Issue Number: 93
In the studio: Fiona Maddocks visits Ian Ritchie RA in his Canary Wharf practice, and finds out how the architect’s Zen-like surroundings affect his work
Ian Ritchie RA, architect of international renown whose buildings mix light-filled fantasy and practicality with visionary flair, is happiest when near water. The east London studio offices of Ritchie’s practice, whose recent ventures include the temporary Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Dublin Spire, stand at the wide curve of the Thames at Limehouse Reach. In one direction, towards the City, is that architectural landmark, St Anne’s, Limehouse, built by Wren’s pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the other, in fitting opposition, is the brave new world of Canary Wharf.
Ian Ritchie RA photographed for RA Magazine Winter 2006
‘My starting point, when looking for new premises, was to ask myself which is my favourite piece of architecture and what are the elements I respond to,’ says Ritchie. ‘The answer was the Palace Pier, Brighton.’ The Victorian pier’s juxtaposition of the built environment and the natural world reflects Ritchie’s idea of good architecture: ‘It’s the sense of the sea, sky, sun, rain and wind that such an edifice creates: you’re in a man-made structure, yet exposed to the elements.’
These are precisely the qualities that make his workspace – a renovated 1901 import-export building at Dundee Wharf (a contemporary of the Palace Pier) – so uplifting. Sky floods in from vast, floor-to-ceiling windows, through rooflights and via cleverly hidden strips of glass joining the old structure and the new extension. Since Ritchie is the man who designed Leipzig’s Glashalle, nicknamed ‘the biggest glass palace in the world’, as well as glass roofs and façades at La Villette Cité des Sciences and the Louvre in Paris, and the glazed elevator shafts at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, this obsession with the play of daylight and glass should not surprise us.
A Docklands pioneer, Ritchie moved his practice to Limehouse nearly a decade ago after eighteen years in Metropolitan Wharf, Wapping, where he found himself part of an artist’s colony, home to the likes of fellow RA Anish Kapoor. ‘It was an informal sequel to what Bridget Riley had set up at St Katharine Docks in the 1970s. Our office was a fantastic place, a top floor out of which you could see a huge stretch of river at a turning point for boats. You could always sense big skies reaching out over south London. But the building wasn’t listed and fell prey to developers. We were told to move.’
Rudely uprooted, Ritchie had to move fast in order to keep his practice going. Fortunately, his local knowledge meant he knew what was available, and he saw the potential of his then derelict premises. ‘I liked its almost domestic scale, and also the idea of a wharf, where you have a harbour and a jetty, to take things straight on to a boat – not that I ever do, of course.’
Many original features have been retained in the designs masterminded by a young member of his team. The ceiling has been removed to expose a lattice of spruce wood beams and the original roof lantern at the centre of the building, which contrasts with the simple geometry elsewhere. The impression created is of a monastic institution, of rows of cells without walls; voices are kept to a low murmur. ‘I like to think of the whole atmosphere as Zen-like, everybody doing things with maximum simplicity and efficiency. People make their own models. It’s detailed work, requiring patience and thought.’ Ritchie’s entire team have desks on the building’s upper floor: ‘We all work on the same level. It removes any sense of hierarchy. No one can hide behind closed doors. It’s part of the overall philosophy, which extends through to my architecture.’
The dominant colour, matched by Ritchie’s own shirt, jersey and eyes, is blue – pervading the Arne Jacobsen chairs, as well as the floor and cabinets. At first glance, they all appear to be of the same hue, but there are actually ‘about 34 different shades’, according to Ritchie.
Following through his belief in creating a working community, staff can gather upstairs on the wooden roof terrace, at the centre of which is a glass table, big enough for the entire practice to sit around together to talk through plans and ideas. But the table has another crucial purpose: ‘It doubles as a shelter for the roof-lights, so that air can come in even when it’s raining,’ explains Ritchie.
Ritchie’s outlook might best be described as holistic in his determination to chart a continuity between life and work, ethos and practical application. This extends, as you might expect, to the manner in which he hires his staff. ‘I ask three things of any applicant: that they speak a foreign language; that they have made something full-size – a chair, maybe – which someone else has used; and that they have a passion outside architecture.’ With over one thousand would-be employees applying each year, he has no difficulty in recruiting a talented and diverse team.
His own love is writing, chiefly about architectural questions – and he has published many books, including (Well) Connected Architecture. He also devotes himself to a range of public duties, from advising the British Museum and the European Construction Industry, to chairing the jury of the RIBA Stirling Prize. Ever willing to engage in lively debate, he finds expressing ideas in words, as well as structures, essential to his nature and, one suspects, his peace of mind.
Ritchie and his wife, Jocelyne van den Bossche, a partner in the practice, live nearby in a Georgian house built by John Rennie, the Scottish civil engineer who designed London Bridge. ‘When we first came here to the Isle of Dogs three decades ago, after living in France and Italy, we said to ourselves, we can’t afford to live near a park, we’ll have to settle for dereliction!’ He recalls a bleak, wild atmosphere in those days. Does he regret the fact that his old east London has changed beyond recognition? ‘It was so rough, I used to think of it as “Steve McQueen” country. Before the Docklands Light Railway was built, you could walk along the viaduct and pick blackberries all the way to the City. But now I can walk across to an Italian café or go to a delicatessen in Limehouse. Who’s complaining?’
Recent projects by Ian Ritchie RA include the Dublin Spire, the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford, and the new production centre at Plymouth Theatre Royal
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