New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Deborah Saunt

Friday 18 June 2021

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

 
David Taylor  
Hello! How are you doing, Deborah? And where are you? Where am I reaching you?
 
Deborah Saunt  
Hi, David. You're reaching me today in sunny Norfolk. One of the joys of this new accessibility we have is that I can be here helping my family and also be working – in the sunshine, actually next to one of my original projects from the year 2000. It's an interesting point of reflection.
 
David Taylor  
And have you got a garden set up with a laptop with a shading device? Because this is something that I think there's a bit of a niche for…
 
Deborah Saunt  
(laughs) Well I've got the Orangery that I designed with David Hills, one of our first projects in our first RIBA project. And it's a wonderful place to sit and work. The orange trees go out in the summer, and we can move in…
 
 
David Taylor  
Great - how lovely and fragrant! In terms of the rest of your team, what's the situation at the moment in terms of hybrid working and being back in the office? What's the split?
 
Deborah Saunt  
We've gone back to the rota system that we put in place last summer, which worked very well, where we see 50% of the practice can come in on allocated days. But we also have flexible arrangements for people who would rather remain at home, and those who would rather not remain at home - particularly younger people who have somewhat constrained living circumstances. We're very lucky - we have a beautiful garden and yard where we have outdoor meeting spaces, which are much in demand.
 
David Taylor  
And has that been a benefit of this whole period, do you think? That people have had a good reason to rethink the way they operate for the good of practices and companies?
 
Deborah Saunt  
Yeah, I think the whole wellbeing agenda is one that's very close to our heart. But it's something that now is shared. It's really widely understood that people's wellbeing should come first, and also the wellbeing of the planet. So, we're finding conversations of that nature much more fruitful with our colleagues, but also with our clients. That the idea of the integrated thinking and the commitment to not only environmental sustainability, but social and cultural sustainability is something that's really pressing at the moment. Because we do landscape, urban design architecture and also research, it's something that our clients are really asking us to help them stand back and reflect on what we call in the trade ‘the higher purpose’ of their projects, or why they're carrying out the activities they're doing. So yeah, I think it's a sort of renaissance in people-focused thinking.
 
© DSDHA
David Taylor  
So: I wanted to catch up with you about your National Youth Theatre project, which is a competition-winning scheme, I believe, and is on the Holloway road. Could you explain the basic principles of it, and perhaps a little on the public-facing nature of the scheme?
 
Deborah Saunt  
Yes. The NYT - National Youth Theatre – is an organization that provides young people with an opportunity to enter the world of theatre, either front of house or back of house. It's a sort of holistic understanding of theatre and performance. So people can go there as members, and receive training, from acting through to stage management, costume, etc. But most importantly, it is a really important organization for opening up doors into such an important part of our culture. 
And so the idea of the project was to rethink the way that they did things, and to rethink their premises, with this absolute ambition of having increased accessibility and inclusivity as an organization, and a physical destination. So: they held a competition and invited four or five practices. And it was interesting as a brief for us in anticipation of the interview, in so much as it brought together DSDHA's background in education, not only making schools throughout our architectural career, but also my personal involvement in helping to set up the London School of Architecture. That gave us an ability to look at how organizations these days can be networked and make connections with other organizations and bring accessibility to those who've been hard to reach, or excluded so far. And then of course, it combined with our interest in public, civic buildings, that should have what we call a ‘low threshold of possible’ so that people really can enter, and enjoy and feel comfortable within those premises, or landscapes, so they have a sense of ownership and connection, and again, long-term engagement. 
So we were very pleased to win that competition. We had a brief-writing period, where we looked at the way that the organization works. It was in two locations when we started. The staff were in Camden and the young people on Holloway Road. And the ambition was to bring them together in one location. But we also helped tease out the relationships with local organizations that they had in Islington, and really help consolidate their connections with the GLA, and the Good Growth Fund, of which this is a flagship project. It's the recipient of the highest grant so far…
 
David Taylor  
Two million?
 
Deborah Saunt  
Yeah, just over £2 million. It's really about bringing local accessibility…But the other primary thing is that NYT established local outreach to provide access to workshops for younger people. Those who have been excluded from school or having a hard time can come and do non-traditional learning in the NYT environment and gain qualifications that act as a stepping stone to allow them to make choices for themselves later on. Because we all know that we all learn in different ways. Some people like to sit at a desk; others like to draw or use visual aids; other people move around, and the movement and the performance aspects of NYT really help with learning and wellbeing for younger people who've been excluded by traditional education. So it's a really fantastic hybrid.
 
David Taylor  
So it covers a lot of bases, this project, then, doesn't it? I mean, there's a community aspect, there’s education, and a cultural aspect. Sort of a fascinating blend...
 
Deborah Saunt  
…Yeah. And then there's also the fact that we noticed that as a revenue stream, the NYT very sensibly uses some of its empty spaces to rent out to West End shows for rehearsals. Because rehearsal space is much in demand in London, given the sort of crisis of cultural infrastructure we've had, which thankfully, the mayor is trying to stem, with lots of those bigger spaces having been taken up and converted, where rehearsals used to take place. So they work with West End theatres. And they've now created through the new building the potential for longer-term partnerships with the West End, so that those people who use the venue can have a social contract. They offer in exchange for space not only money, but also mentoring, work experience and theatre space for NYT members. So it's a really lovely ecosystem of support between the bigger theatres in the West End opening up and sharing their knowledge and accessibility with what is a national organization. I should say members come from all over the UK. And they have dispersed auditions throughout the country, and productions. So this is very much the headquarters for a national-scale organization.
 
David Taylor  
And in terms of the elements of the scheme that you're putting together, there's rehearsal spaces, there's a general internal reorganization, isn't there, and there's a new 200-seat studio theatre, is that right? And some sort of green room front door, is that right? 
 
Deborah Saunt  
Yeah, so one the most exciting aspects of the project in terms of manifesting this accessibility and inclusivity has been what was initially thought to be quite a bold move, but everybody's very pleased with it, which was to take the former car park at the front of the building facing onto the busy Holloway Road and create a very simple pavilion in front of the beautiful, historic building in which the organisation is housed, a former music hall. This new pavilion houses a fantastic new workshop space where all of these local, easy to access initiatives can be not only easily accessible physically at ground level but visible as the local beacon for all of those local people passing by. But also a national profile with the A1 coming down into London, really placing what is a slightly left-over part of London on the map, trying to make a place. And it's also going to be combined with future public realm improvements. So that we almost create a sort of pocket park space outside the building, where none existed. And even now, when the building is only just starting to be opened in a sort of soft launch capacity, we're finding people are gathering in the space that we've started to improve and we're going to do more work to improve. So it's, it's really answering that local need very well.
 
David Taylor  
And of course, the list of alumni is a long one from this place, isn't it?
 
Deborah Saunt  
It is! 
 
David Taylor  
There are some big names I think that have come through the system out there such as Daniel Craig, another Daniel, Daniel Day Lewis, Helen Mirren, Rosamund Pike, and those are just four off the top of my crib sheet!
 
Deborah Saunt  
And they're very keen to include people who go on to become cultural leaders. Those who run theatres or are artistic directors, people like Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic, for example. So there's a really great roll call.
 
David Taylor  
So lastly, then, what is your belief about the importance of cultural buildings in a city like London in terms of what's been called the recovery? Are they central to that?
 
Deborah Saunt  
Yeah, I think the importance of cultural buildings is that they work beyond the performance. 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. 
 
Deborah Saunt  
So if you think about our cultural infrastructure, as a young person, you can wander the South Bank, and you find these extraordinary institutions, on which we took great inspiration here, such as the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre; there are other places like the Barbican. They play an incredibly important role with their foyers that are generous, and definitely welcoming. And they are a cultural safe space and one of the few safe places where you don't get judged, where your family are probably okay with you visiting if you come from a background where you might have certain restrictions. But also, on a very practical level, they offer the most humane of facilities such as toilets, a place to wash your hands. Given where we are now, that openness is really important. And we're very proud, along with the NYT here that we've got amazing, really simple things like gender neutral toilets, that are open to all, changing places, WCs. There is this whole population who have been unrecognized, adults who need dignity, and modest facilities where they can go and change. I think what the pandemic has done is also opened everybody's eyes up to the fact that just because you can't see disability, it's not there. So as cultural buildings, it's really beyond; it’s the common - most definitely the rehearsal and preparation and scholarship and effort and passion that goes into it. But it's also this kind of very, civic contribution that I think we're all re-awakening to that cultural buildings serve.
 
David Taylor  
Brilliant. Well, that's beautifully put, and I can't wait to see this and the future alumni from this scheme, but I suppose more importantly, the impact it makes on the local community and national community in terms of the people coming from far and wide.
 
Deborah Saunt  
And it is definitely an example, just to conclude, of an organization which really did work out what its higher purpose was. And then we worked to deliver that. In the same way as the LSA, we've made public statements about increasing our diversity and opening up to those who find it hard to get into architecture schools. And the profile of applicants reflects that ambition. Just by stating it, i's extraordinary how the LSA is really setting a standard for inclusivity as well. So I'm really pleased to be part of both.
 
David Taylor  
Great, well, I'll leave you to get back to your Orangery! Thanks, Deborah!
 
Deborah Saunt  
Lovely. See you soon. Bye!


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


Culture

#NLACulture


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