INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Tom Dyckhoff is an enthusiast, historian, writer and broadcaster about architecture, cities, design and places. Many of us will have seen him on television in his role as art and design critic for the BBC’s weekly arts programme, ‘The Culture Show’, alongside fellow presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon. The connection continues: Andrew hosted last year’s World Interiors News Awards at the Saatchi Gallery and, this year, we are delighted to announce that it’s Tom’s turn to do the honours at the glitzy gala awards evening in October.

Getting back to his story, having graduated from Oxford University and the Bartlett School of Architecture, Tom landed a job on the Prince of Wales’ architectural magazine, marking the launch of his impressive career. Since then he has written and presented many documentaries for British television and radio, including BBC2’s ‘The Great Interior Design Challenge’.

Tom has also written a weekly column for The Guardian newspaper’s Weekend magazine for more than a decade, and from 2003 to 2011, was architecture critic for The Times newspaper. He’s an Honorary Fellow of RIBA, a Trustee of the Architecture Foundation, and last year sat on the judging panel for the coveted Stirling Prize.

Here, Tom shares with us his thoughts on ‘starchitects’, the joy of Lego (and bollards), the vital importance of understanding the ‘science of environment’, his passion for ‘carbuncles’, the ‘horror and happiness’ of being RIBA’s exhibitions curator, the experience of writing his first book (slowly), and a childhood fascination with castles and cathedrals…

Firstly Tom, we’re delighted you’ll be hosting this year’s World Interiors News Awards at the Saatchi Gallery in London - we hope you’re looking forward to it? What’s your opinion of the venue, and what is the most inspiring exhibition or event you’ve attended there to date?

The Saatchi Gallery is a smashing example of new wine in old bottles, as it were – how an old building with a noble history can be reborn with a new design and a new purpose. I’ve seen a fair few showcases of Charles Saatchi’s art collections there over the years: I don’t always like what I see, but at least you can guarantee that they’ll be provocative.

I'm actually thrilled and fascinated to be presenting the World Interiors Awards at the Saatchi Gallery; fascinated because after a year looking at the best amateur designs for the Great Interior Design Challenge, I can't wait to see if the professionals are as good!

Moving on to one of your current projects, every architect will be familiar with Sir Banister Fletcher’s great reference work ‘A History of Architecture’. He produced the 16th edition just before his death in 1956 but the book’s evolution has continued since. Dan Cruickshank edited the 20th edition back in 1996, and now you are editing the 21st in your senior research role at Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. How is that going, and what are some of the greatest challenges?

I’m knee-deep in appointing the dozens of scholars from around the world to write the 90-odd chapters, so my head’s swimming with experts in ancient Mesopotamia and 15th century Portuguese architecture! A bit bamboozling. The big challenge is the root-and-branch re-writing that we’re embarking on. It hasn’t been thoroughly updated in several decades, so both the content and the way it is presented has to be completely rethought…the way in which we write history and the history itself has changed enormously.

Obviously things will have changed considerably over the last 18 years. What are some of the most dramatic new trends and innovations you’ve seen emerge since the 20th edition of the book?

The 20 years since the last edition neatly corresponds to my time as an architectural critic and historian, during which there has been a constantly unfolding revolution in both architecture and the media, thanks to the computer and the internet. I have seen both my job, as a writer and broadcaster, and what I write and broadcast about – architecture – utterly change beyond all recognition. It is like standing on constantly shifting sands. The computer as a tool in both designing buildings and writing about them is changing the very nature of buildings AND writing. We live in interesting times.

And when will the new edition be available?

Not until Autumn 2016. Publishing is still relatively slow!

Turning to your television work next, let’s start with ‘The Great Interior Design Challenge’ on BBC2. The 12-part programme, which aired earlier this year, tasked 24 keen amateur designers with transforming the homes of willing – if a little nervous – ‘guinea pigs’. What were some of the highlights of working on the series for you, and what do you think made some designers more successful than others?

I loved working with the whole team – judges Dan and Sophie, the huge TV crew and the builders and decorators. It was immense fun. And it’s always inspiring to be in the presence of emerging talent. You can just see that talent unfurling over the series. Some people just have an ‘eye’ for design, and the ability to translate that into practical action. It is a huge, huge, innate talent, and the series was great in winkling that out. But in the end it’s the designers themselves who, to be successful, have to have that drive to not just reveal their talents, but act on them. Ambition, an eye, and practical project skills all combine to great effect in those who got through to the quarters and beyond.

We understand you’re currently writing and presenting documentaries for BBC2 and Radio 4 on architecture for animals, and Lego and architecture. They sound very intriguing subjects – what inspired you to choose them? (And did you love Lego when you were little?)

I have a young son, two years old, and he’s opening my jaded middle-aged eyes to the world again. It’s transformative, of course, becoming a parent, but what I never expected was how it makes you look at the world you thought you knew with fresh eyes. And the world of childhood is packed with animals and Lego! Yes, I loved Lego as a kid, though, being fairly badly coordinated, was pretty terrible at it.

Moving on to your role as The Culture Show’s architecture and design critic, you’ve interviewed some great icons, including Frank Gehry and the late Oscar Niemeyer. Taking each in turn, what impressed you most about what they had to say, and what do you admire most about their work?

I admire Frank Gehry’s ability to remain a child, even into his 80s; he is extraordinarily playful and naïve, in a good way. Oscar Niemeyer: meeting him was like connecting with a chunk of long-past history – the modernism of the 1920s and 1930s – that I thought was long gone. The fact that he was still working on projects past his 100th year was frankly mind-boggling. In both men, life and creativity burn fiercely.

Which other world-famous architects/designers would you like to interview in future, and why?

Do you know, I’d rather interview the more un-famous designers! I’m extremely interested in unearthing a whole heap of architects who were working in the 1970s, and are still working, but who haven’t become ‘starchitects’. Plus I’d love to spend time in China and Latin America and get to know their emerging architects. That’s where the most fascinating changes in architecture are occurring.

What sort of changes are occurring there?

The best architecture goes where the money and the willpower are. Both are evident in China and Latin America. In the former you're seeing incredible, almost unbelievable architectural visions matched by the huge amount of money and the advanced technology required to build them; in the latter some visionary politics is connecting with ambitious young architects to bring about very socially engaged design.

You’ve also written and presented documentaries for Channel 4, including the compelling series ‘The Secret Life of Buildings’ which examined the effects of architecture on our brains and bodies. What, for you, were some of the most striking conclusions you reached?

That the nature of space – the basic things like light, space, height, depth, character – can have a vast impact on how our bodies and brains develop, and yet A) we still know so little about it, and B) the people who design the spaces we live in – architects, developers, planners, politicians – know worryingly little about the science of environments and how they impact us. The hard scientific proof that the environment outside our body affects what goes on inside it has only been truly discovered in the past 15 years; but it worries me that we’re training generations of architects who know absolutely nothing about it.

And now a question about an apparent paradox please. You started your career at ‘Perspectives’, the Prince of Wales’ architectural magazine. This is the same Prince of Wales who famously described Peter Ahrends’ design for a modern extension to the National Gallery as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’. However, you later admitted your passion for concrete Brutalism in Channel 4’s ‘I Love Carbuncles’. Is that something you had to keep under wraps when you were working at Perspectives?

Not at all. I was employed as a rookie out of university precisely because I’d specialised in 19th and 20th century architectural history. My boss there was a fantastically open-minded historian, Giles Worsley. He died tragically young a few years ago, but I remember him as a wonderful man who, though he was a specialist in the kind of classical architecture you’d expect from the Prince Charles crew, saw that quality in architecture wasn’t limited to one style or another.

And what are your three favourite examples of concrete Brutalism?

Almost impossible! I love the house designed by Brian Housden in Hampstead, north London. Not many people know about Brian’s work: it’s a fantastic, sophisticated design. I’d like to get to know the work of the American Paul Rudolph better. It’s a stretch, perhaps, to call Louis Kahn a brutalist, but I think I will: in which case the Salk Institute in San Diego.

After Perspectives you became exhibitions curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects. Can you tell us about two or three of your favourite exhibits from that time?

I look back on my time there with horror and happiness. Horror because I had no idea what I was doing, had no experience in curating and had 50 exhibitions a year to put on. Happiness because the RIBA is full of fantastic, generous people, and I learned a lot in a short amount of time. I loved being able to put together whole seasons of connected exhibitions, talks and events both themed and topical. I did one on the nature of ‘home’, and another on political radicalism in architecture - both of which I was very proud of.

As well as writing/presenting, research, and journalism, you’ve also written a number of published essays covering architectural topics from the London 2012 Olympics to the rise and fall of loft-living in London. You’re now writing your first book, which looks at contemporary architecture and cities. You describe yourself as writing the book ‘extremely slowly’! Why is that the case? Is it just down to a hectic schedule?

Well, unless you are a famous novelist (I’m not) and get a huge advance (I didn’t) from a publisher, writing a book is more a labour of love. It certainly doesn’t pay the rent. And living in London demands a lot of rent! So it’s hard to find the chunk of time necessary to sit in a quiet office and just write. But I’m hoping to finish the writing by the end of this year.

Regardless, are you enjoying the process of writing a full-length publication?

It’s wonderful, when I can, to take the time to really think. Most of what I have done has been for newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, very fast paced and short and snappy with horrible deadlines. It has been good, but hard, to train my brain to think more long term, long-format and slowly.

Your ‘Let’s move to’ column in The Guardian newspaper explores different towns and cities across the UK and what it’s like to live there. Although you live in London, if you didn’t, which of the places you’ve written about would you move to and why?

I’m extremely fond of the Kent and Sussex coast, both because it’s the nearest bit of sea to where I live in London, and it’s where the Dyckhoffs are from (after they came across from Holland in the 17th century), so I have that family connection. Rye, Hastings, Broadstairs, Deal. My wife is from North Yorkshire, and I’ve got to know the Dales and Moors well: I think Yorkshire is utterly beautiful, and the people are brilliantly blunt, confident and friendly. If my work didn’t keep me in London, I’d move to Yorkshire in a flash.

You clearly love to eat, sleep and breathe architecture and its story. Where and when did this grand passion all begin? Who or what inspired you?

This fascination is very peculiar. There’s no family connection at all. I like to say that I’m not so much fascinated by architecture as space and landscape. I am immensely interested in cities, streets, countryside, geography. Architecture is one part of that: the art, if you like, of space. As a little kid my mum and dad always took the family on day trips to old towns, cathedrals, castles and the like, and, for some odd reason, I was always fascinated by them more than most. What an odd kid I must have been: not interested in football or video games. I would pore over old maps and guide books, make my own fantasy towns and buildings, and, I’m told by my aunty, used to cry as a little boy if we went past a church and wasn’t allowed in to see inside. “I always knew you were either going to be into architecture, or become a vicar,” she said.

When you were younger, did you ever consider a different career path, and if so, what?

For a time. When I was 16 or so I had no idea what an architect was, really, and had no personal connection. I knew I was interested in geography, maps and drawing, on the one hand, and writing and literature on the other. Had I received better career advice at school I might have been nudged to apply to architecture school. I didn’t, so I was nudged into studying English literature at Oxford University: after 18 months I knew it was the wrong decision. There is no architecture faculty at Oxford, so I changed course to the next best thing: geography, and then did a Masters in architectural history. But there’s a bit of me that wonders what kind of architect I might have been (probably terrible, I’m an awful project manager), or what kind of straight writer or maybe novelist I might have ended up being. As it is I’ve probably ended up doing what my skills and interest best point to.

Your website summarises you as “Enthusiast, writer and broadcaster. Architecture, cities, places and other interesting things”. Would it be rude to enquire what some of those other interesting things might be please?

Well, I love food, and am very fascinated by the connection between places, geography and what we eat. But Britain is in the middle of a huge food renaissance right now and certainly doesn’t need another food writer and enthusiast: there are plenty around doing a great job already. I’m interested in the ephemera of almost anything to do with places and towns and landscapes, from local history to politics to farming to why bollards look they the way they do. What can I say? I’m an inquisitive chap.

And in your (presumably) rare moments of free time, how do you like to unwind?

I like being silly with my son. I like staring aimlessly out of the window (train journeys are perfect: I rarely read a book or listen to music on a train. I just stare out at what passes by). I like cooking. I like eating even more. I like going to the cinema. I like taking my wife out for a night on the tiles. I like wandering around cities early in the morning. I like spontaneous day trips, particularly to the seaside. The one thing I love deeply but have never had time to really explore, is photography. I am perhaps almost at my happiest with time to spare and a camera in my hand.

Gail Taylor