Sadie Morgan: ‘We used to have a voice in government; people would listen to architects’

One of the ‘M’s in dRMM, we catch up with Sadie Morgan, following the devastating sale of the practice’s Stirling Prize award-winning project, Hastings Pier, to a private owner. She shares her thoughts on the community project’s future, as well as the industry at-large

Words by Ellen Peirson

When spending time with Sadie Morgan, it is immediately clear that her default position on her work and career is care. Care for an industry that is far from perfect; for the communities she and her practice dRMM work with, not for; for a nation divided over the move from publicly funded to privately procured projects.

Talking about developers and their role in today’s ever-privatised industry, Morgan constantly seeks to see the good, where others condemn. ‘There are plenty of very good developers who understand the importance of public realm and creative spaces or culture in their developments, and who are actively working to make that happen and make those spaces,’ she says. This unique standpoint is embedded in realism and recognition of the political and economic landscape we live in.

One of the ‘M’s in dRMM, Morgan co-founded the practice with Alex de Rijke and Philip Marsh, fellow students at Kingston Polytechnic, founding DRMM Architects in 1995, Morgan continues: ‘I think we need to be more generous to developers. The public purse can’t afford to do much anymore, and yet we all want more.’ She poses: If not this, then what?

Seven years of dRMM working with the community on rebuilding Hastings Pier culminated in it winning last year’s Stirling Prize. Image Credit: Hastings Pier CharityImage Credit: Hastings Pier Charity

This view is particularly poignant in the wake of dRMM’s Hastings Pier falling out of community ownership and into that of hotelier Sheikh Abid Gulzar, who also owns Eastbourne Pier. The redevelopment was completed in 2016 after a fire destroyed the previous pier. The project belonged to the community but dRMM also had a huge sense of ownership over it. ‘For seven years we worked with the community and it’s been an extraordinary process of curating their ideas and trying to make a place and space that’s really deeply embedded in the community but offers something that’s extraordinary and ambitious,’ Morgan says. This hard work and dedication was celebrated in Hastings Pier winning the Stirling Prize last year.

The news that the pier had been sold was devastating for the practice, having donated its fees for the next stage of the project in a bid to show it was just as committed to the project as the community – it was never about getting another commission for dRMM, says Morgan.

On the future of Hastings Pier, she remains positive, however. Morgan has huge faith in the community that rebuilt the pier out of the ashes. ‘I think that the spirit of that pier is in the community. If you have a regime that is going to close it or is going to...charge money to go on it, I don’t think the community will accept that. I think they’ll vote with their feet. I don’t think the story’s over at all,’ she says.

In a male-dominated sector, dRMM has consistently maintained an equal gender balance. Morgan explains that this is never something that the practice has had to try to achieve. What it does endeavour to do is strive for a workplace that nurtures a healthy work environment for its talented women. Morgan says: ‘We’ve taken steps in thinking about our maternity arrangements, our maternity pay, our opportunities for more flexible working. It would be wrong to say we haven’t taken steps but that’s generally about maintaining the gender balance, rather than actively seeking to employ more women than men.’

In the wider industry, Morgan is characteristically optimistic about the future of women in architecture. She talks highly of today’s young designers and the networks created where ‘women are doing it for themselves, as we always do. I think that we have huge strength in numbers and I think that our voice is heard, but we need to make sure that the doors are open’.

Seven years of dRMM working with the community on rebuilding Hastings Pier culminated in it winning last year’s Stirling Prize. Image Credit: James Robert ShawImage Credit: James Robert Shaw

As a founding director of dRMM Morgan would be a huge success if her biography stopped there. But in her work outside the practice she has built herself a trusted political voice. She says: ‘I’m a great believer that as creative people, architects and designers are problem solvers because they can see things three dimensionally. But we don’t often think about that skill and use it in a political dimension and the architectural voice in policy making has been lost.’ For Morgan, it is the incredible team of designers, problem solvers and thinkers at dRMM that can be trusted to lead and deliver dRMM’s projects that enables Morgan to use this voice.

Morgan has a key role on the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) as the only designer on the panel. The NIC was established to remove politics from decision-making on large-scale infrastructure investments, with the goal that the investment should improve quality of life. Morgan is resolute that the role of design on this panel is not just about aesthetics. ‘It’s about problem solving. It’s making sure that these big infrastructure projects touch down on people and on place; that we think about the communities they affect, about the environs in which they will sit. And we try to make sure that we see the project holistically, rather then just as, say, a railway or a flood defence.’

Morgan is an advocate for the beauty in the ordinary, stressing that while there will be powerful, iconic structures for HS2, it is important to see between these and look at the potential of the everyday spaces. It is this holistic approach that Morgan believes has the power to change lives and is essential to creating large infrastructural projects that work for everyone.

‘If you have that eye on quality and on a holistic approach, then you will deliver something that’s beautiful. You can’t help but do it.’

As a member of the NIC, chair of the independent design panel for HS2 and deputy chair of the Thames Estuary Commission, Morgan was an obvious choice as one of the London Mayor’s newly appointed Design Advocates. She describes the role as an advisory one – not revolutionary – praising mayor Sadiq Khan and his team in their ambitious rewriting of the London Plan. ‘In a sense the London Plan is their pitch to make and change things for the better and I think what the Mayor’s Design Advocates can do is to help make that happen. That will involve changes in many different aspects of policies and planning’.

Add to those roles non-executive director of the Major Projects Association, Professor of Professional Practice at London University of Westminster, and a Fellow of the UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In each of them, Morgan is actively concerned with the future: the future of architecture, of planning, of policy-making, and of cities. She recalls the time when architects were a part of the conversation when it came to influencing the built environment on a larger scale: ‘We used to have a voice in government; people would listen to architects in a way...Tell me who is actually fighting the causes for that matter – making sure that politicians understand the importance of place making or of overlaying infrastructure in a way that makes sense for our cities?’ There was a time when architects were at the table having these conversations, she says, but now ‘no one even thinks to invite us’.

From her time on the NIC Morgan believes that there is still a desire to have these conversations within the industry about cities and neighbourhoods – ‘I just think we need to be much more proactive, much more vocal, and much more collaborative in solving some of the really big issues of the world’.

Morgan talks of the industry like a tired machine, at a standstill between a time when an architect’s voice demanded authority and a future where the role of the architect is obsolete. In this uncertain time, the industry should give thanks to Morgan for having a voice – and using it.

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