GORT SCOTT AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JAY GORT - JAY GORT IS DIRECTOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN DESIGN EXPERTS, GORT SCOTT, BASED IN DALSTON, EAST LONDON. TO DESCRIBE HIS CAREER AS ILLUSTRIOUS IS NO EXAGGERATION. HE HAS BEEN DIRECTOR OF STUDIES AT THE FITZWILLIAM COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE AND BA DESIGN STUDIO LEADER AT CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, WHERE HE WAS MADE A FELLOW OF DESIGN IN 2007. HE HAS ALSO SPENT TIME AS A VISITING ART CRITIC TO RENOWNED INSTITUTIONS SUCH AS THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF ART AND AA DIPLOMA SCHOOL IN LONDON, AND IS NOW AN EXAMINER AT LONDON METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY.
It therefore goes without saying that we’re thrilled to number Jay among our judges on no less than three of our WIN Awards categories this year: Public Sector, Leisure or Entertainment Venues, and Museum or Exhibition Spaces. Read on to find out what he’ll be expecting from the submissions...
In talking to Jay, it soon becomes clear that there is no typical Gort Scott project. However, the approach is the same regardless, and he explains to us how his years as a teacher helped shape his own development as an architect. Recent projects include the Wembley WC Pavilion, the Mayfair flagship store for Swedish fashion house, Acne, a pub in Cambridge, and a public realm design project in Bankside near the Tate Modern.
But now without further ado, it’s over to Jay to hear his fascinating story - from early days studying sculpture and happy times in a French monastery to his current involvement in a famous market street in London’s Brixton (immortalised in song by Eddy Grant) and his undying passion for football…
Over the course of your career, the credentials you have acquired are extremely impressive. What personal qualities do you think made you qualify for such prestigious roles in academia?
The way into teaching came through the passion and energy I put into my own studies at Cambridge University. I then found teaching architecture to be instrumental in formulating my approach to design of cities, buildings, rooms and landscapes. Teaching has also taught me a great deal about teamwork and how to communicate effectively; skills that in themselves led to being appointed to such other roles.
I feel honoured to be the external examiner for Architecture Part 2 at London Metropolitan University’s Cass School of Architecture this year, as there are currently such talented tutors and students within this institution. I think my appointment was down to experience of both teaching and our work in practice.
As one of our respected WIN Awards judges, what will your expert eye be looking out for in submissions across the three important sectors you’ll be considering?
There will not be any prescribed criteria. However, I will be looking at how the submissions create spaces which have an excellent relationship to their users, create appropriate and inspiring atmospheres and contribute in a progressive manner to their type.
Is there anything exciting coming up in the pipeline for Gort Scott?
Yes, our project for St Hildas College in Oxford, which we won in a competition a couple of months ago, is incredibly exciting for us. This is a unique chance to reconsider an Oxford College; its entrance, gardens, buildings, student accommodation, conference facilities - in a wonderful riverside setting.
Gort Scott has worked on some truly ‘out there’ projects – from Cambridgeshire’s first ever dedicated cat care clinic to the fabulous Wembley WCs – surely the most exotic public convenience in London, if not the UK, with its gold perforated metal façade. Of all your public sector projects, do you have a personal favourite, and what makes it so?
It is difficult to single out one project - I see our work as a part of a continuity. All of our current projects, from designs for Electric Avenue in Brixton through to larger projects we are currently working on - such as a mixed use tower in Southall - all begin from a similar approach to thinking about the city.
If I was forced to pick one out it might be the toilets, simply because it was very satisfying to end up delivering quite a unique project, for a very strict budget, that was in the end very similar to the original competition-winning design.
Electric Avenue sounds a very interesting project. Can you elaborate a little about what Gort Scott is doing in this historic market location?
Here we’re essentially looking at public realm and a masterplan for the streets around Electric Avenue, which is that fantastic sweeping curve of red-brick terraces. What we’re doing is putting down a new surface, some new market stalls and also some new artwork and signage. It’s been a very politically charged project in an area that’s undergoing a lot of change at the moment. We’re trying to anchor this space for local residents and market traders.
I think our work on Electric Avenue illustrates the really diverse and exciting range of projects we’re handling. You’ve got that, then you’ve got St Hilda’s College in Oxford at the other end of the spectrum, and then, for example, we’re working on a very significant new-build house in Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. It’s set in the foothills of a mountain, overlooking a lake – it’s a really exciting project, which we also won through a competition.
You mentioned earlier that teaching has been instrumental in your own development as an architect. How so?
When you first start teaching a studio unit, and when you haven’t yet set up your own practice, it becomes a sort of outlet for formulating your own ideas and approach to design. You have to set the briefs quite carefully, and think a lot about the projects you set and the sites that you set and the means of testing ideas.
For example, one of our early teaching projects was in Abbey Wood – an area in the hinterlands of London, the outer part – and we were dealing with issues of the High Street there, which then led us to do a lot of work looking at high streets. The site was also on the edge of a large park, so we looked at landscape and topography issues as well.
We started to formulate some of the things we were interested in and a way of working in which, for example, you might start by considering the outer form and appearance of a building in a scale of 1:500; then at the same time we were asking students to start imagining and collaging the interiors of this building. Then the two different paths of designing would push and pull on one another and form the outer, final building.
And I think that’s very much how we actually work in practice as well; by considering the strategic scale and how a building will appear from the street and how it makes a contribution to the setting in which it’s placed. At the same time we’ll also start by considering what the interior might be like: what’s the light like, what materials might work, the scale of the interior spaces, all before we really even design the building.
You’ve also been quoted as saying that atmosphere is a tremendously important influence on Gort Scott’s work. Can you elaborate on that a little please?
I am fascinated by how the light, scale, materials, structure and location of a room or oudoor space influences it’s atmosphere; how we actually feel in that space. The skill of the architect is in learning how to work and play with these spatial qualities in order to create the right sort of atmosphere for the occasion. The buildings which have moved me most are those which create distinctive experiences, such as Corbusier’s famous monastery, La Tourette [near Lyon, France], or the work of Lewerentz. I am less motivated by aesthetics and formal compositions.
What makes La Tourette work so well for you?
Well, it’s very interesting because although it does create an incredibly tranquil place for contemplation, the architecture is actually quite violent. It really contrasts, and yet works so well, with the hill it sits on. It’s as though the building and the hill bring out the best in one another in that setting. It’s somewhere you feel removed yet connected at the same time.
The convent actually combines a whole series of different spatial qualities, or atmospheres, ranging from cave-like spaces at the bottom of the large Chapel with just small glimmers of light filtering down, to light-filled spaces for dining which overlook the valley. And then within the courtyard a series of different spaces where Corbusier is playing with light, playing with scale, and suggesting whether it’s space to be moved through or somewhere to sit and dwell for a while.
I just think it’s a masterly play of using architecture and stretching it in all sorts of ways using a single material - concrete with a bit of colour - to really quite dramatic effect. It deals with many oppositions: it’s calm but also violent, it is very rationally laid out yet also completely sculptural and irrational. It provokes you to want to move around and experience the whole space, and I know it’s really well loved by the monks.
We understand that there is a smaller population of friars these days but that visitors can stay overnight in a limited number of unused cells. Have you done this and what was it like?
Yes, I’ve stayed there a few different times – once when I was doing research for my undergraduate dissertation, another time when I took my students on a field trip. It’s a great place to stay – really lovely. The first time I went, about 20 years ago, I was the only guest there for the four nights I stayed. Now it’s better known as an overnight destination – you can book on-line!
You do stay in one of the cells - a long, thin room which is quite dark where you first enter. There’s a small, simple sink there, a bed, and a desk. You all eat together with the brothers and you’re always made very welcome. I just love wondering around there, sketching the building. You could never become bored with it as an architect!
You met co-founder of Gort Scott, Fiona Scott, in 2007 at Cambridge. How did your paths first cross, and what led you into partnership?
We sat next to each other as undergraduates! Since then we have forged a strong shared understanding of architecture and a deep respect for each others’ opinions. We began teaching together, entering competitions, and from there setting up practice became an obvious next step.
Prior to that, you were Associate Director at 5th Studio – a Cambridge-based architecture and urban design practice. What was it like working with Tom Holbrook and Oliver Smith?
I had a great and enriching time with Tom and Oli. I remember distinctly spending a lot of time designing and thinking through making, good debate, and prolonged coffee sessions in the mornings!
Can you give an example of a particularly interesting or challenging project you were involved in devising over coffee?
There was a nice project that was on-going for quite a while, which unfortunately never got built, but was very enjoyable. It was looking at an old paper mill in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire – it was still a working mill, full of steam and all the machines actually making the paper – with the idea of making it into a museum and work spaces.
Winding back the clock still further, you took a foundation course in sculpture prior to attending Cambridge University to study architecture. Why sculpture? And why the progression into architecture?
I found a passion for making relationships between form, space and people. There was a time that I felt I might pursue sculpture but then through the course became increasingly interested in the experiential, sensual effects of spaces and building.
Where were you born and raised, and who or what inspired your aspirations as an artist and architect early on?
I was born in Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport [near Manchester]. My Mum always encouraged my love for drawing and the satisfaction I found in making things.
How do you like to unwind after a hectic week, and where might we find you out of hours?
Other than my family, friends and architecture my other great love is for football. I’m still just about playing 11-a-side every week!
Do tell us more about the team…
The team’s called City of London FC, we’re based in Catford [south London], and I’m the goal-keeper. I’ve always made time for football, even though I’m extremely busy now in practice and with my family. It has always been a great release to play every week.
What Premiere League team do you support, if any?
I’m sorry to say that it’s Manchester United. I’m from up that way originally, and really I should support Stockport County as I was born in Stockport, but I don’t. It’s Man U.
Gail Taylor
Images:

Img 1: Wembley WC Pavilion
Img 2: Image of Acne Flagship Store in Mayfair
Img 3: Wembley WC Pavilion
Img 4: St Hilda’s College, Oxford
Img 5: Cambridge Cat Clinic
Img 6: Electric Avenue, Brixton
Img 7: Electric Avenue, Brixton
Img 8: New Build House in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
Img 9: Jay playing football