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Paul Zara, Conran and Partners

5th Nov 2013

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Sir Terence Conran… do we really need to introduce this living legend? With a heritage spanning more than 50 years, Conran is a name synonymous with ground-breaking design. London born and bred (Kingston upon Thames to be precise), Sir Terence began his design career at the Central School of Art and Design in 1948, but left at 19 to work for architect Dennis Lennon. Just a year later, he set up as an independent designer, opening Conran & Company from a basement in Notting Hill. He then went on to open furnishing emporium Habitat, driven by a desire to establish a shop that would sell modern designs to the general public.

The Conran Shop opened just shy of a decade later and grew to become one of the world’s leading lifestyle retailers, offering an exciting and unique hand-picked blend of gifts, furniture, lighting and home accessories. The first Conran Shop is still housed in the iconic Michelin building on the Fulham Road, Brompton Cross. Not one to settle for easy success, Sir Terence expanded the brand to encompass a collection of design-led entities covering architecture, interior, product and graphic design, brand licensing and the operation of shops, restaurants and hotels.

Conran and Partners now comprises product, brand and interior designers and architects. There’s no doubt that the firm has improved our built environment, producing cutting-edge architecture and interiors for more than 30 years. Its work is driven by Sir Terence’s philosophy: that good design improves the quality of people’s lives. Just under 10 years ago, Conran and Partners completed its Shirland Mews project, which typified the firm’s desire to reconcile old and new. Involving 11 townhouses and four mews houses in London’s Maida Vale, all of the residences were contemporary in their conception and treatment, while developing elements from traditional house types. Domus Nova is now marketing one of these incredible townhouses in Shirland Mews.

We caught up with Paul Zara, director at Conran and Partners and one of the senior architects who directed the Shirland Mews development. Based in Conran and Partners’ Brighton studio, Paul trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and has worked on major mixed-use developments including the 4.5 hectare Butler’s Wharf site by Tower Bridge, London, both on masterplanning the site and the detail design of several buildings within the development. He has led retail and restaurant projects including the Bluebird Garage project in Chelsea, and Ocean Terminal, a £100 million retail and leisure building in Leith, Edinburgh’s port. He also designed the Canary Wharf venue for Tony Blair’s Anglo-French summit and led the redesign of the Labour Party headquarters at Millbank, as well as several office projects in Hammersmith & Fulham for Haymarket Publishing.

More recent work has focused on major, award-winning housing schemes in London and around the UK. Paul has been director in charge of public and private sector residential projects for Land Securities, Delancey, Affinity Sutton, Hanover Housing, Stonehurst Estates and Q Developments, alongside working with private clients. He is currently working on major housing schemes in Ealing and Walthamstow, and also on commercial and leisure projects around the UK. Since 1999, he has served as a Civic Trust Awards assessor and in 2007 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is an occasional contributor to architectural and design publications. Without further ado, let us introduce Paul Zara…

Paul, how long have you worked at Conran and Partners?
Almost forever! I’m Sir Terence’s longest-serving director, having worked with him for more than 25 years. The studio has grown and changed so much around me that I’ve never felt the need to move on.

What’s been your career path at the firm?
In the early days when I helped start the London office in Covent Garden, I was a young thing working on projects within our Butler’s Wharf masterplan. I went on to work on projects around the UK and in Europe. As the company grew I became an associate, then a deputy director and finally a full director, setting up the Brighton studio six years ago.

Have you always worked on residential projects?
Much of my work has been in the residential sector, from one-off private houses to mid-range apartment buildings and major regeneration projects of thousands of houses and flats. My work has crossed over into interior design many times, from studio space for Ridley Scott, the Anglo-French summit for the New Labour government, new branch design for Barclays and the relaunch of Coffee Republic. And I love working with graphic designers – my alternative career!

Define the design concept for the Shirland Mews development.
Shirland Mews is a contemporary take on a typical London mews, where you have the traditional setting but modern introductions in the form of crisp white rendering with zinc roofs. It also reinvents the Victorian house in section, creating lofty living spaces filled with natural light from the top-lit stair.

What made the Shirland Mews site so appealing to develop?
Our client for the project, Q Developments, always manages to find interesting and complicated sites where good design can maximise the value of the properties. They support their architects and push for the best in design quality. We managed to add 50% to the area achieved in the outline consent gained by others for the site, and we managed to produce a multi-award-winning scheme.

At the time, Shirland Mews was contemporary and different to anything else in the area. Ten years on, how do you think it fares with other residential properties in the area?
We work hard to ensure our designs have a timeless quality – fashion is fun, but it dates. Buildings need to stand the test of time. The surrounding buildings have little design quality so we needed to create our own identity for the mews in order to attract interest and ensure the best sales values for our client.

What do you think a home should be? Which features do you consider vital?
A home should be just that: a home, not a house. Comfortable, warm, bright, easy to live in, spacious, robust, surprising sometimes and with elements of delight. It’s vital to think of space and create well-proportioned rooms with enough space to store your life! A view of the sky and some greenery is essential. And make it cheap to run so the energy companies don’t win!

What architectural trends do you foresee for 2014?
The quest for sustainable living isn't going away; standards are getting increasingly tough, and quite right, too. Also brick is back! We've had enough of houses made from wacky materials in the name of innovation.

What projects are you working on?
I've just finished an amazing house on the seafront in Hove, with an under-beach spa, rooms with sea views (and bullet-proof glass for when the sea throws pebbles at the windows), and a roof terrace that can take 100 people partying. And our massive project in Ealing, Green Man Lane, is slowly emerging: a 10-year project to replace a failing council estate with 700 new houses and flats; that’s very rewarding. We’re also concentrating on a landmark building in Notting Hill Gate, a finely detailed stone and glass building intended to kickstart redevelopment of the area.

Where do you live?
Brighton! Hove, actually. I was in London for a decade, mainly north, in Muswell Hill and Kentish Town. I love London but I love living by the sea more.

If you could live in any other city for its architecture and design, which would it be?
I love living in Brighton & Hove, the only city with an ‘and’ in its name. But for architecture and design I think it might be Amsterdam. It’s such an easy city to enjoy.

Where were you working before Conran and Partners?
I worked for Michael Squire for a short period, he’s such a nice guy and his architecture just gets better and better. I was also at EPR for a brief while which taught me that I didn’t want to be a corporate architect.

Where did you study architecture?
At the Bartlett, before it was uber-fashionable, with great people like Stephen Groak, Chris Woodward and Andrew Mahaddie. I had good architecture beaten into me.

Did any architect inspire you in your career choice?
No, but my father was a land surveyor, so I had the opportunity to meet a lot of architects and see a lot of buildings. I never thought of being anything else. What other jobs are there that let you have so much fun?

Which building do you wish you had designed?
I sometimes see buildings that move me almost to tears, like Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, or his gallery in Berlin. Lubetkin’s Highpoint blocks in Highgate are incredible. Eric Lyons’s Span developments are impressive for the sense of community ambition and the prosaic architecture. I also love a bit of Brutalism – it’s all being knocked down though.

What’s been your greatest career accomplishment?
The opportunity to work with people I like, making the boundaries between work and private life comfortably blurry.

What’s been the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
Probably the Bluebird Garage in Chelsea. It’s a Conran classic, taking a difficult historic building, filling it with interesting new uses and seeing it have a knock-on effect on a wider area.

What inspires you daily?
The people I work with – really!

How do you relax?
Relaxing’s not my strong point, but I am a keen (but not very good) runner. I just starting training for my fifth Brighton marathon. Running by the sea, early in the morning, is a free luxury that makes your spirits soar.


Conran and Partners;