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18 Jul 2008

Eric Parry

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Although he insists he’s not obsessive, such dedication has served him well. After 25 years in practice, his thriving studio has a staff of 50 and an impressive set of projects on the go including a host of office buildings in the City of London and the West End, plus the sensitive renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields church off Trafalgar Square and the contentious extension to the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath.

His is a quiet, thoughtful architecture that holds its ground without showing off. As well as the composition of the building and quality of the materials, Parry is deeply concerned with the urban fabric and the quality of the surrounding public realm.

“My architecture is based on an understanding of the pavement and the urban condition,” he says.

As for the interiors, when his practice designs a fit out rather than just the shell and core, Parry aspires to create not just an office, but a workplace engendering “dignity and satisfaction” for those who work in it.

Given his delight in collaborations with artists, and frequent references to artists as the inspiration in his architecture, it is no big surprise to learn that Parry, now 56, dallied with the idea of fine art himself. By his mid-teens he had chosen architecture over art, but came back to it after his first degree following a revelatory year out studying nomadic settlements in Iran and social housing in India.

“In Iran, I felt so drawn to the textures and fabrics that I came back and did a foundation year at Hornsey School of Art,” says Parry. “I felt I should spend some time rekindling my art and wondering whether I should do sculpture.”

Architecture won again, and he headed off to the Royal College of Art, combining his studies with designing film sets for the National Film School, and working as a night security guard at the Serpentine Gallery, which gave him ample time to study the work of Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and others up close. But it was his “fantastic” time at the celebrated Architectural Association that set Parry firmly on course for his subsequent career in practice and teaching. He was fortunate to study under leading architects and theorists such as Dalibor Vesely, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Nigel Coates and Daniel Libeskind, who were at the time particularly concerned with rethinking urbanism and the contemporary city. “It completely changed my life,” he says.

Parry is just as enthusiastic about teaching, which was a major part of his life for 14 years when he taught at Cambridge University, at the same time as building up his own architectural practice (established in 1983). He gave up the Cambridge position only when it became clear that, with his practice expanding, it was impossible to carry on doing both.

“Teaching is an education. You grow through teaching,” he says.

Meanwhile, his own office was gathering momentum. The first breakthrough was the W3 building in Stockley Park in 1991, and then, more significantly, 30 Finsbury Square, in 2002, which has a load-bearing Portland stone facade and was nominated for the Stirling Prize. This was commissioned by Scottish Widows, which has been a repeat client, more recently on the £70m Aldermanbury Square. Eric Parry Architects completed 10 Paternoster Square for Mitsubishi Estates in 2003, since occupied by the London Stock Exchange. The practice also has a strong track record in education, most notably at Pembroke College, Cambridge, as well as many residential and cultural projects, including two galleries for Timothy Taylor and a studio for British artist Antony Gormley. Somewhat incongruously, Parry also designed two bars at the Ministry of Sound.

Parry’s academic background hasn’t put him off doing commercial work. “It is interesting how people still stigmatise it,” he says. “In the rarefied world of urban theory, people still secretly despise office architecture. But here, every project has its desire and potential.”

Most of his commercial work has been speculative offices, which Parry is completely comfortable with. “A lot of London has been made like that,” he says, citing historical examples such as Gower Street, where the orderly buildings may look the same on the outside but may be used for all sorts of things inside. “I have no problem with offering up a building to others.”

Parry certainly works hard to create a building that will perform well for its eventual users, focusing on getting good light into a deep floor-plan and on creating a facade that separates the work environment from the outside world, but without isolation. He was particularly thrilled to have achieved an interior with just one column in the working space at the eight-storey 60 Threadneedle Street, which is now on site, as a result of a plan that sets the core against the internal walls.

“We put the core to the back and there is just one column in the space,” he says. “That’s a joy to me. It’s beautiful to see the expanse of space.”

But Parry is equally happy to work on fit outs when they come his way – they remind him of his film set days and the speed involved is a welcome change of pace from some of his buildings, which can take as long as seven to ten years to happen.

One recent four-floor fit out for Babcock and Brown, in Parry’s Aldermanbury Square building, demonstrates the architect’s desire to avoid bland interiors and instead go for some drama. Making the most of great views over the river to Tate Modern, the reception space, including the ceiling, is kept relatively dark. Lighting is used to accent the reception desk but otherwise draw the eye out to the windows, and to a spiral staircase leading up to break-out spaces in the floor above.

“We enjoy the totality of a project when we’re allowed it,” adds Parry.

That extends to commissioning furniture, wall hangings and, in particular, artwork as part of the buildings – something Parry, given his background in art, enjoys immensely. “Sculpture is incredibly important to me. Art and architecture come together very beautifully.”

These are often integral to his architecture. At 23 Savile Row in London’s West End – a major building on the site of the old English Heritage building Fortress House – artist Joel Shapiro is creating a cast bronze piece strung on seven cables above the building canopy.

“The sculpture was so important in creating a moment of deep freedom – a breath in a building that is so well behaved in other ways,” says Parry.

He is passionate about the need for a building to have civic presence, and works hard to gain depth and shadowing on the facades, in this case using Portland stone with aluminium posts on a granite base.

On a speculative retail, office and residential building for Scottish Widows now on site in nearby New Bond Street/Maddox Street, Parry is using cast ceramic on the facade, illuminated by artist Martin Richman. He is working with another artist, Antoni Malinowski, on a building at St George Street for the same client.

Later this year, he is looking forward to seeing the completion of 60 Threadneedle Street for Hammerson, on the site of the former Stock Exchange, and the complex St Martin-in-the-Fields renewal. Parry also has a 15-storey building in planning at 120 Fenchurch Street that creates a public pedestrian route at ground level with lift access to a roof-top public garden. Work begins this autumn on the extension to the Holburne Museum, following a five-year struggle to gain permission. But Parry has never been scared of difficult sites – as long as it isn’t a project that would destroy the traditional urban fabric. He says he would now love “some really difficult urban conundrums
to solve”.

He feels that the current economic panic might not be a bad thing, as it may mean that some very big, ambitious schemes will happen in different ways. “We need to get to the next generation of buildings, in terms of sustainability,” he says. “The next pause is about rethinking, challenging deeper plans, inhabiting atria and having openable windows.”

But for Parry, you sense that pause or no pause, he will still be up at the crack of dawn and heading over to the office, eager to get on with his designs and his thinking.

At about four or five most mornings, Eric Parry leaves his tiny flat in Golden Lane, Islington, and makes the brief walk to his office to start work, popping back for breakfast later before resuming his day.

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