Interview with Deborah Saunt
Nina Rappaport How did you come to work for Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson on the decades-long British Library project and then for MJ Long, as she was starting her own practice?
Deborah Saunt When I finished my postgraduate degree at Cambridge, there was a tradition of Sandy hiring a few graduates, so I started to work on the British Library, which had been conceived before I was. It was one of the few major public buildings being constructed at the time, and there I discovered this amazing person called MJ, who was instrumental in the library’s design. Many of us want to correct the history books to refer to it as Sandy Wilson and MJ Long’s collaboration. She was working at a time when the boys got the recognition. I was MJ’s first hire when she started her practice and was traveling to Yale regularly to teach. I enjoyed that culture of a practice spanning between academia and professional projects; I just assumed that is what all architects did, and I followed in her footsteps.
NR How did you decide to start your own studio with your life partner, David Hills?
DS David and I studied at Cambridge and worked with MJ and Sandy at different times, so we shared that lineage. In between I worked with Tony Fretton, who talked about politics, poetry, society, and public life as well as building. This experience helped me determine where I wanted the practice to go, and David shared these aims. While I was a student I produced my own projects, which made me understand that the preoccupations you have in your earliest period will probably remain abiding themes: the architecture you choose to engage with is an amplification of your understanding of your own place in the world.
NR You were lucky to have women as mentors: how did that affect the way you see yourself as an entrepreneur and practitioner?
DS I had always worked with female architects; I had a mother who worked and a grandmother who built, so I never thought of it as anything other than a calling. The gender issue didn’t really surface until I got into the workplace and was disappointed to find that architecture was, and still is, very pale and male. I have manifested my interest in addressing diversity by helping to establish a prize in the name of Jane Drew, now run by the Architecture Review, and later cofounding the London School of Architecture, which aims to redress underrepresentation in architectural design and city making.
NR With its focus on working almost solely on London, DSDHA has gained a deep understanding of the city. How have your projects been guided by the context of the periphery and the shape of London’s streets and open spaces? In turn, how do your buildings and urban projects influence the context as a giveand- take between building and urban environment?
DS That is a really good question. Initially our projects were very disparate and spread across the country, and only later became increasingly urban and focused on complex settings. Early on we were fortunate enough to win competitions for education buildings, which over five years led us from kindergartens to a Cambridge University building—all pavilions. For my PhD in practice a few years ago at RMIT, I analyzed how pavilions in remote areas and dense urban buildings are based on similar design principles, addressing relationships between site, context, and people. This has influenced the way we describe our role as spatial strategists and not just architects or urban designers, with a more nuanced understanding of physical networks based on dedicated research. We deploy the same methodology, analysis, and grounded research irrespective of physical context, whether looking at a nursery school on the outskirts of a poorer area in the North of England or a project in London’s Mayfair district. We look at the site, environment, histories, sociopolitical and economic conditions, and then we make our proposition.
NR Scale plays an important part in your practice, from the smaller scale of a house, studio, or school to larger spatial strategies at the infrastructural scale of sidewalks, transit, and public spaces. How do these all come together for you now as urban designers?
DS We have a studio motto: The city is our client. We include people who are part of a larger constituency and put their needs in that context. We predicate all of our projects on the notion of exchange to make sure that everybody benefits from development. Through research we uncover hidden needs, and we use our projects as leverage to make improvements and as an opportunity to address environmental issues. Another motto is: If you draw it, it can happen. So we draw the greening of streets, the closure of roads, new bridges and infrastructure, and we believe in the agency of architects as a way to push an urban design agenda.
NR In which public projects did you engage the community with that kind of agency, and what was your method of outreach to the residents?
DS One method is to hold “100 conversations” with passersby near the site before starting a project. It is a huge investment, but it is an effective way to uncover the unwritten brief of an area and critically challenge our own preconceptions. We won a competition to relocate the school of Christ’s College on a very large site and noticed that somebody had snipped through the fence along a playing field to make a short cut. We realized that there was a large social housing development nearby and the only route to amenities from there was through the school grounds. Through our agency as architects we won approval to put a road through the site and constituted the school around it to assist the flow of people. It was amazing to see this happen, and they even put a cycle route through it to integrate the whole district. Breaching the boundaries as we made this new public building enabled more public amenities.
NR That certainly illustrates the impact of a single building on its broader context. How did the Tottenham Court Road project address the local community’s needs and gain traction as a larger economic project?
DS We won the competition to do a one-mile-long project that would radically transform Camden’s West End, an area that was underperforming economically, socially, and environmentally. Our proposal was to string five amazing public spaces through the city and to detune many roads. We discovered, through the 100 conversations, that a major hospital on the site wasn’t mentioned in the formal brief, and we identified a constituency of health-care workers and patients who had not been heard. As a result we closed more roads than anticipated and created some healthy streets and back routes for doctors, nurses, patients, families, and visitors to leave the confines of the big hospital machine and get outside, which now is more important than ever. We also discovered that there were huge universities cheek by jowl with big business, but there was very little conversation between the different institutions. So we mapped all of the educational institutions in central London and showed it to the businesses, and there was a palpable intake of breath. We said, “Do you realize you have the equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge on your doorstep?” That was the beginning of what is now called the Knowledge Quarter, a knowledge-based economic zone where universities, the British Library, and innovation-focused businesses all form a branded cluster.
NR After many months of living with the social world at a physical distance, what have you been thinking about in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on the city and the role of architects in the “new normal”?
DS We hope all architects can be embedded in their local communities. We do a lot of pro bono work through our studio’s Spatial Intelligence Group. We have been working with the local authority on initiatives for low-traffic neighborhoods to encourage cycling and walking in young, diverse communities that are typically absent in formal consultations. We held a summer program for teenagers to design interventions using Minecraft as a drawing tool. Our team works with these teens to build timber projects, providing them with design and engineering skills that will allow them to shape their own environments.
NR The breadth of work in your studio is so wide, with new projects at the high end of the spectrum in terms of visibility and cost, such as Piccadilly for the Crown Estate, alongside local projects. How do you manage to go back and forth between clients with different economic levels and strategies?
DS We are kind of Robin Hood architects, alternating between not only different scales but also economic extremes. We work in the wealthy city center and on the periphery, where we are codesigning the Modernist housing Tustin Estate, in South London, as an urban revitalization project. Other architects entered the competition with finished designs; we went in with just an open ear to listen to the residents and learn how we could design with them.
NR What are you focusing on in your Yale studio this fall? How are you approaching teaching in the time of COVID-19?
DS We are very interested in the condition of dispersed learning in public and in public space. We are looking at how learning has taken place in the past and the form it might take in the future, addressing particularly what is happening now in terms of architecture and the environment. We will use spatial strategies to look at the networks between us and the new civic movement that uses the street and its publicness as a site of protest and information exchange. We are starting with Rudolph Hall in terms of how it functions as a hub for networks between the personal, the urban, and the virtual. The studio is running in parallel with DSDHA’s ongoing project for the British Library’s public realm in terms of the role of public space, access to knowledge, and architecture. We have come back to Sandy and MJ as we open up that building for locals, passersby, and other diverse constituents of public spaces.