Architect Charles Holland Explains why Grayson Perry is his Favourite Client

Architect Charles Holland
Katie Hyams

Charles Holland is one of Britain’s leading architects and was one of the founders of FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) architecture. Responsible for some of the most exciting architectural projects in recent years, including the iconic A House for Essex with Grayson Perry, after the practice decided to end Charles went on to co-found Ordinary Architecture. A writer and lecturer too, Charles is a busy man but one that thrives on a passion for architecture. He chats to us about how he first got into the industry and why working with Grayson Perry was one of his fondest experiences…

What first inspired you to begin a career in architecture and what keeps you there today?

A book on Mies van der Rohe that I got out of my local library when I was 17. I didn’t start studying it straightaway though and it was a chance trip to the architecture studios of the University of Westminster that convinced me that I really wanted to do it. I liked the mess, frankly. Tragically, I still can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

Islington Square by FAT Architectu
Islington Square by FAT Architecture – Paul Adams

What do you think is the biggest threat facing the architecture industry in Britain today and how would you overcome it?

Risk aversion. Architecture, as opposed to building, requires commitment and a desire to do something really good. Mostly it’s seen as either a risk or a luxury. I’d make architecture, planning and the built environment a part of school curriculums and encourage people to appreciate that it is central to our quality of life.

A House For Essex by FAT Architecture & Grayson Perry
A House For Essex by FAT Architecture & Grayson Perry – Jack Hobhouse

What is your favourite project you have ever worked on and why?

Right now it is still A House For Essex, the project I worked on with Grayson Perry. Apart from the fact that it is in Essex, where I grew up, and a tribute to the virtues of that much maligned county, it had a fabulous client who gave us the opportunity to do something unique. It is without doubt the most full-on and no-holds-barred project I have been involved with.

A House For Essex by FAT Architecture & Grayson Perry
A House For Essex by FAT Architecture & Grayson Perry - Jack Hobhouse

Can you tell us a little about FAT Architecture, how it came about and why it came to an end?

FAT started in the early 1990s, a cross-disciplinary practice determined to open up architectural discourse to the influences of pop culture, film, art, politics etc. Along the way this disparate band of collaborators and friends coalesced into something approaching a conventional office, which is perhaps not what was intended! We also started working together very young – early to mid-20s – straight from college and perhaps by our mid 40s needed a change of scene and some new challenges.

After we decided to call it a day, I started a new practice – Ordinary Architecture – with Elly Ward. It’s been fun to start it all again, afresh, and the work is evolving in ways that I didn’t expect which is good.

Thornton Heath by FAT Architecture
Thornton Heath by FAT Architecture - Paul Riddle

If there was one design rule everyone should live by what would it be and why?

No one should live by design rules. That sounds pretty terrifying.

How would you describe your own home style and what is your favourite room in your home and why? I live in a flat in the Barbican, quite a few floors up so the view is pretty good. Our living room looks towards the river and it’s the room we’ve spent the most effort and time decorating. The walls are painted a dark colour, which it can take because of all the glass, and there are some very brightly coloured objects and textiles in it. I’d describe it as pretty vivid and a bit ‘pop’. When we tidy up, I’m impressed by how chic it is.

Cricket Pavilion Holiday Cottage
Cricket Pavilion Holiday Cottage - Ordinary Architecture

Alongside being an architect you are also a teacher and a writer, of the three what is the most challenging and what is the most rewarding?

Ultimately I love designing the best but the other two help to give a context to what I do provoking conversations and thoughts around architecture. I wouldn’t say I find anything easy and teaching and writing are inspiring and rewarding things in themselves but architecture is always an enormous challenge. That’s what makes it so fascinating.

If you could have designed any building in the world which one would it be and why?

The house Robert Venturi designed for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia is pretty much perfect if you ask me.

Can you talk us through what a typical working day looks like for you?

I get in the studio at about 9. I usually start with some writing if I have some to do because that seems to fit with how I think at that time of the day. I’m a slow starter but shift into my most productive design mode in the later afternoon, hitting a peak at about 7/8, which is inconvenient as I should have gone home a couple of hours ago. I do long days happily but I don’t work well late at night. I don’t care that much for meetings so a full day in the office working is a joy. If I can include a decent chat about our work and a lunch with my co-director Elly Ward then all’s good in the world. What does the rest of the year hold for you, can you tell us about any exciting upcoming projects?

Yes, we are working on a very exciting project for the V&A, which will be exhibited at the Venice Architectural Biennale this summer. We are also designing a bit of the London Design Festival and are part of a group installation in LA, plus we have a house in north London going on site, so summer will be exciting and busy.