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Oliver Spencer

A video and interview with British fashion brand Oliver Spencer.

In Conversation: Architect and Author, William Smalley

One imagines the architect might experience a sense of trepidation when opening their door to someone armed with a camera and an opinion. Living spaces are the architect’s currency, and yet as we all know, personal rooms are exactly that – personal. At times they represent sanctity, while at others, the hint of some crumpled boxer shorts beneath the bed might betray a hastily hidden moment of disorder. What does an architect’s home look like, when no one is actually looking?

In the case architect William Smalley, our neighbour on Lambs Conduit Street, his apartment on the restored upper floors of a Grade II*-listed town house dating from 1720, tell you a great deal about the way he lives and works. Smalley’s capacious spaces are clear of distraction, upheld by a framework of serenity. Nothing is superfluous. Everything, from the simple colour palette to the careful restoration, works towards a common purpose of stripped-back clarity and thoughtfulness. It’s more than just an aesthetic, but a way of looking at the world, an exploration of how one might best exist in the tumult of modern life. For Smalley, this minimalist journey has been the architectural peg that he has hung his hat on. He has created sublime structures of acute minimalism all over the world, from London to New York, via the French Alps. While each one has a unique fingerprint, Smalley’s projects share a timeless refinement, dressed with a lightness of touch to convey a meditative attitude. They are spaces you want to think in, spaces to encourage introspection, spaces that seek out truth.

It was an honour to speak with him about his work, and we hope you’ll be able to glean as much fascination and enjoyment out of this conversation as we did.

Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you thought: ‘buildings are my passion.’
I was about eight years old, I think, when one evening at home I went downstairs and found a handsome man sitting at the kitchen table with my parents, and who my mother introduced as: “This is Robert, our architect.” I didn’t know, but they were planning an extension with a garden room and extra bedrooms (well, I didn’t know that they were planning a little brother, too). In front of them, laid out on the table, were a set of drawings of our house and its extension, and looking at them, I immediately thought: “That’s what I want to do.”
I dream in buildings. I speak the language that buildings speak. They are the thing I lose myself in – not literally (I’m very good at knowing where I am in them), but in losing all sense of time when I’m thinking about and designing them. To me it feels natural, but I’ve come to realise that it is the thing that keeps me sane, and going, and that I’m lucky to have found it. Not everyone does.

What makes a great architect?
[Before answering, a note: just because I’m answering this it doesn’t mean I think I’m great.] My gut reaction is that a great architect listens. They listen to the client and their site – which requires a certain humility – but also to their own instincts in knowing what is right – ultimately a kind of arrogance. This balance between opposing forces plays out through the whole of an architect’s career: professionalism vs passion; pragmatism vs care (a great architect endlessly cares); persuasion vs empathy: it is an endless act of diplomacy.
But then of course the mark of a great architect is also the element of irrational, unpredictable, brilliant inspiration, that, whether subtly intelligent or loudly exuberant, can be defined only in terms of genius, and which Plato had right: The madness which is of the Gods is a nobler thing than the wisdom which is of man.

How would you describe your architectural approach?
When I was studying architecture, and each term’s design project was announced, instead of excitement I felt fear. Fear of not finding the right answer, from thinking that there was a single, right answer. It wasn’t until I’d left that I realised there are any number of right answers, no single one, and that you just need to find your own.
To do this, you have to ask the right questions, and listen for their answers: where does a building want to be on this site (where do I want to be), what space will I feel best in, and will let me enjoy being here most; if a gallery, will let me enjoy the art best; if a hospital, get me better; if a hotel, let me rest?
Since this realisation I have worked hard to keep in touch with my intuitive self, so that I can listen, and let a site tell me its answers. This sense of rightness is what I seek.

What has been your most challenging project, and also the one which you sit back and look at with the greatest pride?
All projects are challenging in their own way. Their difficulties come at you when you least expect it, from above, below, any angle. After a while, you come to realise that there is no such thing as the perfect project, stop searching for it, and stay on the look out for the arrows. And you come to realise that the challenges, constraints, creative tensions, once you are through them, always turn to advantage – if not for that project then for the next.
Perhaps knowing this, I always look on finished projects with a mixture of gratitude, pride, and a critical eye. You always want the next project to be better than the last.

Can you tell us about your book, Quiet Spaces? What inspired you to create it?
I try to live life lightly, but books are my weakness. (OK, books and cashmere are my weakness, but books weigh more, last longer and take up more space.) And I’ve long thought that writing books, recording your work and where it came from, is as much part of running an architectural studio as having computers and an office dog.
It took a long time – a decade all-in, probably – from thinking I was ready to write a book, to imagining it into being, finding the right publisher, writing, and photographing it, to design, edit and see it published… It evolved along the way, found its groove. It places eight of our projects alongside eight other places of constant inspiration. A quartet of essays introduces four chapters: Space, Silence, Shadows and Life; quite difficult themes to put down in writing, it turned out.
The title Quiet Spaces came after the book was planned out, its first shoots shot, and standing back and seeing what had almost been taken as read: a sense of peace, a quietude, throughout.
I complicated things by insisting on returning to each place, in a pandemic, to photograph them, beautifully, on film, by Harry Crowder, which meant us travelling to Cornwall, Italy, New York, Mexico, Sri Lanka… Despite, or maybe because of this, I enjoyed the process of making Quiet Spaces – which was fortunate because making a book turns out to be a huge (if hugely satisfying) slog.

Is it important that your spaces have a meditative component to them?
It’s not as if potential clients endlessly call in saying: “We’d like a space to meditate in, can you help?” (Or rarely do they: we are working on a listed thatched dovecote that our client wants to turn into ‘a room for thinking in’.)
But I think a meditative quality, that a building and its inhabitants can sit silently in peace, is an unspoken part of the function of architecture. Even concert halls hold moments of silence, which can be the most intense sound of all. I notice I’ve just written that buildings need peace, just like their inhabitants: I do tend to think of buildings as I do people, of good buildings as I do friends; and I like people who are comfortable with silence. We should be comfortable in silence.
So, yes, a meditative quality is part of my architecture, is present in the way I think about space, and is there when I create spaces.

Artists, through the conduit of their preferred medium, are more often than not, truth-seekers. What is the truth you search for in architecture?
Well, this is art’s freedom: the artist working in a studio is free to explore the personal, be true to themself. In contrast, architecture is a social endeavour, it involves many people in its creation, and has a duty forever to everyone who happens to pass it, not just to those who choose to see it in a gallery. And because of this, whether it tries to be or not, architecture is a reflection of its society, and cannot escape that.
But architecture also reflects us as human beings, and should give care to our deepest needs, and I am always searching for the best ways for spaces to nurture us. Perhaps it comes down to this.
Or is as simple as this: when I set up a studio it was with the simple aim of creating beautiful spaces and places – and that is what we quietly, in our own way and with the support of our clients, try to do.

Who are your design heroes? I understand you have great admiration for John Pawson…
I do. Pawson’s work is always meticulously resolved, and he is a constant inspiration, beyond just the work. He gave a lecture, fairly early in his career, when I was studying at Edinburgh, that had a profound effect on me. Not just for the work he showed, though there was that, with its compelling clarity, but for allowing his architecture a passionate confidence, and cutting for it a path, a little outside the mainstream of architecture, for its expression.
Perhaps as a result of the lecture, as a student I kept a beautifully stark bedroom. Towards the end of my studies my grandfather died, and I asked if I could have from his house in Cambridge his old Georgian gateleg college table, a 1920’s Anglepoise lamp and a pair of old kilim rugs, all of which were beautiful and spoke to me of him. When they were all agreed to, I panicked: What am I going to do with these in my perfect white room? and then Where would they go in houses I’ll one day design? (I also found I quite liked going round to friends’ rooms to relax. They had more comfortable chairs.) So I got to know my truer self, and my room and I softened. Clarity made way for complexity, and I allowed things to become less obvious, but more human – and more comfortable.
Other heroes that come to mind are Peter Zumthor, Luis Barragán, Vincent Van Duysen – again, not only for their work, but also as architects, piecing together their careers, watching how they evolve creatively and seeing what holds importance to them. Also, I realise, I like all of their own houses. Perhaps this is my true measure.

Is there an interplay in your work with other creative disciplines such as art or music? Or the natural world? Does one help inform the other?
I think we flatter ourselves as architects if we think that architecture will ever be as expressive as art, can be as grasplessly ephemeral as music, or will ever be as beautiful as the natural world.
But the beauty of these can, and do, inspire and influence (though they never should too directly).
I find works of art come to mind when I’m responding to new sites, and that sculpture speaks more directly to me about contemporary architecture than contemporary buildings do.
Goethe wrote of architecture as frozen music, but I don’t dare to hope for my work to aspire to even the tiniest hint of the beauty of Bach’s music.
And I find that we talk of nature as something other than us, and forget that we ourselves are works of nature. I think it would be better if we did not see a divide.
Prosaically, architecture solves physical problems, like providing warmth, shade from the sun or shelter from rain, and if it fails in this it fails entirely.
But it is also an emotional creation, and art, music and nature help us respond to our emotional needs.

If you had architectural carte blanche with London, how would you change the cityscape?
Oh man, that’s big.
We’ve been doing a project in New York, and every time I get back to London from a visit I find I’m always glad to be back here, and appreciative of our streets and our city. So I’m not sure so much needs changing.
But okay, given the reins, the thing I’d change is the system that enables cheap, disposable buildings to be built. I don’t mean literally disposable buildings intended to be temporary, I mean the mean, utterly subpar everyday dross that appears around us, almost unnoticed, designed with the shortest lifespan that can be gotten away with, utterly undistinguished other than for its utter crapness. In imposing this change I would be busy, ripping through and enforcing the planning system, upending the economics of land values, and stumbling no doubt clumsily into politics – but then I have carte blanche, so…
It seems that we have forgotten how to make towns and cities. London is one of the richest, most exciting cities in the world, and yet we allow total crap to be built in it, and give Londoners little choice but to live and work in it. I would give ourselves the respect we are due. Let respect ring out.