Out to lunch with Eric Parry RA

Published 10 August 2010

Over an Italian lunch, the architect and Academician discusses the influence of art and history on his designs.

  • From the Autumn 2010 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Eric Parry RA has quietly transformed Savile Row, not with the cut of his suit but with the character of his architecture – uncompromisingly modern yet tailored to its historic surroundings. This autumn, his new building here will become home to contemporary art powerhouse Hauser and Wirth, who are launching a vast new gallery on the ground floor with a show of Louise Bourgeois. And as if to signal the building’s artistic intent, a massive bronze construction by New York sculptor Joel Shapiro juts out from the façade, punching the air of this genteel streetscape.

    We meet across the road at Sartoria, whose understated design and contemporary Italian-inspired menu make it a canteen for the bespoke-suited locals. “I follow my building sites when I eat,” says Parry. “So I haven’t been back here since we completed our work on the building. I’m peripatetic – like a craftsman who moves wherever the project is.”

    He held so many meetings here during the construction phase of the building that the waiters recognise him, as do some of the regulars, and he still remembers some of his favourite dishes. “The lamb is always wonderful,” he says, ordering herb crusted rack of Welsh lamb with grilled vegetables and roast baby potatoes. Since it’s a hot summer’s day, he starts with gazpacho – the crushed raw tomato soup is so beautifully poured into a bowl full of chopped vegetables that I fleetingly regret opting for dressed Devon crab on bruschetta. For the main, I choose seared scallops because they come with my seasonal guilty pleasure: deep fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies. In deference to my choice, he gallantly orders a white from the Alto Adige region of Northern Italy – a dry, yet rounded Chardonnay-Pinot Grigio blend from the organic vineyard of Alois Lageder, perfectly paired with the food.

    Looking out of the window, Parry points to his restrained, modern façade, punctuated by recessed windows that create a rhythmic play of shadows across the surface. Parry explains, “I was constrained by the commercial brief and historic surroundings to work with a very laconic order. But I realised we needed a kind of release. I see my architecture as providing a continuo for Joel’s solo performance”.

    He commissioned Shapiro six years ago and, like a proud father, pulls out a photo album of the work in progress. “It’s two tons of beautifully crafted cast bronze – the first suspended piece he’s done. For me, this piece is a statement about not accepting mediocrity, not compromising. It proclaims the artist’s obsession with the way things are made and the quality of materials. Architecture needs the example of the visual arts to define itself against an onslaught of commercialism.”

    In his youth, Parry was torn between art and architecture. Indeed he studied both, taking a break from his architecture studies to travel in Iran and India and then do a foundation course at Hornsey School of Art and further study at the Royal College. “I’ve drawn ever since I can remember – just pencil on paper. It’s a process of discovery, both for work and pleasure.” He whips out his notebook and shows me a wonderful drawing he’s just done after a Minotaur print from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, one of his favourite images and, as it happens, one of mine.

    Clearly he still envies what he sees as artists’ independence from practical pressures. “I love the control that sculptors have over their materials. I have a Richard Serra etching of Torqued Ellipse in my office – sculptors and architects share concerns about how things are made, material, visual weight. At the moment, I am working with Richard Deacon RA on a building in Piccadilly that’s awaiting the green light.”

    Becoming an RA in 2006 enabled Parry to connect more regularly with artists, which he loves. “A passion for art has been alive in me for as long as I can remember. One of the joys of being an RA is meeting people I’ve held in high regard for ages. I also like debating issues with peers, some of them much older. It takes you away from the immediacy of fashion to opinions that are formed over a period of time, outside the orbit of curators and critics.”

    Readers may recall that he designed the RA’s Palladio exhibition in 2009. “Palladio is one of my foundations, and he underpins so much architecture in this country, but I prefer the expressiveness of baroque architects like Borromini and Gibbs,” says Parry, who recently completed the restoration and underground expansion of Gibbs’ masterpiece, St Martin-in-the-Fields. “On the outside of the church you see a muscular stone carapace, while inside the ceiling has an incredible lightness – it is levitational – designed to let the celestial world in. I particularly loved working with the artist Shirazeh Houshiary who designed the new east window – it’s a floating wall of light.”

    After coffee, Parry takes me on a tour of the neighbourhood to see a project of his that is nearing completion – an entire city block behind Bond Street, incorporating buildings from the eighteenth century to today. “I pinch myself when I walk across Conduit Street to see the site,” says Parry, pointing out St George’s Church where Handel worshipped and admonishing me to look up while I walk along Bond Street, in order to see the Henry Moore atop the Time Life building. “Each bit of London gives you a new layer. What’s interesting in this city is the section, not just the elevation. For me a building has to contribute to an urban dimension, animate people’s lives. So architecture shouldn’t be too individualistic. But that attitude doesn’t export well. I have the luxury of being able to walk to most of my sites within two hours!”

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