Tony Fretton I’m a complete Londoner. My family has been here for at least 200 years. My family tree shows that it took us 200 years to move from Aldgate East to Hackney – we were very slow-moving. I grew up in the west near the airport. What happened to a lot of East End working families when they got some money was that they moved as far away as they possibly could from the East End. So this reverse flow into the east is perplexing to me. To find myself working in Old Street is like some terrible nightmare, like going backwards. For a younger generation it’s fascinating and intriguing, but I’m not a frontiersman! The closer I can get to Mayfair the better – I’m a terrible old bourgeois.
icon What was London like when you started in architecture?
tf I graduated from the AA in 1972. Postmodernism was very big in the UK then. Performance art was very big too. I was playing in a punk band. So in parallel to postmodernism, the world of music and art was incredibly rough and really interesting. It was a great moment. I worked for developers’ architects, and local authority architects. In a way it was a very punk attitude – I wanted to work for the world’s most nakedly capitalistic architects. There was a complete recession – I worked at Chapman Taylor and half the AA was in there, kind of messing around. There was a floor where we all worked, and Bobby Chapman called it the bad boys’ floor. I started my own office in 1982, I think. But of course I didn’t have any work.
icon How did the London scene compare to the rest of Europe at that time?
tf When I was doing the Lisson Gallery [Fretton’s first major London project, 1986-92], I went to Basel and saw Roger Diener and Herzog & de Meuron’s work. It made you realise how adventurous European architecture was and how provincial British architecture was in comparison. And the exhibitions curated by Wilfred Wang and Ricky Burdett at the 9H Gallery [a seminal architecture gallery and publication that existed between 1985-1991], which introduced European rchitecture of refinement and artistry to everyone in London.
icon How do you think it has developed since?
tf I think the impact of that time, and our work in a way, through its embrace of European values, has had an effect. But also, of course, the presence of Tate Modern – to have a real project by an architect as indisputable as Herzog & de Meuron. All of these initiatives have completely changed architecture here, absolutely for the good. But it’s very, very competitive in London, and I think that’s because the work has been so short here for so long. If you look at Holland where there’s a national commitment to building, architects have a much broader sense of what they can and can’t do. I mean some of them change course, they become city planners, they’re very flexible. We don’t have that in England because it’s a very confined situation, and that’s why it’s much more interesting to work in continental Europe, because people are more generous, they’re interested.
icon What’s made you stay in London?
tf Well, you have to. You have to be pretty special to leave and set up somewhere else. I don’t have the capacity to completely move my business and rehire people, I wouldn’t know how to do it. If you look at Stirling’s office, or Foster or Rogers, they have international work, but their headquarters is in London because it’s a place they understand.
icon Does it function merely as a base, then, for activity elsewhere?
tf It only works if you get on an aeroplane and get out of England with its nonsensical planning system and the lack of architectural leadership and courage, and the declining intelligence in the institutions that surround architecture. You’re here because you’re here. I do think quite frequently of living in another city. Kees Christiaanse now lives in Switzerland. It is increasingly interesting to me to live in a Dutch city. I haven’t figured out how to realise it. I’m much more mobile, but the base will always be here.
icon How do you think London stands in comparison to other global cities? Where do you see its development heading?
tf It is a metropolis; it has huge, huge levels of consumption and commerce; it has bigger transport systems, and it has all of the problems you associate with underfunded large cities. You could recognise those problems in New York in the 1990s, where everything was collapsing, because there wasn’t the will to tax people sufficiently to make the city beautiful. And that’s the situation of London. It’s protesting all the time about how it’s a world capital, but it’s only a world capital by virtue of its people; its architects and artists. It’s not a world capital by its political leadership. This government – of which I am a supporter and a party member, by the way – has underperformed.
icon What do think of the legacy that architects like Norman Foster have given London in recent years?
tf It’s significant, but it would have been far more significant if Foster had redesigned King’s Cross [Foster’s masterplan was drawn up in 1987 but never realised] and built it ten years ago and we were all living in it, drinking and eating in restaurants in it. There’s a colossal failure in London to do things on a large scale of any worth.
icon Do you think that metropolises in general are difficult places to make architecture? The work you are interested in seems to happen in medium-sized European cities like Rotterdam, Basel or Barcelona.
tf On the one hand it’s often the case that metropolises don’t have enough work for architects, because they’re hugely overbuilt. Secondly they’re intensely competitive on all sorts of levels. To be Herzog & de Meuron in Basel is one thing; to be them in London is very different. It does produce some of the most exciting conditions in which to build, but also hardly any opportunities. So you get schools of architecture, which I think are mostly questionable in their quality, but producing graduates who are very, very good. Where do those graduates come from? They come from inside their own heads. And that’s the thing. Of all the things that occur in London, talented people is what we produce. I’m going to try to retrieve that from being some old cliché, because there’s an amazing amount of talent for such a small country. And endless difficulties in exploiting that, endless difficulties for artists becoming part of society. That’s why we end up working in other places.
icon So your work is in spite of London?
tf Yes, absolutely, and it is very London, and that’s what gives it its shape, but it gets increasingly less so as I work in Holland. If you look at Siza’s work it was very precise all the time he was working in Porto, very beautiful and specific to its location. Then when he went to Berlin and other places it became far more plastic and strange. That’s the effect of working outside your own country. If you look at Foster and Roger they’re seen as grandees. But are they really embraced by British society, rather than honoured? I don’t think so. Look at the work Rogers has done: tireless work proposing architecture as a cultured medium, and look at how he has been treated. He has been put in a position of power, but the government and the public more generally were never really interested in that agenda. It’s interesting how little Foster, Rogers and Chipperfield have built here. Artists here have had to seek their reputations elsewhere. [Francis] Bacon being shown in Paris was far more important than any success in London. And for me being accepted in a European scenario is far more important than being accepted just in England.