We’re building something very fine

The head of architects Dewjoc in Newcastle has seen a lot of change in the city since first arriving 32 years ago.

The head of architects Dewjoc in Newcastle has seen a lot of change in the city since first arriving 32 years ago. Graeme King talked to Peter Walker about Terence Conran, the wonder of Grand Designs, and why we should all learn to love Swan House.

WE have all witnessed a great change in the economic landscape of the North-East over the past 10 or 20 years, as the old industries have declined, and a new economy has grown in its place.

Peter Walker

That change is perhaps most tangible in the built environment around us, which is near unrecognisable from the world people remember from decades past.

In a career which started off as a student of quantity surveying in the mid 1970s at Newcastle Polytechnic, and now finds him heading up an architecture office at the age of 50, Peter Walker is well place to survey how things have progressed and developed.

Quite a long period working in London has perhaps sharpened his sense of wonder at the transformation before him, but he seems more grateful than most for how the decades have altered the city which has become his home.

Sitting in his high-ceilinged office in the wonderfully grand Milburn House on Dean Street, just along the corridor from the round room where scenes from Our Friends in the North were filmed, he tells how it is he came to be in the job he’s in today.

Peter Walker was born in Belfast, which he coolly describes as “quite interesting.” Then at the age of seven, the young Walker and his family moved away from the UK – to apartheid era South Africa.

He says: “My father was an engineer so we moved around quite a bit. We lived in Cape Town until I was 16. It was during the apartheid period, so it was an intense time to be there.

“I went back recently to speak at a conference in Cape Town, and it was just so different. It used to be essentially a European city in Africa, but now it’s a proper African city. They have a difficult job there, trying to keep investment confidence going, but also redistributing wealth.”

Eventually the family moved back home to the UK, but this time to south west Scotland with Walker’s father working for a firm called Clarke Chapman.

He completed his Highers, then got his first proper taste of the North-East at Newcastle Polytechnic.

After that, after a brief period with international firm Turner and Townsend, when he was still convinced his future lay in the economics of the construction industry, Walker took a different path.

He travelled down to London to study architecture at what is now East London University. While in London he met a girl called Judy from Durham. She is now his wife, and the couple have three children.

After university, he ended up working for design guru Terence Conran, which seems to have been very enjoyable, but the young Walker family, now with a child, was finding life in the capital a little trying – with the usual complaint of an arduous commute taking its toll.

Walker says: “I realised the quality of life was not that great. I was travelling in from west London to my office, and we were also not sure it was somewhere we wanted to raise kids.

“Conran was invited to bid to build the new terminal at Newcastle Airport, so I came up here to give a presentation, and got so many questions about it, I ended up missing my flight home. So I got a taxi into Newcastle, to fill in the time before the next flight, and saw all the places I had known when I was a student.

“I suggested to Judy that we move back to the North-East. At first she said “Not on your nelly” but then she thought about it, and came round to it. So we moved up to Hexham and I joined a firm called Couves on Grey Street.

“At the time, Dewjoc was a Teesside-based company, 100 years old. They had always had a thriving office down there, which was built on the back of Teesside industrial development.

“The likes of ICI was not the glamorous end of architecture, but it was very interesting. The firm did work for Glaxo at Barnard Castle too.

“The partner who ran the organisation had a vision that if it was to be a major player in the North-East, they needed a Newcastle office, so he asked me if I would like to open an office here, and that was 10 years ago.

“We grew very quickly, I’m pleased to say. We went from one to 12 staff in the first year, and now we have settled down at 25.”

Dewjoc has been responsible for such striking creations as the highly energy-efficient Devonshire Building at Newcastle University, the Usworth Sixth Form College in Washington, and the NetPark development near Sedgefield.

Walker, however, admits his career has not been conventional.

He says: “I’ve had an unusual career as an architect – characterised by not designing an awful lot of buildings!

“A fairly large component of my working life is my senior lecturer post at Newcastle University, which is very important to me. I think it’s very healthy for practitioners to be involved in teaching.

“To be involved with tutoring young people whose only constraint is their imagination, is great. Recently I’ve been involved in examining three PhDs, one on the Libyan construction industry, one on Saudi Arabia, and one on sustainable design in shopping centres.

“I guess I’ve always had a passion for architecture, but I’ve always seen it as making places, not just designing buildings.

“That urban design element is what keeps architecture apart from film, painting, etc – it’s there all the time, in your face. I’ve chosen my career very deliberately, because I enjoy teaching, being involved with young people who are exciting and imaginative. It has its own rewards. But it also informs the work we do here, and how we approach our working life.”

So how does he tackle the ever present question of how to balance providing what a client wants, with satisfying the architect’s desire to do something different and distinctive?

He says: “You can’t simply view the job as being about satisfying what your client wants. While we pride ourselves on delivering buildings on budget, and on time, the buildings you leave behind are important – to all the people who use them, and all the people who walk past them.

“At Usworth College in Washington which we worked on, we were very conscious of the experience of children passing through the building. That is as important as fulfilling the short term project needs.

“At its best, that’s what architecture should be about – the cultural element. It sounds terribly pompous, but there is a depth to the art of architecture and that’s what unites us all - being committed to good quality architecture.

“Working for Conran was very informative on that front. He was a very successful businessman, but you could just be good at marketing to achieve that. He produced good design work, and if you produce something good, people tend to want it.”

Walker says he has noticed how the architecture, while always quite a fashionable subject to study, has taken off even more in recent years – and he believes the Kevin McCloud factor has a been a key driver of that.

He says: “Grand Designs on Channel 4 (hosted by McCloud) has raised people’s awareness of architecture to a great degree. There are now 600 applicants for the 100 places on the Newcastle University architecture course, where there used to be maybe 75 applicants for 50 places.

“With the education building programme, and big healthcare building programmes, there is lots of investment going on, and the commercial property sector is very active – so it’s a very, very buoyant and exciting time.

“But paradoxically there is currently a bit of a skills shortage as the renewed popularity of the profession has not yet fed through the system.”

Walker shows a certain frustration with the way Newcastle has developed as a city, but is also very loyal to some of its less well loved features.

He says: “Newcastle has the classic problem of being a post industrial city. Like a lot of places, it suddenly decided it had to change.

“One of the things that has been very unfortunate has been highway planning. The central motorway cut off streets, so you have disjointed relationships between parts of the city centre, which was down to the old fashioned idea of the dominance of the car.

“Part of me is still attracted to the whole Brasilia of the north idea. Swan House is a good example. It was a very fashionable building to knock, but what it really lacked was a front door.

“It did not plug into the street in any way. Once you address the way it engages with the street, you can appreciate the quality of the building.

“Architecture is not just about dropping buildings down on a landscape but thinking how they stitch into the environment they are part of.

“Swan House is a very well designed building of its period, but it did not stitch into the city in the way it should have done.”

But while Swan House is an example of a very bold vision, does Walker share the view that the North-East does not get many great buildings, because the property market is just not as valuable here as it is elsewhere in the country, so budgets for buildings have no slack for anything other than the utilitarian?

He says: “I start from the position that well designed buildings don’t need a huge amount to be spent on them. The trick is to spend the money where it has the most impact.

“You will never get the rental values in the North-East, that you get in London, but I don’t see why that should be a constraint. In a way, it’s a challenge to rise to.

“Good architects are surprisingly ingenious – making relatively modest budgets go a long way.

“We also need to look beyond the capital cost of a building, and look at the running costs, the life cycle costs of a building. You can justify spending more on construction if you can save money on long term costs.”

He concludes: “I think in the North-East we are blessed with a very good architectural community. There are a lot of very good practices, and it’s starting to show, as Newcastle is a much more attractive city than it once was.

“Architects were criticised for what people did not want today, but we are more in tune with making environments that are more attractive to people now. Newcastle was always a good place to live, in spite of the architecture, now it is becoming a good place to live, partly because of the architecture.”

Good architects are surprisingly ingenious – making relatively modest budgets go a long way

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The questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Mercedes E320.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Any of a number of Chinese restaurants in Soho – Artisan in Corbridge is the best I know locally.

Who or what makes you laugh?

Jack Dee.

What’s your favourite book?

Couples by John Updike.

What’s your favourite film?

There’s Something About Mary.

What was the last album you bought?

Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen, Mozart Works for Two Pianists, Vol 3.

What’s your ideal job, other than you current one?

Travel writer (for the travelling, not the writing).

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?

‘Pretty Polly’ of course.

What’s your greatest fear?

Being transferred to Basingstoke.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Always try to hire people that are better than you.

Worst business advice?

If you get the strategy right the detail will take care of itself.

What’s your poison?

Young’s London Special (beer).

What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?

The Guardian.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£12 – making sausages in the local Co-op butcher’s shop at Christmas.

How do you keep fit?

I gave up smoking.

What’s our most irritating habit?

Sneezing very loudly, without warning, and often behind people’s backs.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Books – I buy hundreds (my second biggest extravagance is shelves).

Which historical character do you most admire?

The 17th century Scottish economist Adam Smith – just about everything he wrote and said remains fundamentally true today.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

I hate this current obsession with fame – I would choose Phillip Larkin, Errol Garner, J D Salinger and Vincent van Gogh – all reclusive, shy people who were more concerned with being good than being famous.

How would you like to be remembered?

The Post Office issuing a commemorative stamp would be nice.

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CV: Peter Walker

1957 Born Belfast, Northern Ireland.

1963 Family moved to Cape Town.

1973 Family based in south west Scotland – Higher qualifications.

1975-78 Newcastle Polytechnic, diploma in quantity surveying.

1978 Turner and Townsend, Newcastle.

1980 University of East London – BSc in architecture and further post graduate qualifications to become fully qualified, partly through the Architectural Association.

1988 Fully qualified, having worked for large firm Farmer and Dark.

Conran Design Group - director of projects.

1991 Couves Architects - director.

1996 to present day Dewjoc - director. Set up and runs Newcastle office, while teaching part time at Newcastle University since 1997.

Consultant architect experience

Expert witness and given evidence on over 50 cases of architectural professional negligence.

Expert evidence provided on Bottle Bank Land Tribunal (Gateshead Hilton).

Five years as consultant architect to the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation.

Employed by London Underground for a design and procurement audit of architectural work on the Jubilee Line project.

Teaching and other education experience, includes:

Part time senior lecturer in architecture, department of architecture planning and landscape, University of Newcastle, 2000 – present

External examiner The University of Newcastle, Huddersfield University, The Queen’s University Belfast, University of Northumbria.

Publications and research, include:

Rethinking the Construction Process: Focusing the Construction Curriculum (2000), with Prof A Price, Dr H Boussabaine and Dr P McDermott.

From strategic adviser to design sub-contractor and back again in Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age (2001), ed. I Abley and J Heartfield.

The Construction Companion to Risk and Value Mangement (2002), with Dr D Greenwood, pub: RIBA Enterprises, ISBN 1 85946 092 5

Chairman of CAPRIKON (The capture and reuse of information in construction) a joint Newcastle and Loughborough University research programme funded by the Education, Social and Physical Sciences Research Council

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