Architecture, Meeting of minds

Meeting of minds

October 2017 - Simon Kretz, 2016-2017 Architecture protégé

Simon Kretz, the young Swiss architect taking part in the 2016−2017 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, joined his mentor, the eminent British architect Sir David Chipperfield, in a wide-ranging discussion about their mentoring year during a special evening hosted by Rolex at London’s Royal Academy of Arts on 13 September.

During the talk, expertly moderated by the Royal Academy’s Artistic Director Tim Marlow, Sir David and Kretz described how they decided to structure their Rolex mentoring year around a theoretical and practical exercise of understanding how urban design projects can have positive impacts on both local and wider urban environments.

“I wanted to take this (mentoring) opportunity to explore something I’d become increasingly interested in, which is the question: how do we plan our cities?” said Sir David.

According to Kretz, he and Sir David decided to analyse and compare development projects in a variety of European cities. “We started to compare Swiss projects with projects in London and also from other European cities… What if we would apply a Swiss planning system on an English site?”

The result was an unusual research project, a study of one of London’s latest large-scale development areas, the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site. Kretz invited 36 students from the Institute of Urban Design at Zurich’s ETH, where he is a Senior Lecturer, to apply alternative design and planning processes to the East London site. The students created nine different models and projects, under the guidance of Kretz, which were later reviewed by Sir David.

In Britain, Sir David explained, planning is dominated by processes that focus on the area within the “red line” (ownership) of particular project sites, rather than on the way the projects relate to the development of towns and cities as a whole. In Switzerland, as in Germany, Holland and Belgium, the process tends to work the other way around: Architects do not begin to design a scheme until after a full consultation with planners, a detailed investigation of local and regional planning requirements, as well as public consultations.

Kretz, whose own current projects include urban master plans for Thun, and Neugasse in Zurich, described the Swiss process as “an open discussion with the public in which design fosters debate”. Interestingly, the two studied the differences in timeframes between Switzerland’s planning model based on extensive public consultation, and the British approach of design first, then consult. “We compared the confrontational system in London, with how long it took for the laborious consensual (Swiss) process, and they were exactly the same,” said Sir David.

The case study will be published in a book co-authored by mentor and protégé that they hope will have some long-term influence on UK planning processes. An accompanying exhibition will be shown in Berlin in February 2018 as part of the Rolex Arts Weekend. Marlow also invited the pair to return to the Royal Academy when its new Chipperfield-designed lecture theatre opens in 2018 to give a fuller talk about their case study.

In concluding the evening, Rebecca Irvin, Rolex’s Head of Philanthropy, noted: “I think this is the first Rolex mentorship where the pair are publishing an academic book and are going on a lecture tour.”

In addition, she remarked that the evening’s discussion demonstrated how mentoring is a two-way street where both older and younger artists learn and are enriched. “Mentoring is one of the most amazing forms of arts education and we’re so proud to be able to support it over the years.”