Radical Thinking

Richard Parr of Richard Parr Associates considers his journey through radical thinking.

Can you pinpoint the thought, whether yours or someone else’s, that led you to design?

I have always been drawn to beautiful things and that has never been restricted to buildings, but rather a holistic interest and view of life including everything from furniture to food. Essentially, I have a visual curiosity.

I remember a family holiday to Italy as a very small child, we drove over the Alps in the early morning and I recall waking up (before the era of seat belts) to views of hillside villas and the North Italian landscape – I guess this is how the grand tour travellers must have felt.

It could have been Como, Garda or Lugano – I don’t know exactly but I still recall the excitement of being exposed to amazing places at such an early age.

I think being an architect was always in me. My memory is a little hazy when stretching back to my childhood, but I remember that I always wanted to create three-dimensionally. My schoolbooks were always full of great sketches of buildings even if the spelling and sums were poor!

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

I am a big enthusiast of post-war design. Hardship and necessity, or indeed absence, is the greatest catalyst for thinking and creativity, be it art, design or architecture.

I make no secret of my admiration for post-war Italy through to the 80s – Ponti to Memphis. What a kaleidoscope of radicalism.

Post-war Britain is a much overlooked era. Whilst not quite as glamorous, it is, nonetheless, as radical in its inventiveness and reaction to changing society.

I recently visited the Anthony Caro Foundation in Campden and was mesmerised by the power of his work. Drawing on the landscape and destruction of post-war London, salvaging from scrap yards, recycling when it was a necessity not a trend…and what came out of this was a revolutionary rejection of sculpture as it had previously been known. This thinking was applied across the board.

I hold Coventry Cathedral as one of the high points of British 20th century design, combining the renaissance of a bomb site by Sir Basil Spence with the wave of mid-century artists from Piper to Sutherland.

The Earth, The Temple and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture by Vincent Scully.The Earth, The Temple and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture by Vincent Scully.

Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?

When I was at university and the Architectural Association were at the height of post modernism. Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi, Charles Jencks on one hand and whilst the idea of extraction from the past and particularly Rossi’s distillation of memory interested me, it inspired me to take a different route with my own practice. I didn’t like the outcome of any of those architects and my thinking was a reaction to it. Any architect whose work is respected is also a thinker, so who and what inspires me? Th e following have all grown out of their very individual national or regional worlds and many have adapted and adopted to international briefs applying their thinking to context with astounding results. Alvaro Siza, Carlo Scarpa, Peter Zumthor, Kengo Kuma, Gio Ponti to name a few of my ‘influencers’.

Who are the radical thinkers who inspire you now? (Not necessarily forever or for a lifetime – just now!)

Please see above

Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?

I am interested in the culture around food and if there are any elements that we can learn from, including new attitudes within food production and preparation.

Watercolor drawing landscape view of Dolomites Italy, alps siusi at Ortisei Italy. Image Credit: my golden life / shutterstock.comWatercolor drawing landscape view of Dolomites Italy, alps siusi at Ortisei Italy. Image Credit: my golden life / shutterstock.com

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

We work with ambitious clients where we apply our approach of modern traditionalism, emphasising craft, local materials and context. This approach is our starting point behind any project, and is our first step to becoming more consumer and environmentally conscious. We can only lead by example and preserving identity and working with a planet friendly ethos is our initial contribution.

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

I am not really a reader. I am more visual and understanding a sense of place is always my starting point. I am intrigued by rituals and that can be as simple as making coffee, conversations between people or family and/ or individual life.

The buildings that we design are choreographed around our client’s daily rituals, couple this with a profound understanding of the landscapes that we build upon and I am taken back to a book I read as a student, The Earth, The Temple and The Gods by Vincent Scully. I am not designing Greek temples, but I am creating worlds rooted in the earth, responding to life’s rituals with high aspirations!

Richard Parr felt drawn to the beautiful landscapes of northern Italy as a child. Image Credit: negovura31 / shutterstock.comRichard Parr felt drawn to the beautiful landscapes of northern Italy as a child. Image Credit: negovura31 / shutterstock.com

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

Franco Albini’s Veliero bookcase, and Corbusier’s Ronchamp.

I think best with… (e.g. my hands/a pencil/ with a computer)

With a pile of large sheets of tissue paper and crayons.

I think best… (e.g. first thing in the morning/last thing at night)

I get the best ideas when I am running... although they may be fleeting thoughts, I take them back to the studio for development. I find Sunday to be the best day of the week for thinking, when I am surrounded by nature, weather, music and books. It is when the world is at its quietest and I am focused.

I think best when… (e.g. in a gallery/at home/outside/over drinks/with friends/on the bus)

Three years ago, I built a studio high on the Cotswold escarpment – this is my creative space. It has an airy, light-filled square room and a darker, cosier study area which I alternate between depending on my mood and the weather.

In Parr’s world, musical icon David Bowie was a true artistic radical. Image Credit: doddis77 / shutterstock.comIn Parr’s world, musical icon David Bowie was a true artistic radical. Image Credit: doddis77 / shutterstock.com

The thought that keeps me up at night is…

Have I missed an opportunity? Could I do better?

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

My dogs! They need me and they start their day very early. But seriously, time, every minute is valuable.

Do you like to think with, or think against?

Against – I love a debate.

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

I imagine I would have become a gardener; I am fascinated by the environment and particularly the tradition of English gardeners and landscapes. I would happily be on the other side of the fence working on the space around buildings.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?

Question – disagree – challenge.

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

A true radical is David Bowie – I have always been a fan. I heard a recording of an old interview with him yesterday [and Bowie said], ‘If you feel safe in the area that you are working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in, go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place.’ So true.

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