From the archive – Glass interviews Britain’s leading architect Sarah Wigglesworth

In Sensible Spirits – Britain’s leading architect Sarah Wigglesworth on how a sustainable approach to building and designing can not only benefit people but also inspire them

SITTING  in a bright dining room, not too big, not too small – just right – I am awaiting Sarah Wigglesworth, the woman heralded as a new voice in architecture and chosen as one of the top 10 international architects by Architectural Record. In front of me a floor-to-ceiling window lets in sunlight while opening the view to the garden, the house’s exterior facades and the seemingly odd materials they’re made up of. Canvas cloth, stone, blocks of hay and wood all combine to form an unusual configuration of shapes and structural functions.

Admittedly, before entering Wigglesworth’s London home, I couldn’t help but meander for a few minutes to visually digest the architecture around and above me. Upon entering through the gate, visitors walk right under her office and studio space, while a series of chunky columns, composed of rocks inside a rectangular metallic mesh, frame the view to a single fuchsia door – the house and studio’s main entrance.

Of course, this is all done in true Wigglesworth style. The architect is renowned throughout the world for the eco-friendly solutions she implements throughout each and every one of her buildings – and for Wigglesworth, sustainability isn’t a style, it’s an ethos.

Wigglesworth joins me in her dining/conference room. She is a gracious and inviting hostess but aware that she is here to be interviewed and is thus composed and professional. She appears well presented but comfortable and when she speaks her eloquence and intelligence are arresting.

I ask her about her choice of materials. The rocks are recycled concrete from Stratford, she informs me, the windows are made from timber brought in from Huddersfield and the plywood is imported from the Baltics by ship (which uses much less energy than importing things by air). And the walls made of bags on the north facade of the house? “Those are just sand bags full of sand and cement,” she replies. “It’s all about trying to keep train noises down.”

Wigglesworth describes the effect as a sort of  “bunker architecture” – attempting to block out the railway just metres from the house, off Caledonian Road in north London. But except from the north elevation, there’s nothing bunker-like about the house at all. If anything, it opens up to the exterior in a way that very few urban homes do, all the while embracing an almost organic aesthetic made up of low-pollutant materials imported from within a close radius.

The house-slash-office is a model for urban green living – a reflection of a truly sustainable lifestyle making the most of recycled materials, craft building and passive solutions to climate changes. Naturally, when construction started in 1998, the public was bewildered. “Nonetheless, they loved it,” she assures. “Somehow it really struck a chord because it’s inventive, delightful, playful. It was engaging for people. All of a sudden they were thinking, ‘I could do that, that’s not beyond the realm of possibility’.”

Through the house, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects (Swarch) showed the public that architecture didn’t need to be something unattainably glossy, painstakingly perfect or ordered from the pages of a catalogue. Instead it could be something that took you back to basics. Rather than be there to be seen, her materials are there to be touched, felt, understood and taken care of, almost in a maternal manner. Even if she may not describe it like that herself, Wigglesworth – one of the few female architects with an internationally recognisable practice – has no qualms speaking about gender within the field of architecture.

Front Cover. Sarah Wigglesworth in her dining room as seen from the entrance to her London home. Photograph by Earl WanSarah Wigglesworth in her dining room as seen from the entrance to her London home. Photograph: Earl Wan

You’ve said that your approach at SWA is rooted in your understanding of the built environment as a female participant. What does this understanding entail and how is it different from the point of view of a man?
[Wigglesworth laughs softly]. Well that’s a big one. There’s been quite a large discourse for about the last fifteen years around identity and the way that different people experience the building environment, and I think it’s fair to say that during Modernism we thought about the human being as a kind of universal. Even the buildings’ proportions were thought in relation to the male body. Psychology has proven that women and men approach the world quite differently and have a different take on situations. Their experiences are very different as well.

Take, for example, the domestic environment, where roles of gender are expected to behave in very different ways. Societal expectations have set those things up as well, but of course architecture, being a part of culture, reinforces those and begins to condition your behaviour. It reflects those norms, as well as inscribing them into spatial practice. Those are the things that we are trying to reveal to get people to perhaps change the way they understand the building environment.

In which of your projects do you feel your formation as a woman is really reflected in the design?
This building is probably the best example. It’s a project by me and for me so it reflects what it’s like to live and work on the same site while playing those two dual roles – homeowner and boss. I sometimes ask, at what point am I playing which role? How do those roles overlap? Classically, the home has been seen as a place of leisure, but it’s only really leisure for men who go out to work and come home and want to relax. For women, who are homemakers, it has always been a place of work.

Where we’re sitting now, at the dining table, is the exact point where these two roles begin to merge. You’re aware there’s some disruptive element going on, and you’re not quite sure what kind of world you’re in; that’s part of the role play. Sometime you can play the host, sometimes you’re playing the architect. I think these kinds of thing can be very informative and interesting to bring into a design.

I know that you operate a gender-balanced environment at SWA.
Yes, actually right now it’s about 80 per cent women, but it fluctuates between periods of time.

Wigglesworth's home and studio, Stock Orchard Street, London. Photograph by Paul SmoothyWigglesworth’s home and studio, Stock Orchard Street, London. Photograph: Paul Smoothy

But there’s clearly an issue in practices in general, no? The number of women in architectural practices has doubled since the mid-‘90s but surveys show that women stop working during the earlier parts of their career.
I think that although architecture likes to think of itself as being very avant-garde and at the cutting­-edge of creativity, a lot of the structures that underpin it are very conservative. They are about money. They are also about who you know and who you network with, and those people tend to reflect your values. This is often how you get new commissions.

I should also say that the working culture is very cruel. It’s based on sacrifice and dedication to a “master”, very long hours and proving yourself through marathons of constant late nights at the office. This is a very patriarchal construct [she laughs softly again]. It’s races and competitions, and I don’t think it has to be like that actually. It’s difficult to keep friendships going; it’s difficult to socialise; it’s very difficult to have children in those conditions, and it’s mainly women who are then put in the position where they have to make a choice – do I become a carer, or do I become an architect? At a critical moment in their career they tend to fall off the edge.

We’re not at all flexible, and all of that is quite old-fashioned behaviour in my opinion. Having said all this, I think women also have to make more demands. The time for being compliant is over. They have to hold their bosses accountable, and their husbands too. Parental caring should be shared.

I think that what some people don’t realise is that an architectural/design practice is very much a business. Architects don’t just show up to work to create. You really need to be the CEO of this organisation, and I think that what you say will resonate with many people, particularly women in business for instance.
It’s a patriarchal culture which has defined the way norms operate. Even the way networking works rebounds into masculine culture. People go drinking together, or they might go play golf, or whatever it is. They have a kind of “clubby” world that they operate in. It’s very much a male kind of culture, and I think because architecture follows money, the money tends to be with the men. If you don’t participate in that kind of network you will probably be disadvantaged, whether you’re a woman or a man. This is actually what Zaha Hadid was saying before she passed away this year, about not being a part of that mainstream club.

I think it’s fair to say that women who reach positions of power do tend to replicate those kinds of scenarios, because that’s the way in which your work is validated. You’re almost forced to join the club. I want to run things the way I want to run things.

Stock Orchard Street. Photograph by Earl WanStock Orchard Street. Photograph: Earl Wan

Who do you enjoy working with?
Local authorities actually tend to be more gender conscious and more interested in working with people who are perhaps more nuanced about their issues, who sublimate their egos. I think that’s given us a whole line of work which, to me, is really interesting as a result. It’s intellectually challenging, but at the same time it avoids where the money goes. [Laughs]

I want to talk to you about longevity, because your architecture is about creating resilient, durable, sustainable solutions. Why is longevity important to you?
The biggest driver for me is climate change. We’re doing a little bit to help but not moving fast enough. Some of the challenges we’re facing, and which will only get worse, involve mass migration, flooding, the use of absurd amounts of energy. We really, really need to address these things culturally. Architecture can do a bit towards it, but I think it’s so big that it touches all aspects of life.

Should buildings be able to withstand the test of time, or should they have a shelf life?
Longevity can be taken in all kinds of ways and I think one of the things that is sometimes difficult is that clients aspire for somebody to design and build something for them that has no maintenance or where things don’t need to be replaced for a very long time. This quite often works against the natural materials you may or may not want to use. I’m personally quite against concrete because of its CO2 emitting properties, and yet it’s obviously a very long-lasting and robust material. I

love using timber as it’s carbon­-neutral. In fact it’s probably a carbon-­negative material because it soaks up carbon rather than emitting it, and it can last a very long time. But people feel that timber won’t last as long as concrete and that it’s not suitable for certain conditions.

A building is a living organism in many ways, and it needs looking after; it’s like a body. You’ve got to maintain and tweak it. You can’t just leave buildings. They need attention. So the idea that you don’t have a budget to maintain them or fix them is kind of crazy. If we looked after our buildings better and paid more attention to their afterlife once they’re built we might actually have a much more resilient and sustainable building stock than we do at the moment. We’d also value them much more.

We’re still operating under a kind of Modernist mindset where buildings are this sort of thing you can just erase and start all over again from scratch. I don’t think any culture before us has ever ever done that! We ought to be saving what we’ve got and working out ways of reusing these things and repurposing them.

Pebbled entrance to Wigglesworth Architects' studio. Photograph by Regner RamosPebbled entrance to Wigglesworth Architect’s studio. Photograph: Regner Ramos

There’s also something very cultural about this mentality, of the idea of robust materials and permanence.
In this country (UK) we do have a tradition of building with very long-lasting materials like brick, stone and concrete. Japan is somewhat different because they mainly build out of timber, or they did historically. Their cultural buildings are designed to be dismantled and redone, they can be regrown; that’s not really the way we work here. So I think there’s a really big shift we’ve got to get our minds around regarding the built infrastructure we’re providing for future generations.

It also extends beyond the control of architects.
Yes, a lot of these things don’t just lie with clients or architects. I’m talking about insurance and mortgage companies, as well as public funds. The people who are investing in these buildings tend to have very outdated views about these things. The media has to get that message out there more and we have to work with whatever structures we’ve got.

Where does your passion for designing using ecological methods and processes come from? Did anyone inspire you?
[She laughs] That’s a good question. It was probably when I went to America for a year, as a student, where I was really amazed by this profligate way of life which seemed to be based around cars and burning petroleum. Put into facts, it’s 5 per cent of the world’s population consuming 25 per cent of its resources and wasting so much. The scales fell from my eyes! When I came back to the UK, I was determined to try and use every limited power I had as an architect to really address some of these issues.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, people who did green architecture were incredibly marginal. They were hippies who dropped out and went to North Wales to build traditional buildings out of weird materials. What suddenly struck me was that these people really knew how to do it. They did it on zero energy only using the resources around them, rethinking things in a more natural way, less reliant on pollutants and industrial processes.

You specialise in public building such as schools and community centres. What is it about these projects that interest you?
The people. Absolutely, undoubtedly the people. I really do believe that in order for a building to be designed successfully you need to get right under the skin of the user’s group. You need to work with school community pupils and all the staff (caretakers, cooks, teachers). They all have an amazing and intimate knowledge of the building that you don’t have. You can’t design it for them unless you have their insight.

Architecture is a process that oscillates between inspiring others and of extreme humility in the face of these people who really understand what they need. You’re designing a backdrop for what they want to do. However, at the same time, you’re there to excite and inspire them, so you’ve got to come forward with all sorts of ideas. It’s a real privilege to work on projects like that.

The interior space of Sandal Magna Primary School. Photograph by Mark HaddenThe interior space of Sandal Magna Primary School. Photograph: Mark Hadden

Your Sandal Magna Primary School, in Wakefield, has been hailed as one of the most carbon efficient schools in Britain. How do you integrate eco-friendly solutions while ensuring that the building’s aesthetic fits in with the local architecture? Is this important at all?
I think it’s really important. When we first started that project, we were asked to make the building out of brick. I was taken aback because brick isn’t particularly eco-friendly. That was a massive challenge. Those initial responses of mine still stand. But you have to make some accommodations for your clients.

It was an interesting challenge because one of the first things that we did was ask ourselves, how can we build in the greenest brick that we can possibly find? How do we draw on the vernacular architecture, which is essentially red brick, and make something recognisable for the children? In order to design this green school we were really interested in how the building could itself contribute to keeping the temperatures down in summer, around the typical points of the year where the kids complain of overheating.

From there, the narrative of the project began to develop: we made little home-like classrooms with brick walls between each little “home” and chimneys that would naturally “pull” air from the windows up into them, creating natural ventilation. The whole building was designed to be a passive environmentally friendly building which essentially looks after itself.

Mellor Primary School's habitat wall for the local flora and fauna helps students learn to care for their environement. Photograph by Becky LaneMellor Primary School’s habitat wall for the local flora and fauna helps students learn to care
for their environment. Photograph: Becky Lane

Another of your projects, Mellor Primary School, Stockport, incorporates what you call a “habitat wall” designed to promote biodiversity for the local flora and fauna. Could you tell me more about this approach in which architecture merges with animals and plants?
This little school outside Manchester focuses on an educational model centring around getting pupils to feel comfortable with the world by going out, camping, lighting fires and working out how to relate to nature. Because of this agenda, we thought it would be absolutely fantastic if we could make the building a place where you could encourage wildlife. The kids are inside, the animals are outside, but they’re all on the same premises together. The building itself actually aids the curriculum – a teaching aid in its own right.

We did a lot of workshops with the children to get them to draw what this place might look like and they came up with all sorts of fantastic ideas. Out of their drawings we came up with a more simplified and rationalised version, and the community and ourselves built the habitat wall together, which was a great way to get everybody to rally around this issue. When you get people excited about something it can really make a big, big difference.

by Regner Ramos

From the Glass Archive –  Issue 26 – Longevity

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About The Author

Regner Ramos

Glass Magazine Architecture, Travel, and Culture Writer

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