New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Kevin Owens

Sunday 29 January 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hi, Kevin. How are you doing?
 
Kevin Owens  
Very good. Thank you, David. 
 
David Taylor  
Good! I wanted to chat to you about BBC Earth, which I had the pleasure of visiting – or at least the outside, and the site – about a month ago. I wanted to quiz you about a) its content b) how you have approached the design and c) how temporary and meanwhile uses can affect sites particularly like that one, down in Earls Court. So: three big questions!
 
Kevin Owens  
Okay, great! Well, BBC Earth is a unique and wonderful opportunity for us to work on, as part of the BBC celebration of its centenary, and is about uniquely trying to deliver an essence of permanent experience, by all contexts in terms of content, and the broader touch points, but very much on a meanwhile, temporary use. The venue itself is an immersive black box experience, which will explore nature in all its contexts, with a narrative by David Attenborough and the BBC – which is a phenomenal asset to work with. For us, as the architects, it was taking that core content, and then really doing a lot of the pre-show, that prebuild, as you imagine, over the theatre. It's almost like we have the show, and then it was for us to build the theatre around that, to create that front-of-house arrival, and integrating the themes that came from within that black box, and allow them to percolate out, both through the front-of-house and lobby, but also then into the broader public realm, working directly with the ECDC team. So: a kind of a unique place where a lot of the moves that we're making are permanent through their design, but delivered through temporary mechanisms.
 
David Taylor  
And how can you get across the excitement internally, externally? Or is that not something you need to do? I mean, it’s a black box; is there something you need to translate to the exterior in order to get people in?
 
Kevin Owens  
Yes. I think, for us, it was taking the themes and the key drivers – around sustainability, around a global view of our earth and the sensitivities, and trying to translate that through the architecture. As a result, the building itself is, in essence, a chassis; a temporary, off-the-shelf, chassis. But it was then for us then to create the façade system, the front-of-house with temporary landscape, use of natural and fully sustainable materials, to create the environmental protection for the front-of-house. Hence, we have a timber louvre system to the front of house, which then also provides the billboard for the venue. So, as you approach the site it is worth noting that it's quite deep on the site.  People are approaching it with around a 200-metre viewpoint. So, it was almost reaching back into the Scott Venturi kind of world of roadside architecture as well. Seeing it from the road at 200 metres, the building is the billboard. So, we worked with the graphics team to take the word ‘experience,’ to embed it into our timber facade, so it's visible from 200 meters. But then, as you get closer and closer, your experience then becomes much more on the micro- scale rather than the macro. It then becomes about your touch points – the landscape, paving, then the front of house, and then entering through. It was an interesting journey, in terms of the scale shift, and unique for us working within that world to take the distance view, and then bring it right down to the micro touch points of what you experience within that black box. It's very much a cumulative and collaborative effort with the production team, who are creating the content. And then for us as the architects to translate that through the architecture of the front-of-house and concourse areas.
 
David Taylor  
Is it easier to design in a context that is emerging, there, than it would be if it was in a much more contextual site, would you say? 
 
Kevin Owens  
Um, yes, and no! 
 
David Taylor 
(laughs) 
 
Kevin Owens
Because the challenge that we face in the emerging site is that we are creating the context, the environment. But in essence, our challenge there is to do it in such a way which is temporary, but demountable. All of the work that we're doing there is really on a two-year lifespan. We're still using all of the same tools that we use for permanent in terms of scale, form, placemaking, etc. But trying to then translate those back into materials and deliverable mechanisms that are transferable, that are changeable, that can be adapted. Also, so that it can respond to the different needs of the site as it emerges, because what we can't afford to do is to paint ourselves into a corner where it's a one-stop-shop, it's a single solution. So: we’re trying to create a public realm that gives ultimate flexibility, even just over the two-year lifespan of the BBC Experience, so that the public realm can respond seasonally, and can also respond to the emerging needs that may be coming forward as part of the broader development. So it's best efforts of a little bit of crystal ball gazing, even on a short term period.
 
David Taylor  
Lastly on this, can you give us a hint as to what kind of immersive environment is beyond those walls internally?
 
Kevin Owens  
I'd say it is truly immersive. It is an experience, which I think will reach across generations. And under the narrative of David Attenborough and BBC content, it is a true celebration. So I think it will amaze, it will delight. And also, I think the scale of what lurks behind those doors will be a surprise for all.
 
David Taylor  
So, moving on to a different scale entirely, you're also involved in the Olympics, in Paris. I was wondering, really, if you can outline what your involvement is there? And secondly, if you can let us know what the chief differences are in approach between that and, say, the London Olympics, which you were also involved in, I think?
 
Kevin Owens  
Yeah, so we've been very fortunate to be part of the in-house Paris design team, working collaboratively as a collective. We're architects working with other teams, within the doors of Paris ‘24. As Woo, we are overseeing five, six of the competition venues as part of the Paris North cluster. It's quite a range, from permanent venues through to completely temporary. And also, having the benefit there of the building from the Paris bid. We weren't part of the original bid, but being able to inherit the great work that was done, and then translating that through to the delivery for the Games. You talked about London and Paris; I think it's a very interesting period, because it is not very often in our industry where something which was completed 10 to 12 years ago still relevant. But I think it's interesting in the context of the comparisons between London and Paris, that both cities adopted an approach of celebrating the city and really adopting: 'let's build on our assets, let's build what we only really need to build'. And so, a lot of focus on the temporary, but also an awful lot of focus on the city itself. To the point with Paris as well, where there is, in fact, no Olympic Park as we had in London. In essence, the experience of Paris for a visitor during the Olympics will be the city itself. I think that sets a new tone for the Olympic programme. And it's something that we're embracing through our work.
 
David Taylor  
Do you foresee that being the template for all future Olympics? That they will be low energy, to a certain degree?
 
Kevin Owens  
I would certainly hope so. I think with the Olympics, there are often debates about the discussions of a sustainable games, which I've always said is a bit of an oxymoron. But I think the only way that you truly make a Games sustainable and deliverable is to really review the assets of the city itself, or the country itself, and to build from that. Build less, challenge the brief, and allow the local cultural context to really come to the fore. Because I think that's the way the Games will have its longevity, but also celebrate each of its host cities.
 
David Taylor  
Well, it's fascinating talking to you and I really look forward to hopefully visiting the Olympics next year. You'll be going as well, I presume?
 
Kevin Owens  
Yes, indeed, we'll be there on the ground. That is part of our unique role as the architects and design teams for these venues – we have not just designed them; we'll also help operate them. So: we practice what we preach!
 
David Taylor  
Front seat tickets!
 
Kevin Owens  
(laughs) Indeed!
 
David Taylor  
Great, thanks very much for your time. It's really fascinating.
 
Kevin Owens
Thank you, David. Bye
BBC Earth opens on 30 March


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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