Interview with an Architect | Michael Jones

Michael Jones talks sustainability, perfectionism & the life of an architect.

Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a deputy head of studio at Foster + Partners. Alongside Senior Executive Partner Stefan Behling, he oversees almost 100 architects working on a wide range of international projects.

Jones’ large portfolio includes a number of education buildings, such as the Deuxième Lycée de Fréjus in the South of France, and the Law Faculty for the University of Cambridge. He has also worked on historic and listed buildings, including working as the project architect of the new International Rail Terminal for London at St Pancras Station, then as project director on the detail design and procurement for the Great Court at the British Museum. In 2000, he began work on the large-scale masterplan and expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Most recently he has been responsible for the new European headquarters for Bloomberg in the City of London, which was awarded the Sterling Prize for 2018.

 

Interview

The following interview was conducted as part of The Architecture Centre’s partnership with The Architecture School at UWE Bristol.

Michael, you graduated in 1986 and joined what was then Foster Associates, were they always your first choice?

When I finished my first degree I was faced with the same question everyone else faces, which is – where do you want to go for a year out and what do you want to do?

To be honest I wasn’t widely encouraged by my tutors at the time, so what I did almost in-spite of them was to apply to the top five practices in the country and I was offered jobs by all five.

The science behind going to Foster Associates for me was simple, they were a relatively small practice at the time, 40 people, and they offered me the most money. My first project there was working on Stansted Airport which hadn’t even begun construction at the time, I was handed a piece of the building to do which was a little overwhelming for a first project, but I got on.

I enjoyed the work but most importantly I was learning a huge amount so I extended my year out to two. This is something I advise students to do.

I then went on to do my Masters at the Royal College of Art. The course was very small, there was 9 of us in total and we had 1-1, 1-2 tutorial time. My tutors were David Chipperfield and James Gowan, the best tutors one could ask for, my time there was fabulous. Once I finished and without seeing my show, Fosters asked me back and I have been there ever since.

 

Would you say that you saw a career path and followed it?

Actually, it wasn’t really about a career path, I didn’t really think about it that way in those days. What I really thought about though was the quality and the nature of the projects I was able to do. One of the joys of working at an office like ours is that we get offered some spectacular work and the projects are unparalleled. There are very few places would you get those sorts of opportunities.

The nature of the work in the office is fascinating and varies in depth breadth and scale, we do work from the smallest detail to the largest projects on the planet.

 

Was architecture the career you always wanted?

Actually no, I wanted to be a lawyer but I failed to get into law school, so my father – a furniture designer – suggested architecture. I never really asked him why, but he did say I was always interested in forms, building things and creating three dimensional objects.

 

Are you where you expected to be when you started out 30 years ago?

No, I am not at all where I thought I would be.

I never anticipated I would be one of the partners of the office today. It’s an amazing place to be part of especially with Norman still as head of the business. I’d like to call him a friend as well, the people there have nurtured and mentored me. I never, expected to have all that and be where I am.

 

What were your goals as you worked through?

I didn’t have any, I was just rudderless, I just went where life took me and I didn’t really have much of an end game. I think sometimes you can drive yourself mad aiming for something that you might not ever achieve. I went where life took me.

Its same with design, at the beginning of a project you never really know where you will end up and it’s better to see where it takes you. You end up in the place that’s probably the right place, it might not have been as linear as having a direct vision but it can be more effective.

 

What advice would you give your younger self?

It’s the curse of the architect to be hugely perfectionist, so I would probably try and cut myself a bit more slack instead of driving myself half crazy.

I think, as you get older you learn to be easier on yourself and more mellow. You also have less to prove to yourself and others.

 

In your office how is the review process of projects carried out and how is it different than reviews in architecture school?

Not widely different actually, except every day is crit day in the office. We have a large number of clients at all times, so we have a permanent pin-up board for each project that is refreshed daily. This allows the progress being made to be communicated to the senior team and gives us the opportunity to keep the project on course and maintain the design quality expected of our practice.

I can be one minute looking at the initial design concept of a project and the next I can be looking at two screw heads on a detail, I have to be able to zoom in and out of projects very quickly and get my head around the different scales I am dealing with constantly.  We don’t really have the luxury of only being focused on one project at a time, especially in an office like ours.

 

Have there been struggles along the way? And if so did you ever think you would walk away from architecture?

Yes, and yes, work-life balance is key. It’s a very demanding job, in an office like ours you spend more time traveling the more senior you get. At one point, I got very tired of being on the road all time and being constantly overseas, while it does sound wonderful and glamorous at first, after a while, it gets very draining, particularly because your personal life has to have a reasonable balance to it.

Obviously, ambition and wanting to get places is great, but you should never lose sight of what’s important. It’s key to have as much “you” time as it is to have work time. Architecture can be all-consuming at times and it’s not sustainable, so you just have to correct course and find the balance again.

 

What is you proudest moment?

I would say building myself a house, it’s definitely every architect’s dream and for me being in a position where I could design and build my house is a proud moment. I’ve also made some lifelong friends along the way in my career and that again makes me very proud and is very important to remember.

 

What makes the Bloomberg HQ so special in your opinion?

The client. You are really only as good as your client. With Mike Bloomberg we had a client who was really brave, he was prepared to invest a lot of money into pushing the boundaries and take risks. Clients don’t really like to come out of their comfort zone normally and Mike was the complete opposite. He said to me very early on; “I’d rather you beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, so if you have an idea and you think it’s good, even if it’s the most off the wall idea, let’s have a go and if it goes wrong I’d rather you beg for forgiveness then”.

Clients like that are very rare and that was defining part of the project.

 

The Bloomberg HQ has raised the bar for sustainability, Lord Foster has been quoted saying that sustainability was a driver from the outset, was this always in the brief or did the practice push for it?

People ask a lot about the brief, in reality it was a list of 10 things written on a piece of paper after a meeting with Mike. From that list, 1 thing was written at the bottom, in big capital letters; SUSTAINABLE. So yes, it was there from the beginning, and really it’s no surprise as Mike is a Climate Change Ambassador at the UN.

As a practice, we are also very interested in sustainability and it was a great meeting of minds. A lot of things we tried to achieve in the building had never been done before and to test it, Mike even built us a laboratory, otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver them.

We decided to measure the building’s success under two ratings, the BREEAM, and the Wellbeing ratings. In its early stages it was clear that the building would perform very well under BREEAM, which meant they had to extend the range. We scored 98.5 in the design stage. On delivery, the building scored even higher reaching a score of 99.1 rating.

 

Do you feel the BREEAM is a sufficient measure?

Well it’s one measure and it tends to be that if you score well at BREEAM you would score badly under LEED as they have different criteria, but what we try to do as a practice is the help clients understand how their buildings can help their cities achieve their CO2 reduction targets set in the Paris Agreement. We try to get clients to think how their building will allow a city to meet those targets. This can be incredibly onerous, but it is a conversation we must have as we are moving to a more rounded approach on the sustainability issue, that encompasses wellbeing as well as energy. It’s one of the reasons we do a lot of exploration into Biophilia in architecture, people feel better in an environment that has that kind of constant stimulation constant change and people work better, perform better, feel better.

 

The building is in a very central location in London, how was the issue of noise and air quality dealt with as the building is naturally ventilated?

Air quality is one of the biggest factors effecting natural ventilation because it varies wildly. However as electrification of vehicles becomes more commonplace, noise levels will drop and pollution will go down so the two factors prohibitive to natural ventilation will become less of an issue.

 

Do you feel the profession has an ethical responsibility to push towards sustainable design? What can the industry do to contribute more towards this?

It’s non-negotiable as far as I am concerned, we as a profession not just in Britain but around the globe have to do something about it. It frustrates me when it’s quite low on the agenda, it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda it’s not like we can reinvent the planet.

I do understand the argument that we have benefited from low-cost construction for years and years and everyone, in theory, should have that. But I think there’s a more intelligent way to do low cost now which can take account of all of what we know and try and move it forward and deliver more sustainable buildings without the premium it’s previously generated.

 

There has been a lot of press recently around the gender pay gap in architecture, the AJ puts Foster + Partners at 9.8%. What is the practice doing to close the gap?

Well it can’t happen overnight and one of the biggest things driving this number is seniority.

There are moments in everyone’s life particularly where you may or may not elect to let your career take a backseat.

It’s then a very challenging thing for us as a practice to encourage people to return, because the environment is quite tough and is very demanding. It goes back to having a work-life balance and being able to bring your family up with your partner while maintaining a career.

There are more and more senior women there who are making it and redressing the balance. Importantly they are able to mentor younger women in the practice.  The more women in senior positions there are, the higher pay they are able to command which will redress the gender pay gap.

We now have four senior partners who are women but this is a very recent development. It’s a sign of the times and also a sign of the technology. Technology has been key in enabling access to different work patterns, so you can as a mother or father go pick up your kids from school and finish off what you need to do in a way that works for you and enables you to support family life.

We’re making a conscious effort and we are trying to put in place an agile working environment which benefits everyone, not just parents.

 

What do you think we can do as students to help with this?

Well, I would say don’t be shy of being yourselves. It’s important that everyone represents themselves and their own people. In my day the profession was fairly monochromatic. I think the more diversity and more inclusion that you see throughout the profession and the industry, the more acceptable it’s going to be. Like the sustainability agenda, we have a duty to change things as much as possible.

 

“At the beginning of a project you never really know where you will end up - it’s better to see where it takes you. You end up in the place that’s probably the right place.” Michael Jones, Foster & Partner