Spotlight on Simon Knight Architects (SKA) 16 Nov 2022
Simon Knight Architects (SKA)
Simon Knight is the proud owner of local architectural RIBA Chartered practice. Simon Knight Architects (SKA) is based in historic French Row. We caught up with Simon to learn more about him and his current projects!
What was it that got you interested in Architecture?
It sounds cliche but as a kid I loved building with Lego. I also always enjoyed drawing and making things and as I got older, I started to appreciate our built environment, from historic buildings to modern structures. I think ultimately I enjoy the problem solving element of designing and the satisfaction that comes from a creative process, that results in a physical creation, that works for the client and fits in with the context.
What is your favourite building and why?
That is such a difficult question – like asking what your favourite song is! One of my favourite building’s is Luis Barragan’s home and studio in Mexico City. I was lucky enough to visit this building and I enjoyed his use clever use of space and light. You enter into a small, dim, hallway, whereby you take your shoes off before entering a double height space with colour and light. This contrast is what makes the experience so special. I also appreciate his local interpretation of modernism. While Le Corbusier was extolling the virtues of the “international style”, Barragan was taking the main themes of modernism but using bright colours, local materials and textures unique to Mexico.
What building would you condemn – are you willing to tell us out loud?
I do get depressed when seeing some of the mass house-builder schemes that architecturally are often poor pastiche versions of past styles, with mean gardens and amenity spaces. It is concerning to think about their longevity and how well they will age.
Who are your architectural heroes?
Louis Kahn, Luis Barragan and Alvar Aalto are some of the modernists I most admire from the past. Their use of materials, light and space is amazing. More recently I respect the work of David Chipperfield, Peter Zumthor and Carmody Groake. We have various architect monographs in the office, which we use for reference and inspiration and I think it is important to look both in the past at what architects have accomplished and what is being achieved now in the present.
How long have you been located in French Row and why did you set up your practice in St Albans?
I have been in our offices in French Row for about 4 years and we love being in such historic premisesand in the heart of the city. In the summer, with the windows open, it feels like we’re almost in the street, in amongst the hustle and bustle. St Albans was attractive given the beautiful historic buildings that surround us and be inspired by but also the city has a critical mass to it which I felt would be supportive for a small business. We also hosted students from Portland State University last month as part of a continuing affiliation fort he last 5 years.
This is an interesting connection to America, how did it come about?
My wife is American and her brother lives in Portland, Oregon. Through this connection I was introduced to Associate Professor Matthew Gabhardt, who also lives in Portland. Matthew’s programme brings students from Portland State University studying urban planning and real estate development to England to talk to local experts and tour innovative projects. The concept behind the course is to challenge what students know, or think they know, about how planning and development function, or should function. Associate Professor Matthew Gebhardt says: “My hope is to change their perspective on what is possible and for them to come back with new ideas that they can use in future classes and professional practice.”
Many of the tours during their visit to the UK are of large regeneration projects. While certainly interesting, these do not give the students a sense of the vast majority of design and development projects. The smaller projects that Simon Knight Architects are involved in are more like the projects they are likely to work with and give a much better and more granular understanding of how the design, planning, and construction process functions in England.
Matthew has been bringing students to meet Simon for five years now. What is it that Simon does that keeps the visits ongoing?
Matthew says: “Simon does a fantastic job of walking students through the relationships that the students will encounter in practice, such as developer and architect and architect and planner. He also takes us to works in progress, which allows discussion of why certain design decisions were made, which is really helpful for the students. He is extremely generous with his time, getting to know the students and engaging them in a dialogue about projects.”
“Simon’s projects are also excellent examples of a key course theme: adaptive reuse. With growing concerns over the climate impacts of demolition and new construction, there is enormous and growing interest in how we can creatively reuse existing buildings in ways that meet current needs and improve their efficiency and resilience. One of the reasons we love visiting Simon is the projects he shares are not only great examples of adaptive reuse, but also involve heritage preservation and community context, which demand creative and compelling designs.”
Matthew spoke about ‘adaptive reuse’, is this a particular interest of yours? Do you find this is happening more these days?
Yes, we are always keen to see what is possible with existing buildings and structures and are keen to re-use where possible and add sensitive contemporary additions when appropriate. This is becoming more important given the climate crisis we are all facing and the embodied carbon that is present in all existing buildings. We should all be carefully thinking about the impact of demolition and weighing up the carbon benefits of adaptation. The philosophy of the latest Pritzker Prize winning architects, Lacaton & Vassal, sums this up well: “Never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse.”
Simon, you obviously enjoy hosting these visits. What do you like about them?
I’ve enjoyed hosting Matthew and his cohort every year and exchanging different perspectives, whether they be cultural or legislative. This year the group walked down the historic Fishpool Street, where SKA have recently submitted a planning application for an exciting new-build house and then onto the Rose & Crown pub in St Michael’s, which my architectural practice has applied for permission to renovate and extend.
The tours we take inevitably end at one of St Albans beautiful pubs where discussions continue whilst enjoying a drink. It seemed particularly special this year, given a two-year hiatus due to covid, and it was so great to continue this unique connection.
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