Each year, the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) participates in bringing to South Africa a noteworthy architect. This year, they brought Andrew Tyley of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners famous for their work on iconic structures including: The Millennium Dome (O2), Centre Pompidou, Lloyd’s of London, Terminal 5 Heathrow Airport and Terminal 4 Madrid Barajas Airport.
Tyley (BSc(Hons); B Arch; M Arch RIBA), since joining RSH+P in 1996, has been involved in a number of key projects as an architect and masterplanner. Most recently he has led teams putting together entries for a number of international competitions, including for Transbay Tower Terminal and Tower, San Francisco. Other important projects on which he has worked include: Wood Wharf re-development masterplan, London; East River Waterfront masterplan New York City; Madrid Barajas Airport, Spain and Leuven Railway Station Competition, Belgium
Dr Hennie de Clercq, SAISC executive director, spoke to Andrew.
Hennie: How, in your opinion has steel influenced modern architecture?
Andrew: Enormously, I believe. Since the turn of the last century, due to steel we are able to make and design buildings which are taller, bigger, have larger spans and incorporate greater open spaces that other load-bearing systems and structures could not provide. So, in that sense, steel enables opportunities to create large, open, free spaces that promote transparency and enable flexibility in terms of future uses.
It is also a recyclable and reusable material which meets the environmental requirements architects are asked to achieve in more and more briefs.
Hennie: How has steel influenced the aesthetic in architecture?
Andrew: The great aesthetic property of steel is that it is extremely strong while it creates very light spaces. We use steel in various different forms and wonderful aesthetics grow from the basic property of the material. Our practice really enjoys using steel in different materials; it helps us to construct buildings that are dynamic. The visual quality of steel in compression is very different to the quality of using steel in tension. At RSHP, we have certainly demonstrated that steel is an aesthetically versatile material.
Hennie: I am interested in the relationship between architect and engineer, especially on very big buildings. Where does the architect start and where does the engineer stop? Where do the ideas actually come from?
Andrew: Our most innovative buildings come from a close collaboration between us and our engineers. Architectural and engineering issues are often one and the same. Working with our engineers is best started at the beginning of the design process. Take the Millennium Dome, for example, which was an extremely challenging project. It required the building of the largest enclosure in the world. If you were to weigh the air that the Dome surrounds, under certain atmospheric conditions you would find that it is heavier than that of the steel and the fabric structure that supports it. This could not have been achieved without cooperation between RSHP and our engineers on the project, Buro Happold
Hennie: I’d like to turn to the question of bridges. Have you been involved in many bridges?
Andrew: While we don’t have any specific bridges to our name, we have been involved in designing quite a few bridges. Of course many of our large structures contain bridges. The roof of Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, has a span of 177 metres and, in essence, is made up of a series of bridges connected together which make a large, open hall.
We have worked a lot with engineers on bridges but unfortunately none have been constructed. The Glasgow Bridge is a good example. In fact we have done a lot of work over the years with the engineer who designed the famous millennium bridge over the Thames in London.
Hennie: Anything in particular that has made your firm so successful?
Andrew: Obviously there are many things at work including a respect for one another, a strong work ethic and so on. But if I had to choose one thing it is the diversity of interest in the practice. We are influenced by sculptors, painters, great scientific concepts, nature and the extraordinary number of innovations in material and construction design. This is reflected in the wide range of buildings that we create. Also, every project is started with a clean slate. We always endeavour to go back to basics and find a solution that responds uniquely to the situation at hand. This ability to think originally and freely gives us the edge I believe.
Hennie: Is there teamwork in the practice?
Andrew: Teamwork is fundamental and we create structures within the firm that enhance it. For example, every Monday morning all the directors, senior people and those involved in a particular project come together at our ‘MDF’ (Monday Design Forum) to work together on ideas. Every project we work on is discussed at the MDF several times during the design process, and in this way the skills and experience of a diverse group of people are brought together on each scheme. In general, we are a very horizontally organised. You will see some of the most experienced people and some of the youngest sketching ideas on their napkins at lunch hammering out some detail. Some of our greatest problems have been solved in this way. Also it’s not just us brainstorming but we invite engineers and other relevant professionals from other disciplines to collaborate.
Hennie: How has the computer influenced your creative ability?
Andrew: The computer is an amazing tool. But it’s only a tool. If one is not careful one’s ‘eye’, one’s natural creative energy can be compromised by it. This is why we still encourage drawing by hand as an integral part of the creative process.
Hennie: Well, it seems to be working very well. What are your impressions of South Africa?
Andrew: South Africa is a beautiful country with extraordinary landscapes. Also, there is a wonderful sense of contemporary South African architecture that expresses the spirit of liberation in post-apartheid South Africa. For instance, the institute arranged a tour for me around the newly constructed Freedom Park in Pretoria and I was genuinely moved by the spirit of reconciliation embodied there.
I have been truly impressed by the rich and often complex, textures in South Africa and its architecture. I hope to visit again and have thoroughly enjoyed travelling with SAISC.