New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Keith Williams

Thursday 21 January 2021

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor catches up with Keith Williams, founder and director of design at Keith Williams Architects about hitting 20 years as a practice, the main changes he’s seen it that time, including a drive to environmentalism and quality, the post-COVID return of cultural venues, working in Europe, and what comes next…

David Taylor: Keith, it’s David Taylor, how are you doing?

Keith Williams: David Taylor, I’m fine! How are you?

DT: (laughs) I’m very good! So first of all, the chief reason I'm calling to have a catch up is the 20-year anniversary of the practice, which is a significant milestone. What are your main thoughts about the journey so far? 

KW: Well, it's been an extraordinary journey, actually. I mean, our 20th anniversary happened on the 6th of January, which was I think the date that Boris announced the latest lockdown... (laughs)

DT: (laughs) Yeah! Oh, great!

KW: So that was: ah, right, okay, fine. So some of the things we were planning we held back a bit but I felt we should put something out anyway. But the journey has been extraordinary, actually. I mean, we've been through well, we’re in the middle of one pandemic; never had that in my business plan, (laughs) and nor did anyone else. There’s been at least one financial crash in the middle of that, in 2008, which went on for several years, I guess; the fallout from it. There was a flowering of investment in the arts which was incredibly exciting, and we have been on an amazing journey of working mostly in the UK and Ireland, but the work has taken me to many other countries around the world. And we have met some amazing people. So it's been an extremely exciting kind of journey and hopefully we have contributed some quite important buildings along the way.

Athlone Civic Centre
DT: What have you noticed has been the most significant changes in that period to architects and architecture?

KW: I think the process has become much more complex, mainly in terms of such regulation but I don't think that that has per se stifled creativity. I think one just has to work a little harder. But what we have also seen is that certain clients are interested in and remain perennially interested in pushing things; that old Hackneyed phrase, pushing the envelope, if you like. But I think what that envelope pushing now means is something different. Perhaps a decade or so back it was about form; probably now it's about the planet and climate change and so on and so forth. So I think there's been that fundamental shift. That’s happened really in the last couple of years, or probably even less, actually. Probably in the last year or so, that suddenly, people have woken up to the role that architecture, building and construction can play in creating a lighter touch on the planet. I think that has been the sea change shift which has really happened in in the last year or two. It’s been around, we have been talking about it for 20 years, probably more, but it's become popular parlance in a way that it probably hadn’t until David Attenborough’s latest round of programmes seeing albatrosses choking on plastic bags and stuff, which is clearly a calling.

DT: Yeah. And in the London context? What have you witnessed over that 20 years in in quality terms? Do you think do you think we are a better city now than we were 20 years ago in terms of the architectural output? In terms of the buildings that are in the capital?

KW: Yes and no. I think that there have been some very good buildings built in that time. If I was to single out other than obviously our own projects such as the Unicorn Theatre…

Unicorn Theatre
DT: Of course…

KW: …which I’m very proud of, but I think some of the universities have been investing in very high-quality buildings, the LSE in particular, and London University amongst them and many others. I think that we've seen some fine buildings, and I think the quality housing in general has gone up – others may disagree but I think that's true. But where there are large areas of regeneration, I think that the cohesive masterplan and the sense of how we shape our cities three-dimensionally seems really lacking. And therefore we end up in a bit of a kind of riot of development if you like, with lots of ‘shouty’ buildings not really making a cohesive piece of city. If there is anything we need to be doing going forward it's really trying to have that thing the British hate, a sort of dirigiste attitude to shaping cities at a much more fundamental level. We seem very reluctant to embrace that and I think our cities are poorer because of it. 

DT: I was looking at your website just before this interview and reminding myself of some of your projects, especially in the cultural sector. You mentioned Unicorn just now and I remember very vividly walking round Unicorn with you actually, but some of those images of packed-out theatres made me a little sad. Where do you think we're going to be in that arena, and what hope do you have for the cultural sector?

KW: Oh, actually I'm pretty optimistic about it. A number of our clients are really looking at what I call their cultural infrastructure and their physical ‘stuff’ because they have obviously had to cancel loads of shows and this whole pandemic has caused a complete reset for anybody running a business. And obviously if your business is inviting lots of people into your home, as it were, then you can't do it. Clearly, it's been a massively frustrating process. You’re putting on a show, and then you’re not putting on a show, and then you might be etc. And even then, how do you make it pay when you can only put 20-30% of your house in place, your audience?

But if there were not a vaccine coming through then I think I would be quite pessimistic. Once people become jabbed up and much more confident about being protected, I think that side of things… You know, the arts have done brilliantly in terms of projecting themselves in new ways, but there is nothing like attending a live performance. You cannot recreate that in any other way and so we have to get back to that. And we will.  I’m confident of that. It may take time; time for people to feel safe and confident again, even after the jabs. But I think you'll see a fairly rapid return; we’re all in a massive emotional arts deficit, as it were, and suffering withdrawal. 

I think we may well see a new flowering. And I think there's a whole role of theatre and music yet to come to actually write about this stuff. You know, what was it like living in this time? This dreadful time we're in.

Clare Country Library
DT: Well that's cheered me up immensely; maybe I was being a bit Monday morning about it! (laughs)

KW: (laughs) 

DT: So: what are you working on now?

KW: We're working on a number of projects for private developers which are coming forward, which I'm pleased to say. They were looking a little shaky earlier in the year, but we've seen a number of our clients come back. We're working on several plans - I can't really talk in any real depth about this but they are in the cultural sector for future developments; all fairly early doors but people are thinking ahead.


KW: UK and abroad.

DT: Great.

KW: We should be restarting the Clare County Library in Ireland, which unfortunately had to stop because the contractor went into examinership. But anyway we are working on getting that restarted. The project had started on site and we’re working on getting it out of the ground during the course of this year and get that progressed; it’s a very important one for us. And private houses – we don't have any of those but another one of those is coming through for completion. And, surprisingly, last week I learned that we’d been shortlisted for an invited competition in Germany, which I thought was interesting as a sort of first post Brexit scheme in Europe…

DT: This is Detmold, is it? 

KW: No, it’s not on the website. No, because when you get invited into these things you do it on the basis that you don’t talk to the press about them (laughs)

DT:  Fair enough. I won’t press you! 

KW: (laughs) We’ve traditionally worked a lot in Europe; not exclusively, but we’ve got a lot of European staff. It's been an extraordinary time, and we're really not sure how Europe wishes to react to a lot of the discussion shall we say, that's gone on in the last few years, some of it pretty heated, some of it pretty vitriolic. And obviously there's a different legal construct, so it remains to be seen as how this will all unfolds. So we're taking baby steps in that world, and the way we work will undoubtedly be different because of Brexit and because of Covid, so it will be interesting to see. We're all learning. The remarkable thing about this last year is how much we have kind of learned, adapted, twisted, jumped, and tried to remain light on our feet to respond to whatever has been thrown at us. Which, in truth for pretty much everybody on the planet is quite a lot!

DT: Yeah. Well congratulations on the 20 years! My last question is where is the party and when will it be?

KW: (laughs) Well! All I can say is that there will be one, but as to where and when, watch this space.

DT: Fantastic

KW: But fair to say David you will be invited! (laughs)

DT: Oh, good! I'll get out the house: excellent!

KW: (laughs) Very good to talk to you!

DT: And you! Thanks Keith! Thanks very much. Bye!

KW: Thanks for your time! Bye!

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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