New London Architecture

Five Minutes With… Chris Dyson

Monday 11 September 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hi, Chris. How are you doing? 
 
Chris Dyson  
All right, I'm great, thanks, David. Yes. Lovely to be back – back to school, kind of thing!
 
David Taylor  
Oh yes. Tell me about it! I wanted to talk to you about a couple of things going on at your very busy practice at the moment. Firstly, the completion of the Harrow Arts Centre. You've just finished that. I also wanted to have a quick chat about your book on the practice and the process, really, of doing that; what you've learned about yourself in so doing? So maybe we could start with Harrow. Tell us about the project.
 
Chris Dyson  
Well, it's a project we won in competition as part of a wider masterplan for this public arts centre in Harrow, which is now self-funding; it was funded largely by the council. I think they underwrite it if needs be; but anyway, we won this competition with Webb Yates as our engineers, to build a brand new, innovative, and sustainable courtyard building. It's an L-shaped plan. It has large performance spaces and painting studios. And the idea is that these spaces are rented out to the public, to the members of Harrow, as a borough and they can use them for dance, yoga, theatre, painting, you know, anything, as long as they pay the rent for the space. So that rent gets ploughed into the overall Arts Centre and helps them run and organize other events. 

There's a grade II-listed building at the heart of the plan, which is why we were shortlisted, I think, because we build a lot in historic contexts. But in this case, it's brand new. And we're using CLT construction – cross-laminated timber – floors and walls. It's great stuff. It shot up in two months. It's a bit like cutting cardboard model, really. And then on the roof, like a factory, it has roof lights; north facing roof lights to get north light into the studios, which allows you good daylight and ventilation, without solar gain. On the south-facing slopes of those rooflights, we have PV cells to generate electric power for the building. We collect all the rainwater in rainwater harvesting tanks in the courtyard, and that's used to flush the toilets and that sort of thing. And water the plants. It's an unusual arrangement of buildings – a bit like a campus that's grown up over time. None of the buildings, apart from the Grade II-listed main building, which is the main theatre, are particularly distinguished, but anyway, it's much loved and much used. And so, our building is an addition to that group, almost like a sort of farmyard cluster of courtyard buildings. It’s just been commissioned. And the mayor was opening it and cut the red tape last month.
David Taylor  
Not mayor Sadiq Khan?
 
Chris Dyson  
No, the local mayor [Cllr Ramji Chauhan].
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. Well, I'm looking at a photograph on your website of lots of smiling, happy faces at the opening. So, it was clearly very well-received, was it?
 
Chris Dyson  
Yes, it was. Yeah, they have a sort of dance evening in all the studios, so people were able to see each of the spaces with dancers in – they were doing Indian dancing, and...
 
David Taylor  
...Were you there? Did you do any of that, Chris?
 
Chris Dyson  
I didn't personally (laughs). I'm not a great twirler!
 
David Taylor  
Fair enough! So, from that cultural building to another that's set to go to planning from you guys soon, down at the Goodsyard. Can you tell us anything about that?
 
Chris Dyson  
Yeah, it's a building referred to as Plot six, rather unadventurously. But anyway, it's the first building to get realized in the masterplan of the whole Goodsyard, which is a five-and-a-half-acre site. And it's on the eastern end of the site. That's the reason it's the first, because basically, you can't build anything from Brick Lane; you can't use Brick Lane to run construction traffic up. So, you have to sort of build from within the site and then come west, if you like, because the site's east-west, predominantly. And so, we will build that around what will be called King Square, which is a recreation of a name that was originally on the site well before the Goodsyard was.

There was a small square, so that kind of becomes even more significant now we have a King. But anyway, it wasn't the case when we started the project 10 years ago! Again, we won this one by competition, an invited competition with six different architects. And we're very pleased to take that forward. The actual end user we're still in conversation with so I can't reveal much on that. But yeah, the plan is it provides a 106 facility for the local community and a major arts hub centre in the rest of the building, which wraps around this public space with a café and restaurant, which will animate the public space underneath the East London line. So, it's kind of a building formed by constraints, but at the same time having its own identity on Brick Lane.
 
David Taylor  
Fabulous. It seems to have been around for a long time now, the Bishopsgate project…
 
Chris Dyson  
 
Yeah, the Goodsyard. Yeah, exactly. I mean, it has, and I think it's finally coming through. You know, we're getting little planning applications coming through for various parts of it. Not little, but it is broken up into smaller parts rather than one big planning application.
 
David Taylor  
So finally, your book, which is about to come out, I think, isn't it? Heritage and Modernity, I think it's called. How was that, as a process? I often encounter architectural practices who do monographs on themselves and sometimes it's quite illuminating for them to work out what they're about, what their design ethics actually are. And their standpoints on things. Was that process similar for you?
 
Chris Dyson  
Yeah, I suppose it probably was. I was invited by Dominic Bradbury, the writer, long before COVID. He lives up in north Suffolk, and I had emigrated out to Suffolk, during the third lockdown. We made it a sort of project to do on Fridays in the mornings until lunchtime; to meet up and go through it, chapter by chapter, you know, project by project.  I got through about four projects each time we met and make it into bite-sized chunks. It was a real pleasure to do, in a way. Being out of London, thinking outside of the kind of practice walls, not surrounded by busy phones and activity of the practice meant it was a quite a good way to reflect on what the practices have been doing, and where we intend to go.
 
David Taylor  
What did you learn?
 
Chris Dyson  
Well, I think I learned that we, like many, have fallen into a trap of doing an awful lot of residential projects. But on the whole, because they were conservation, and restoration or kind of retrofit style projects, they have taught us an awful lot about architecture and about fitting into London. Context and all that, and how we can learn from that and build new buildings, which are beautiful and functional, for the 21st century, and how we could recraft the practice to be doing more commercial and civic projects in the future, which is what we're in the process of doing anyway. And so yeah, it was a good opportunity to do that.

We identified various typologies in the book, mixed use buildings, community buildings and residential buildings and really built the book around those bones to describe what it is we're doing and how we could contribute to the architectural scene in the future. We have been invited on various projects I can't name but of larger masterplans where we're involved in more cultural aspects of the project because we're associated with the existing heritage buildings on the site, not necessarily just scrubbing them clean and reusing them, but also building over them. adding quite substantial aspects - doubling the size of them to make really interesting facilities for a larger-scale master plan. That has been becoming our little bit of a metier at the moment, our workload. 
 
David Taylor  
Well, fabulous. I look forward to reading it. And congratulations on your oeuvre, Chris. It's growing all the time! Thank you very much, Chris. And good luck with it all
 
Chris Dyson  
Good, good! All right. Thanks. Bye


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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