Radical Thinking: Tom Jones of Populous

We spoke to Tom Jones of Populous about the radical thinkers that have proved most inspiring

Can you pinpoint the thought that led you to a career in design?

It was very much my design teacher at secondary school encouraging me to enter a competition in the local newspaper to design a house for the year 2000 – which I won! I was hooked. So when I finished school, instead of taking over the family farm I packed my bags and went off to study architecture at university.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?

For me, I look to what I’d call early modernism, which is the early part of the 20th century. Early modernism created so many different alternatives to the standard forms of design and construction. It also resulted in this really wide spectrum of work – from the industrial-style aesthetic of Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies to the organic forms created by Aalto and Wright.

Which radical thinkers have been an inspiration to you in your career?

Frank Lloyd Wright. Because he designed everything – from houses to museums and public buildings – creating a wide variety of design solutions to respond to the requirements of each site and brief.

But also Edward de Bono. He pioneered ‘lateral thinking’ as an approach to problem solving, which is approaching a problem from completely the opposite direction from where you think you should, and seeing what that unlocks. Often when you hit a design problem you have to really make a conscious effort to approach it from the other direction to find the best solution.

Edward de Bono’s approach to solving problems was to tackle them ‘from completely the opposite direction from where you think you should’Edward de Bono’s approach to solving problems was to tackle them ‘from completely the opposite direction from where you think you should’

Which radical thinkers inspire you the most now?

I’ve always found Bjarke Ingels very inspiring. He breaks the norms and conventions of a building type. My favourite work of his is the Amager Bakke Waste-To-Energy Plant, which has a dry ski slope on the roof! He works with a real sense of fun and freedom, but at the same time he manages to challenge conventions.

Who can architects and designers learn from outside the industry?

I’m a big admirer of Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer and for many years the power behind Steve Jobs’ throne. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in your field?

Developments in AR and VR will continue to revolutionise the way we can visualise design for our clients. These technologies allow us to create a digital environment where our clients are able to walk the virtual halls of the buildings we’re designing for them, providing a greater interaction in the design process and allowing them to experience exactly what they’ll be like when built.

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?

Ayn Rand wrote a book called The Fountainhead, which I was recommended when I was an architecture student. The protagonist is a young architect called Howard Roark, whose philosophy is all about purity of design and refusal to compromise. One of Roark’s former classmates, called Peter Keating, becomes extremely successful by following popular styles, but his projects fall short in Roark’s eyes because he’s not an original thinker, an innovator. Those two characters represent the dilemma that I’ve experienced in all of the big design projects I’ve been part of – both listening to but also challenging the client as you go through the design process.

Could you name two buildings/pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?

Fallingwater, a house in Pennsylvania by Frank Lloyd Wright, is an incredible blend of technical innovation and architectural beauty that is yet to be surpassed in my eyes. Sometimes you can be disappointed by a building when you see it in the flesh for the first time, but Fallingwater completely blew me away when I visited it.

And Le Corbusier’s iconic reimagining of the chaise longue, a traditional piece of French furniture similar to a sofa but with a backrest only at one end. He created it almost 100 years ago and it still stands as a piece of design excellence today.

Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright

I think best with…

My year at architecture school was the last that wasn’t taught to design with CAD, so for me it’s definitely with tracing paper and a pen.

I think best…

I’m very much a night owl, which is probably a hangover from my architectural education when I’d work late into the night to finish my design work. Also, what I find now is that late in the evening is the one time of day when I’m not distracted by everything else that’s going on around. I find I do my best design work when I have the time and headspace to think.

I think best when…

When I’m working through a design problem I need to be able to mull it over. Usually, when I’m waking up in the morning, after I’ve had the time to really understand the problem and process, is when I come up with my best ideas. It doesn’t tend to be a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me.

The thought that keeps me awake during the night is...

Meeting deadlines. And whether things are going to fit on site or if we’ve made a mistake in our technical drawings.

The thought that gets me out of bed each day is...

For me, it’s the excitement of having a really good creative idea. If I think of the times I’ve come into the office buzzing, it’s when we’ve been working on something really exciting and I’ve had a new idea or thought of a new approach that will make a real difference to the project.

Do you like to think with, or think against?

I wouldn’t say my mindset is to think with or against a client, or a colleague for that matter. I like to think back and forth, bouncing around ideas until you settle in the right place. It’s not about compromise or finding the middle ground; it’s very much about arriving at the best possible solution.

If you weren’t a designer/architect, where do you think your way of thinking would have led you?

I’m from a farming family, and I enjoy wine, so I think I’d be planting vineyards in the Shropshire hills.

Describe radical thinking in three words

Entertaining the impossible.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across today or this week?

I was really taken by a story that said hydrogen-powered trains could be running on British railways as early as 2022. They’re essentially mini power plants on wheels. When most people think about cutting CO2 emissions in the transport industry they think about electric cars, but public transport is a really important part of that equation and these trains have the potential to cut the rail industry’s CO2 emissions massively. Phasing them in will take years, not decades.

Tom Jones is a senior principal in the London office of Populous, where he has played a leading role in the design and delivery of projects such as the Emirates Stadium and the Olympic Stadium, and was project architect for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. He is a member of the UK Government Sports Economy Sector Advisory Group and sits on the executive board of the International Association of Sports and Leisure Facilities (IAKS). He has a keen interest in how sports and cultural buildings can enhance cities.

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