More than 25 years ago, Alan Higgs came to London on a working holiday from Australia, interested in the British people’s ‘formal approach’ to architecture. Fascinated by the divides we placed on our living environments and the complexities of our planning system, he unpacked his bags and never went home. And thank goodness.
Higgs is a man who is glad to be in London. He adores his adopted home, a converted Georgian pub on the fringes of the West End, and relishes the challenges faced by architects working in the capital and beyond. Born and raised in rural Victoria, his passion for architecture grew from the informal values of his childhood environment and the way the great outdoors was perceived as part of that living space. So sought-after today, the idea that we could embrace the living mannerisms of another nation was thought-provoking in the 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, despite his upbringing, Higgs understands how to design for our northern hemisphere climate as well as any native would, and the marriage of southern hemisphere living ideals and a healthy respect for the British weather and winter light levels has seen the creation of some wonderful residential architecture.
Over the past quarter century Higgs and his associate David Weston-Thomas have created some of the most unique juxtapositions of historic housing and contemporary architecture, challenged the way we think and feel about the outdoors and led the way in the development of futuristic iceberg homes and use of future technologies.
Without further ado, let us introduce to you Alan Higgs Architecture...
Alan, how is the British attitude towards the built environment different to that of your native Australia?
Well, Australia is still developing. I think there is definitely a greater movement towards preservation in the UK, more so than anywhere else in the world. Here we consider it sacrilege to get rid of anything old. This is admirable but it can infringe considerably on making the old work in the current world.
You have made your mark designing residential homes. How important do you think our personal living environment is?
Our home is hugely important. We might be a custodian of its architecture but it should be all about us and how we want to live. Only when our living environment is right does everything else fall into place. London has the most amazing portfolio of architecture which is growing all the time, and everything has possibilities for change.
How can contemporary architecture be successfully linked to historic buildings?
It’s all in the language of the design and how you interpret it. One of my favourite projects was the substantial refurbishment of an Arts and Crafts House in Hampstead. We extended the front elevation by a third, identically matching brickwork and architectural detailing to ensure consistency. We were told afterwards that the new part of the house couldn’t be identified from the front. To the rear, however, we challenged the original architecture with a ‘quiet’ addition, introducing a simple stone loggia. The clean lines were in direct contrast to the detailing of the Arts and Crafts designs but it works because of its simplicity. It also enormously extends the living space out into the garden. We have also worked on a large Georgian house in Richmond upon Thames named The Vineyard, where we have added a long garden pavilion to create a large family kitchen, a living space and a swimming pool room, all with direct views onto the garden. The couple who own the house have young children and so we played with technology to raise the floor of the swimming pool when it’s not being used, completely hiding the water below, to create a big empty space for parties or wet weather play. Seeing the way all of the house is now used has made the project very gratifying, as was having the project shortlisted for a RIBA award.
What has been your favourite project?
I have a couple. About 18 months ago we finished a brand new house in St John’s Wood – the ultimate indulgence for any architect. The house is classic modernist and takes a cue from the Case Study Houses of Southern California. It has large expanses of glass and a double-height living space which is just glorious. We also used the subterranean footprint of the house to provide a 20m swimming pool and luxurious spa. My other favourite is a house we created many years ago for a couple in their retirement, on an Australian beach in Port Fairy. When their children joined them, we reconfigured the site to create two further houses. The clients have now passed away and the main house is being reconfigured again to suit the next generation of family. We are really happy that it’s staying with the family and they are making as much use of it as our original clients.
What are you working on at the moment?
We have just completed a black-stained, timber-clad townhouse in a conservation area which will be a really lovely building. We are also working on a listed house in Regent’s Park that is having an orangery added. Both projects are complete opposites in terms of their design and development but they are individually testing the intellect of our team. Another interesting project too is a house in Kensington for a couple in their 80s. How incredible to get to such a good age and still be striving for perfection in your living environment. We have two country houses that we are just finishing and various west London houses and apartments on the go too, and so plenty of variety.
Just recently you have been extending your skills into the educational sector. What are you doing there?
I’ve been involved for the past seven years with the City & Guilds of London Art School in Kennington and am gradually reorganising the building, giving better clarity to the learning environment and maximising usage. It’s an ongoing project and it will be some time before we’ve fully achieved what we want for the building. We have also recently completed the Halcyon London International School in Marylebone. Educational spaces make you see the built environment through the ideas of both the pupils and staff. Each wants to get support from their surroundings in their joint aim to make the space conducive to learning. There isn’t one size fits all with schools and I’m glad the design of each school is being approached on an individual basis.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an architect?
I did. Is that boring? I loved shape and form and in the outback you always look at how well things will stand up against the conditions. It’s self-preservation.
You live above the shop. Do you ever switch off from work?
Yes, I do. My apartment has separate access which makes it feel very detached from the office. It’s also my own private space and so the design of it reflects me and what I’m about, rather than me as an architect.
What do you do when you’re not being an architect?
I make great use of London. I have a big social circle and I like to cook and entertain – in fact, that’s what my apartment was designed for. I spend lots of time in the West End too. I also travel and have recently done a study tour of Chicago and Virginia, looking at colonial architecture, which was fascinating.
That I can t practise equally both here and in Australia, and that I didn’t design Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House!
Photo of Alan Higgs by Alan Williams Photography; alanwilliamsphotography.com
Discover more about Alan Higgs Architects on the Domus Nova Architect Guide
Alan Higgs Architects, 77 Ashmill Street, NW1; alanhiggsarchitects.com