WHITE ARKITEKTER AN INTERVIEW WITH LONDON STUDIO DIRECTOR LINDA THIEL Img 1 LINDA THIEL MOVED TO LONDON FROM HER NATIVE SWEDEN IN 2015 TO TAKE ON THE MANTLE OF DIRECTOR OF WHITE ARKITEKTER’S NEW LONDON STUDIO IN FASHIONABLE FITZROVIA. JUST EIGHT MONTHS INTO THE JOB, LINDA HAS CO-CREATED AN UNUSUAL YET INVITING POP-UP PAVILION, ‘THE MUSEUM OF MAKING’, FOR CLERKENWELL DESIGN WEEK THIS MAY. SHE EXPLAINS TO US THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE DESIGN – A TAKE ON A SWEDISH BARN IN AN URBAN STREET.
Over the 60 years since the practice was first founded by Sidney White in Gothenburg with the aim of improving quality of life for Swedish families,White has gained a formidable reputation for its holistic and democratic approach to architecture. A large concern with over 800 employees and 14 offices worldwide, it even employs its own social anthropologist! Linda gives us a remarkable example of where this particular specialism comes into its own, but you’ll have to read on for that.
Her current role with White seems perfectly in tune with her personal background, which is firmly rooted in progressive social practice thanks to the amazing humanitarian work of her parents (more on this later – they are inspiring stories… some minor family squabbles over toys notwithstanding). Linda also touches on lessons the profession could learn from the Swedes, her experiences as an art director at the Bauhaus in Berlin, And what her young daughter thought about London and its denizens when she first arrived from Stockholm. But first to Clerkenwell…
May was an exciting time for London-based designers with the annual Clerkenwell Design Week. This year, under your lead, The Museum of Making was created by White as part of the event. It is described as ‘an active space showcasing the haptic and social qualities of making’. Could you elaborate a little? And what do you see as the main message the pavilion is trying to conveyed?
We wanted to design a pavilion that was inviting and engaging. Clerkenwell has such a rich history, and the opportunity to collaborate with curator, Pete Collard, to expose fragments of this history, prompted us to design something which is embedded in Clerkenwell and a part of the street; a fluid space accessible on all sides, making it inviting to passersby.
The form of the pavilion also draws on the heritage of Scandinavian design using the archetype of the barn. We’ve accentuated the play of light in a typical traditional barn by spacing out its Equitone panels and allowing daylight to stream through the structure.
We used a broad spectrum of colours to distinguish each end of the pavilion. From Clerkenwell Road, bright blue and green panels denoted the vibrancy of Clerkenwell’s contemporary design scene; at the opposite end warm muted colours picked up the palette of the surrounding brickwork and reference Clerkenwell’s rich history of craft and industry. The sheltered space in the middle will hosted workshops that provided the opportunity to engage with local contemporary makers.
Is this the first time you’ve been involved in a project like this?
No, we’ve designed pop-up spaces in the past. For instance, a recycle pavilion in Stockholm where residents in the neighbourhood brought everday recyclables like cardboard and glass bottles, as well as furniture, which could be exchanged or upcycled, giving it a second life.
The project was a great success in energising the community in a collective activity. Similarly, we are keen for the Clerkenwell pavilion to have a life beyond the dates of the festival. The design is modular and easily demountable and could be re-purposed locally to benefit the neighbourhood. Weput out a call for ideas for its reuse in the lead up to the festival.
You joined White’s Stockholm office back in 2007, having previously run your own practice with your partner, Lukas, for 11 years. What made you want to switch to such a large practice?
Curiosity led me to work for a larger, more established practice. I was eager to learn more and to work on larger scale projects. In my own practice I had specialized in high-end residential projects, commercial interiors – both offices and hotels - and furniture design. So I guess it was the first step of getting closer to working on the scale of urban design.
Also, I wanted to broaden my understanding of how architects can work on a more political level. White Arkitekter has been pioneering in its approach to sustainability, designing resilient spaces and cities in a holistic way, and I wanted to be part of that.
Having joined, what were the first projects you worked on, and if you had to identify one key lesson from each of them, what would that be?
The first project I worked on was Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre, a mixed-use building featuring a 3,000-delegate conference centre, offices, and 400-room hotel on a prominent site neighbouring the central station and the harbour. In designing this project I learned a great deal about energy efficiency; the three buildings exchange energy and the cooling system uses the water from the nearby Klara sjö [a canal in central Stockholm].
My first project as lead architect was a new building for UR, the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company, which is part of the public service broadcasting group in Sweden. In the design process we worked closely with a usergroup of journalists and producers to determine the client’s needs and to explore opportunities. It was very satisfying to reconcile this in a final design which supports UR’s work and facilitates flexible team structures.
You’ve worked on some amazing designs for White, but do you have a personal favourite – one that’s a real stand-out for you?
One of my most recent projects, the Stockholm headquarters for pharmaceutical company Octapharma, completed just before I moved to London. The office occupies a former brewery building. Our design celebrates the expansive spaces with exposed wooden beams and plastered stonewalls and retains the large copper vessels originally used for brewing beer, incorporating them into modern, bright offices.
Copper, limestone and pine floors are combined with timeless classic furniture, creating a light-filled contemporary interior which reflects the values of Octapharma, a Swedish company which is family-owned but operates globally. I enjoyed the project immensly; it was very satisfying to work closely with my client to undertand their business and ambitions and meet the standards of the family, who were very much involved in the project.
Owned by its own employees, White enjoys an enviable reputation as an unusually humane and holistic environment in which to work. How has this helped you to grow as a designer?
White is owned by more than 800 employees, 122 of which are partners. It operates very much like a large academy. As an employee-owned practice we are proud to reinvest a substational part of our profit into our own research department, White Research Lab.
If we come across a research opportunity in our own projects, we can apply for funding to pursue it. Having the opportunity to invest and develop in order to reach a deeper knowledge of the location and the client or community that space serves will help ensure we reach the best solution.
So, as mentioned, White even employs its own social anthropologist! What is their role in the context of your designs, and should every practice have one?
Architecture is a multi-faceted discipline. Architects historically have been interpreters of society, observing and analysing and giving form to abstract thinking. In an age of technological innovation and fast paced urbanisation, it is vital that we do not lose sight of who we are building for. Just as sustainability experts have been part of our teams at White for the last decade, the input of an anthropologist provides a new perspective to help interpret and define the project goals.
In Kiruna for example - our most ambitious project to date - we are tasked with the challenge of moving an entire town in the north of Sweden before it is engulfed by subsidence caused by mining activity in the area. Here, anthropologist, Viktoria Walldin, is helping us to engage meaningfully with the residents so that everyone is included, and no-one feels left behind as we make the transformation of their city.
We’ve set up a pop-up office called Ett Arkitekt Kontor [which translates simply as An Architecture Office] in a disused travel agency in the existing town, which functions as a shop window and meeting place-cum-drop-in space for residents to find out how the project is progressing. The interiors have an ad-hoc informal aestethic, combining found objects and upcycled furniture reclaimed from the city as a symbol of the efforts we are making to retain the memories and character of the old town.
When White opened its London office in 2015, what made you choose to relocate with Lukas and your two children from Stockholm to the UK?
My partner and I are both architects and we have often said we have the whole world as our professional playground. Having worked as architects in Stockholm for 20 years we decided it was time for change.
The Swedish market is becoming increasingly internationalised and I wanted to challenge myself and gain experience in the global architecure scene. London is one of the greatest hubs for talent and expertise within architecture, so it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
We also wanted to broaden our children’s horizons. London is culturally so rich and diverse, attracting people from all over the world. I was very happy that my 11 year old daughter’s first comment on arriving in London was: “Oh, this is so nice, everybody is so different from each other here – not like in Sweden where everyone looks the same, like clones.”
It must be quite a contrast. What do you experience as a few of the big differences in culture? And what do you miss most about Sweden?
Living in London I truly miss the connection and accessibility to nature - I guess we Swedes really are children of nature. The main difference between London and Stockholm on an urban level is that it is just much bigger, messier, louder, and faster in all aspects.
On a social level I would say that London is much more business and commercially orientated, with a focus on private ownership over public gain. This contrasts with the traditional Swedish approach, which promotes sharing and collaboration.
In your view, what could the rest of the world learn from Scandinavian architecture and interior design philosophies?
A simplicity of design and the use of material and light to define space. Resourcefulness as well; us Swedes are very good at making something out of very little – which is of course a fundamental part of our approach to designing sustainable and resilient cities in an age of depleting resources.
Travel has always featured heavily in your life. You moved around extensively with your family when you were young, and your parents worked abroad on humanitarian aid projects. Can you give one or two examples of those projects, and explain how your parents have perhaps influenced your own path?
What I learned most is to appreciate what I have, to be open to opportunities and to share knowledge. With this approach the world has so much to offer. As for going abroad with my parents, I think spending time in the Philippines had a strong impact on me as it was the first time that I witnessed extreme poverty; it was a complete culture shock.
My mother has worked with communities in Afghanistan and Vietnam. On one project she worked with blind women, helping them set up their own businesses to become more independent. Acknowledging our own abilities and overcoming disability or challenges has always been a topic at home. This of course has influenced me as a designer.
My father worked in education, working with leaders of small villages to make them think of how they could collaborate and to be more efficient with their assets. And after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, he and I discussed architecture and how to rebuild housing facilities and so on in areas where he worked.
Going back further, when my father worked in East Asia on projects setting up kindergartens so that the women could go to work to support their families financially and ensure their own independence, he would always ask us to contribute by packing a suitcase with our spare toys and spare clothes for him to take with him. We used to have arguments on the definition of ‘spare’ toys, but in the end we were very proud to contribute!
Was there one toy you found particularly hard to part with?
I had some toy horses with manes of fake fur that were very smooth and tactile; I gave away one of them. I remember imagining children on the other side of the world playing with my toys and wearing my clothes, and I was proud to be able to share something with them. I guess it taught me that when you pass on something that you cherish it is a gesture that hopefully means so much more to the person receiving it.
It applies to architecture and design as well: if a building or interior is designed with conviction and care, it opens up more possibility for enjoyment of the client and end-user.
You lived in Berlin in the early 90s, working as an art director creating props and sets for a film production at the Bauhaus School in Dessau. That sounds like great fun – can you tell us a bit about it? What was your most memorable moment (good, bad, or a bit of both)?
It was a great experience being able to work in one of the workshops at the Bauhaus School, which has such an esteemed history. On one of the first days of the shoot we realised the space we had chosen – an aesthetic choice – was not at all practical and was far too small to accommodate the whole production crew - actors, camera and sound crews, scripts, assistants, costume, make-up, et cetera. We learnt quicky to consider the practicalities!
It was a great time to be in Berlin as so many projects were getting started across the city. I was recently back in Berlin visiting the art gallery, Sammlung Boros, a contemporary art collection in a former bunker. Once inside I realised I’d been there in the early 90s in its earlier, darker and stranger incarnation, when it hosted techno club parties! It has a completely different atmosphere now as an art gallery, but, for me, the memory still is embedded in that space.
What made you get involved in prop/set making at the Bauhaus – were you considering a career in that field?
At that time in the early 90s, Berlin was overpopulated with architects, arriving from all over the world. Most were working in the field of architecture but others were doing all kinds of things. The producer, director and writer were all Canadian architects that I knew, and they desperately needed a set and props designer on the team.
I had just had my first work experience in an architect's studio and was surprised to discover how little time was spent drawing and designing - even at a time when designs were hand drawn with ink and film - and how much time was spent on the phone, writing, and project administration. So when this opportunity arose to be hands-on making things, I just went for it! I had no experience in the film industry but I was living the dream doing my own thing in Berlin and the sky was the limit. I didn't hesitate a minute.
Whereabouts in London do you live now? What do you like about it, and what do you enjoy getting up to as a family on the weekends?
We live in north Barnes by Hammersmith bridge. It is like a small oasis in the city – I enjoy the walk across the bridge on the way home every day, leaving busy Hammersmith behind and wandering into the green surroundings of the south side of the bridge. It settles my busy mind.
We’ve been exploring London with the family, and are just starting to understand the importance of escaping the city on some weekends. Since we come from Stockholm, ‘the Nordic Venice’, we all miss the closeness to the sea and would like to travel to the coast more. Southend-on-Sea is of course not far away, where we can visit the Royal Pavilion at the end of the pier, White Arkitekter’s debut project in the UK.
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1 & 2: The Museum of Making – Clerkenwell Design Week
Img 3: Recycling Pavilion – Stockholm

Img 4: Stockholm Waterfront Congress
Img 5: Octapharma HQ – Stockholm
Img 6, 7 & 8: Kiruna Office – Sweden
Img 9: Royal Pavilion – Southend-on-Sea, UK