ELECTRIC PURPLES AND MAGIC CARPETSInterview

Assaf Kimmel (AA Second Year) interviews Mike Davies (AADipl 1969) about his time as an AA Diploma student
(originally published in AArchitecture 20)

21 October 2013
Architectural Association, London

 

Wearing only red from head to toe for about 40 years, Mike Davies is a founding partner at Richard Rogers & Partners, where he has been involved in virtually every project of the practice, including Heathrow Terminal 5, the Millennium Dome, of which he was project director, and the current Grand Paris.

 

What did you find most inspiring when you began your studies at the AA?

 

The thing that struck me most about the school was the incredible openness and the liberal thinking of the place, which was a real contrast to what one might loosely call a more orthodox education. Its greater strength was how wide-ranging, unconstrained and great its welcoming of creativity was. It is one of its powers of the past and its power now.

 

Will your AA classmates from the 1960s remember you as always wearing red?

 

In those days I used to wear purple, believe it or not. I probably wasn’t absolutely monochrome at the time. There was a huge explosion of colour in the 1960s. Everybody enjoyed colours for the first time after the severely dressed architects of the 1950s. [While studying at UCLA in California] I bought a fantastic electric purple suit on Hollywood Boulevard, and I used to later wear it to the office in Paris after Richard [Rogers] won the Pompidou Centre. One day, my client, the musician Pierre Boulez, told me ‘Mike, you are very courageous to wear this colour.’ I said ‘Well, it’s a lovely colour,’ and he replied ‘You are very courageous to wear your homosexuality in public.’

 

When Davies realised purple was the colour code for gays in 1970s Paris, he went to a local shop and bought three pairs of red golf trousers. Since 1973, he has worn red, every single day. 

In an interview just before the opening of the Millennium Dome in 1999, you mentioned going yellow in the future. 

 

I meant that the next colour I would go to would be yellow, but I might be dead before I get there. Wearing red is incredibly convenient, you don’t have to worry about wardrobe coordination, you can just grab something from the cupboard and you know it’ll be a match, even if you had too much to drink. Wherever you go it breaks the ice; one can easily start a conversation about colour, about people expressing themselves. It makes people talk to each other. Our buildings are also very brightly coloured. We enjoy colour.

ELECTRIC PURPLES AND MAGIC CARPETS

I would like you to imagine that you are back in architecture school in 2013 and that you need to decide what unit you want to pursue.

 

I would probably still explore technology and urbanism. It is technology that changed the language of architecture over the past decades, and I think philosophical positions have been shaped by technological opportunities rather than the other way around. So I would be interested in technology as a student, not necessarily in the details, but the perspective of what it can do, how it can change things. At the same point in time I would try to engage with urban issues and scales. When you are dealing with an individual house you have one sort of problem. When you are dealing with a Chinese city where 15-20 million people are living or with an airport with millions of passengers a year, you have completely different problems. So I would explore emerging technologies with an overview of the large scale.

 

How much does architectural education in 2013 differ to that of the 1960s?

 

The base process is no different. It is a conceptual and creative one, and the ideas are coming from the brain. Then, you are offered a whole series of tools. In the 1960s it was a drawing board and a T-square, and now the tool is essentially the computer and advanced graphics. Today the computer can be your assistant, and you can work at a faster time-scale than you could before. You can run through iterations, you can sketch something and then change it at will. The base process, however, is not a computer problem, it is still a human creativity issue and this is why people still talk to each other at the AA rather than work on their computers all the time.

 

That is why we have a bar at the AA.

 

That’s right. The bar was the debating chamber at the AA. The biggest ideas of the day were developed there, whether they were technological details or debates about the Vietnam War. The school was obsessed with autonomy, with not doing monuments and buildings. It was all about adaptability, growth and change as major philosophical drivers. So there wasn’t a debate about whether something was Corbusian or Wrightian, or whether something was high tech. The debate was about lifestyle, about change, about young people living in squats or in the streets at the lower end, and at the other end living in container housing or in pop-up living spaces. It was all about non-architecture at the time.

 

How did you see the architectural profession as a First Year student, and is it different from the way you see it now?

 

I don’t think it has changed that much. The perception of how you go about it has changed, but the notion of building buildings in an urban or rural environment hasn’t fundamentally changed. When you are in your early years at the AA I don’t think you have a clear perception of what an architect is. You are into exploring things, exploring materials and trying to understand how to tackle a problem. We didn’t have a mature view of what an architect was. We were winging it, travelling on magic carpets. Among my tutors were Peter Cook, Ron Herron, David Greene and Cedric Price, and they encouraged this. In many ways they were not traditional architects either. I wasn’t interested in what an architect was like, but in what he could do. Whether you were an architect doing it or not an architect doing it was not really relevant.

 

For more information:

Read AArchitecture 20 online

Read more about Mike Davies’ work

Image credit: Valerie Bennett/National Portrait Gallery