to collaborate on our public space projects, most notably in the Lea Valley and Bankside Urban Forest, where we wanted to understand something of the place that we couldn’t fully gather or articulate ourselves. It can be difficult for architects to go into a community and do that – there can be distrust, and people can feel a bit used. There’s a whole challenge around the authenticity of the process.

As someone who’s independent and has no angle, Philipp was able to give us the non-institutional insight. At a very early stage developing the Bankside Urban Forest, we asked him to spend two days working with various local groups to photograph the things they found interesting and of value in their environment. It was a way to understand the place through the eyes of others.

  • Residents at Appleby Blue almshouse, photographed by Philipp Ebeling.
    Residents at Appleby Blue almshouse, photographed by Philipp Ebeling.
  • Social spaces at Cremer Street, photographed by Philipp Ebeling.
    Social spaces at Cremer Street, photographed by Philipp Ebeling.
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He has the ability to make people feel at ease, and can empathise with their issues on their terms, creating a confidence that allows them to share their experiences. He is able to capture personal insights, not just through his photographs but through the stories behind the people in the photographs. These insights have been pivotal to informing the brief underneath the brief – the propositions for our projects. That’s where the empathetic imagery of Ken’s writing and Philipp’s photographs really come together very strongly, and fuel ours.

For the early stages of our project to design a new almshouse in Southwark for United St Saviour’s Charity, we asked Philipp to spend time – without us – with the residents of the Hopton’s Almshouse, which the charity also runs. For me, some of the stories that came out of this were astonishing. These were people who were living on the margins of mainstream city life, a loose collective who hadn’t found stability in other places as a result of different challenges such as illness and addiction. At the almshouse, they had the opportunity to start again and have a second chance of being a better version of who they’d been previously. This led to us commissioning a film about three of the residents to record what was important in their lives. It was such a powerful insight into why older people wanted to stay living in an inner-city area that they knew and associated with stability. That informed our thinking about the new almshouse we were designing, which completed last year.

Philipp has just finished photographing the residents in the new almshouse, and made a film that touches on the huge physical, emotional and psychological upheaval of moving in later life.

Richard Wentworth, described by Stephen Witherford as ‘one of my most influential teachers’.
Richard Wentworth, described by Stephen Witherford as ‘one of my most influential teachers’. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann

Richard Wentworth

We met the artist Richard Wentworth in 2007 when we did a feasibility study for the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. He was professor, part of the client body – although he would have said the student body was the real client. The school was split across two sites, teaching studios and workshops, and was seeking to bring the two together. The study was to look at how that might be organised and where to build.

We didn’t get to build the project, but it was the start of our long relationship with Richard. He has influenced how we think about architecture differently. His photographic work often records the realities architects never imagined. They capture the way people mitigate or appropriate the city as built. He records the way powers of control and authority are embodied in the city, and the counter movement of opportunism, expediency, and using ‘what’s to hand’. That dialogue is something Richard articulates through both words and images.

We have directly worked with Richard at early competition stage to see how we could communicate or embody an idea through work he might make as part of the project, or through him discussing the project. He’s come into our studio to talk, and we’ve spoken at events together.

For about 10 years we exchanged photographs almost every day and we would meet and walk and notice together. He’s been one of my most influential teachers. Where this manifested itself most explicitly was during the period of construction at The Courtauld Gallery, when I found myself noticing things I hadn’t before, such as pennies, pencils, string and cardboard. I recorded over 200 images of encounters with ‘craftsmanship’ during the construction on my weekly site visits. It was a very intense time during Covid and lockdown.

  • Richard Wentworth, photographed by Stephen Witherford. The two exchanged photos every day for 10 years.
    Richard Wentworth, photographed by Stephen Witherford. The two exchanged photos every day for 10 years. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • Resin pour preparations during construction on The Courtauld project, one of a series of moments photographed by Stephen Witherford during the course of the project. The set of photos was influenced by Richard Wentworth’s observations about the nature of craftsmanship.
    Resin pour preparations during construction on The Courtauld project, one of a series of moments photographed by Stephen Witherford during the course of the project. The set of photos was influenced by Richard Wentworth’s observations about the nature of craftsmanship. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • Pencils mark the joints in the stone, photographed by Stephen Witherford during construction of The Courtauld project.
    Pencils mark the joints in the stone, photographed by Stephen Witherford during construction of The Courtauld project. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
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From these photos I put together a talk titled Out of Sight, that tried to make some sense and give a voice to the things that a skilled craftsman does instinctively on site that no one ever usually gets to see. I look back now and realise it was a kind of love letter to the people who make buildings. It’s not just that architects make drawings and specifications telling people who know what they’re doing how to do it. It’s about embedding in the design the skill and knowledge of people who’ve done this all their lives, which always results in higher quality.

A lot of Richard’s photographs are observations of our everyday encounters with the places we live – the city ‘as found’. This acute sense of our presence in the city and how we are present resonates with Philipp’s intimate portraits and Ken’s written and spoken reflections – these are all observational practices, which was the basis of our early walks along London’s edges, old and new.

Witherford Watson Mann worked with structural engineer David Derby of Price & Myers on the Stirling Prize-winning Astley’s Castle.
Witherford Watson Mann worked with structural engineer David Derby of Price & Myers on the Stirling Prize-winning Astley’s Castle. Credit: Philip Vile

David Derby, Price and Myers

We met David very early on, in 2003, when we worked with Robbrecht en Daem on the team to extend the Whitechapel Gallery. This was the beginning of a relationship that’s never really stopped – he was in here this week.

With David, we’ve always found that the way he thinks empirically about structure supports the experiential qualities we’re seeking. He has a fantastic understanding of older buildings as well – how they move, how they can be cut open and carved into. He has a deep knowledge of how materials work together.

At Astley Castle, he was immensely influential because it was such a structural challenge. At the competition stage, many competitors built the house separately from the ruin, but still had to stabilise the ruin, which was in a permanent state of collapse. But when we looked at it with David, we talked about having an early structure in place at the outset of the enabling works – a permanent prop with beams to tie the walls together and stop them falling outwards - totally embedding the new into the very heart of the old.

This strategic approach of having the new house within the ruin had an economy of means, with new and old in a completely symbiotic relationship. The new is completely founded on the existing masonry walls, and the masonry walls are bound together and stabilised by the new. The diaphragm walls are backfilled with rubble from the site clearance so that it didn’t have to be taken off site, and they move with and like the existing walls they stand on.

  • The new lintel being installed at Astley’s Castle.
    The new lintel being installed at Astley’s Castle. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • David Derby (right) during the collaboration with Witherford Watson Mann on The Courtauld project.
    David Derby (right) during the collaboration with Witherford Watson Mann on The Courtauld project. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
  • New concrete vaults installed as part of The Courtauld project, which Witherford Watson Mann worked on with structural engineer David Derby of Price & Myers.
    New concrete vaults installed as part of The Courtauld project, which Witherford Watson Mann worked on with structural engineer David Derby of Price & Myers. Credit: Witherford Watson Mann
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Where structure and architecture are in a very experiential and close dialogue there’s an authenticity to what you see. As part of our project at The Courtauld, David engineered the new concrete vaults that support the central section of the building. This is perhaps the most ambitious piece of structural design we have undertaken, which we liken to doing Astley Castle ‘upside down’. At The Courtauld the entire central section of the building was propped while the massive brick central vault was slowly removed and propped. Then complex steel reinforcement was installed to tie the remaining brick vaults to the new concrete vault. Finally, after the vault formwork was put in place the entire central vault and supporting columns were poured in a single pour. There was no way back as the new and the old were completely tied together and acting as one continuous structure. The end result is very elegant and beautiful, it looks like the job it is doing – it was the transformational move, enabling us to connect East and West wings directly below ground, to support greater departmental integration across the institute.

While we have worked with other brilliant engineers, David has been hugely influential for our practice, really pretty much from the outset. He has always been ready for the next thing, however modest that might appear to be.

As told to Pamela Buxton

 

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