Designing the future

Christopher Woodward interviews Jamie Fobert and Julian Harrap, the architects of Charleston’s barns project

Monday morning in Jamie Fobert’s office in Clerkenwell. He has just got back from Berlin. The Neues Museum has just re-opened after a ten-year restoration and re-design by David Chipperfield. Jamie led Chipperfield’s team in the first competition for the bomb-damaged ruin, in 1994. ‘I saw David’s building when it was empty, and it looked amazing,’ he says. ‘It’s even better with all the stuff in.’ He smiles in an acknowledgement of the cliché that the architects of the new generation of bare, luminous galleries like their interiors uncluttered by ‘stuff’ – the collection, that is. His work has been praised by one critic as ‘glacial good design’.

Fobert, who is Canadian, studied at the University of Toronto and came to Britain to work for Chipperfield. In 1996, at 35, he set up his own practice and has become one of Britain’s most collectable architects. In Moscow he transformed a 1920s bus garage – an icon of Modernism – into the Garage Center of Modern Art, managed by Daria Zhukova – yes, the girlfriend of Roman Ibramovich. In Paris he has designed the interior of Givenchy’s most luxurious shop in which the clothes seem to purr on their immaculate racks.

It’s a long way from Givenchy to Charleston and the cows bellowing in the barns next door. Or is it? I first came across Fobert’s work in a house in Kennington, where Charlotte Verity – artist in residence at the Garden Museum, where I work – and her painter husband live. It’s a kitchen and dining room extension that steps lightly into their garden. ‘Who designed this?’ I asked. Fobert is masterful at striking the balance between enclosure, and openness: Charlotte’s kitchen is designed to frame the views of her beautiful garden. I didn’t want to leave.

Fobert has built houses and studios for artists such as Anthony Gormley. Artists like him. And he enjoys collaborations with other disciplines. At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show he designed the bronze pavilion in Tom Stuart-Smith’s Gold Medal-winning garden for
Laurent Perrier (a playful gazebo which has been snapped up by a television producer). [fig.1]

Six of the most critically admired practices in Britain were shortlisted for Charleston. Why do you think you won? ‘It’s a lot because I’m collaborating with Julian,’ he replies. Julian Harrap is best known as a conservation architect: I met him working at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he has restored room by room over two decades. He supported Norman Foster’s transformation of the Reichstag and collaborated with Chipperfield on the restoration of the Neues Gallery. That’s when he first met Jamie. Why, I asked Julian, has he become the conservation architect of choice for Britain’s cutting-edge Modernist stars? ‘Foster and Chippie and Jamie are architects who do architecture. Not ephemeral or commercial stuff. They have a process
of preparation, analysis, and thought that I admire.’

And they like working with Julian, I realise, because of his understanding of design at its most rigorous – and ambitious. Conservation architects can over-focus on the detail: their approach can be associated – unfairly, perhaps – with the Young Fogey-ism which required corduroys and iron fireplaces, and puts the right shape of wine glasses beside the right joinery detail. To Harrap, conservation is ‘an act of creative architectural design’.

He studied under Leslie Martin, James Stirling and Colin St John Wilson, three teachers who were admired – or reviled – for their overturning of tradition. Each experimented with new shapes of buildings – as in Wilson’s British Library – and a rigorous but inventive assembly of brick, glass and metal. These tutors are ‘the parentage of the practice’s design philosophy’. I had no idea that Julian worked for Stirling, the enfant terrible of ‘60s architecture – or that he designed the furniture in Stirling’s controversial History Library at Cambridge. (The Library – if not the chairs – has made generations of history students puzzle at Modernism, including me). But ‘rigour’ is the word Julian returns to time and time again, and it is evident that his collaboration with Jamie Fobert is based on an intense analysis of the site and its character.

The farmhouse and garden at Charleston were restored between 1981 and ’86. Potential architects were asked to show how the barns across the lane from the house and gardens could be converted and extended to provide extra space. The Small Wonder Festival requires an auditorium for up to 200 people and the May Festival needs to seat almost 400. The adult workshops are popular throughout the year. The education programme requires a classroom, with space for sinks and lunchboxes and coats. Angelica Garnett’s collection of her parents’ works on paper is currently kept in cardboard boxes in the attic of the house. It needs to be stored properly – and to be exhibited. Finally, Charleston requires a bigger restaurant and shop. Every independent museum is up against the odds, and Charleston depends on the money its visitors spend.

‘It was a difficult brief,’ reflects Jamie. ‘It’s a lot to get on the site without ruining it. And within the budget … We haven’t solved it yet.’ The ink is still wet on the ground plan he prints out, and his pen walks me through the ideas at this stage. [fig.3] The project – called ‘Four Barns and Three Courtyards’– is still developing, he emphasises, as does the Director, Colin McKenzie.

The first and most noticeable change will be the reconstruction of the Granary, an historic structure taken down in the 1970s. That will be Barn No.1: the learning centre. Behind and at right angles is Barn No.2, the Hay Barn, which will be rebuilt for adult talks and workshops. Barn No.3 is the Threshing Barn, facing back across the courtyard to the Granary. It caught fire in the 1980s and its current interior is a patch-up. This will be converted into the restaurant and visitor services.
You’ll walk through the big, central doors into a second courtyard. Here you will see the first brand-new structure, Barn No.4, which will enable staff offices to be moved out of the former cowshed, and for the collection to be stored with all the gleaming, whirring kit it deserves. Finally – and turning back towards the farmhouse – there will be a gallery for changing exhibitions. And the Festival auditorium? It is proposed to have a temporary wooden structure to be erected in the first courtyard for two weeks each year.

What will it look like? At this stage, the architects would rather concentrate on their analysis of the site, and the ‘character’ of what they’d like to build. It is ‘intensely rural’, with milk lorries jolting up and down the drive each evening from the big metal sheds. ‘It’s not bucolic cattle farming,’ says Jamie, wrinkling his nose. ‘It’s noisy, smelly industrialised agriculture, right on the doorstep.’ And it’s here to stay.

Duncan Grant’s paintings were important in Fobert and Harrap’s submission to the trustees. ‘I see him as the key intellect of the Bloomsbury set – in a visual sense, that is’, says Julian. They want to recapture the ‘authenticity’ of the farm as it was first ‘discovered’ during the First World War, pointing to the muddy raw-banked farm pond outside the window that appeared in Vanessa Bell’s The Pond. (The view out of a writer’s house is as important as the artefacts on the desk and – as with so much of Fobert’s work – these designs are as much about what you see out of the window as what he actually builds.)

The challenge, I realise, is not to make Charleston too polite. ‘It should be very different to a National Trust property,’ says Julian. And then, with greater relish, ‘And not suburban.’ What do you mean by ‘suburban’, exactly? He points to the wooden gate in a Duncan Grant painting. ‘That is a gate made with big pieces of oak, and hand-forged iron. It can resist the push of a cow. Grant understands that, and paints that.’ Some years ago it was replaced by a gate carefully modelled on the original. To Harrap, however, it looks rural, but is not. He wants his interventions to go beyond visual replication to engage with the process of making.

Harrap took Fobert to his project at Three Mills where he has restored a structure of the 1790s. Muscular, bare, heroic carpentry will be a feature of Charleston Barns. Initial ideas include a proposal to work with the Weald and Downland Museum on the reconstruction of the Granary. ‘The whole process. The felling of the timber. The design. The construction technique.’ The Threshing Barn will be rebuilt with a new interior of soaring, bare timber. Harrap and Fobert have superimposed a Duncan Grant stage set design on to the interior, and will try to translate its intersecting angles into the actual design [fig.5]. The Festival marquee will also be a heroic piece of wooden assembly. ‘Working with timber is a belief system,’ says Julian. ‘It’s a feeling.’

Each architect will spend a lot of t ime at Charleston. Fobert has been designing stores for Givenchy across the Middle East and Asia. ‘But it’s all on the computer. I never get to go there.’ It’s evident that he enjoys a hands-on project, and an engagement with materials and landscape. ‘Glacial’ is too glib a phrase: his work can be tactile, and warm. One salon in the new women’s shoe store in Selfridges is inspired by shoe lasts – a delicious idea, I think – and the texture of the interior of Givenchy in Paris was suggested by the artist David Nash’s use of willow charred by lightning.

‘Engaging with a client is about challenging a client to think what he really wants,’ says Julian. It’s evident that Charleston has set itself a challenge by appointing two practices with such a strong-minded belief in authenticity, materiality and conceptual logic. Each practice is enjoying huge success, but Fobert’s and Harrap’s ambitions are not to build bigger and bigger buildings. What motivates their work is the challenge of engaging with a new site and a new project. And, very simply, they make beautiful buildings. With an emphasis on the word ‘make’.


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