Jonathan Sergison graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1989 and gained professional experience working for David Chipperfield and Tony Fretton.
Jonathan has taught at a number of schools of architecture, including the University of North London, the Architectural Association in London, was Visiting Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL), the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Design and Construction at the Accademia di Mendrisio, Switzerland, and in 2019 became Director of the newly established Istituto di Studi Urbani e del Paesaggio (ISUP, Institute of Urban and Landscape Studies).
He is particularly interested in urban questions and the changing conditions of the contemporary European city. More specifically, he has addressed through writing, teaching and practice the role housing might play in this changing context.
He regularly writes and lectures, attends reviews in schools of architecture and competition juries.
When you were a child what did you want to be when you were older?
Many things. Eventually it became clear that I wanted to do something creative. In my teenage years I wanted to be an architect, but I also considered studying art. As an 18 year-old I applied both to architecture school and art school and, having been accepted by both, had to make a decision.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was always most interested in art and history, and also technical drawing. I had wonderful teachers for all these subjects. I was not really good in mathematics and physics, but I wanted to be an architect and was always told that these were the subjects you needed to study architecture. In the UK you have to take A-level exams between the ages of 16 and 18. I elected to study maths, struggled terribly and failed the exam spectacularly. It is a horrible
Studio house, Bethnal Green, London, 2004 (Ph. © Ioana Marinescu)
What was your educational path?
I went to many schools when I was a child because my father was a civil engineer and he worked on projects in different parts of the UK. I started school very young, and my first teacher was my mother. It was in a small school in the Lake District, a beautiful part of England. By the time I was 12 years old I had already gone to five different schools. Then, from 11 to 16 I was at a comprehensive school, a state school, and from 16 to 18 I studied for my A levels at a grammar school.
I studied at an art school in Canterbury until my third year. I chose it because, having grown up in London, I really didn’t want to live at home! And as I told you, I had the option of studying two different subjects, architecture or art, so I thought that studying at an art school would be a good compromise, and would bring me close to the work of painters and sculptors. As an eighteen-year-old, I naively thought it would be a bit like the Bauhaus, with everyone working together creatively. It was not really like that…
Once I got my degree in architecture, my RIBA Part 1, I worked with David Chipperfield for one year, before getting my diploma at the AA in London, and later still, I took my professional exams, the RIBA Part 3. I did my diploma with a Chilean architect, Rodrigo Pérez de Arce, who taught at the AA for 15 years. He returned to Santiago, the year I graduated and sold me his apartment in Bloomsbury, in London. I am still very much in touch with him: he recently asked me to write an introduction to his latest book, and I had the opportunity to visit him in Chile. He is a wonderful architect and inspiring teaching and over the years has educated many interesting architects. He taught me about the culture of drawing which was really important to me at the time. Two years ago we had a reunion of all of the people who studied in his unit at the AA 1987 and it was interesting to see what 30 years of architecture does to people.
When did you realise you wanted to study architecture and become an architect?
I had a feel for it. It is only when you walk through the door of architecture school and start your course that you really know if it’s what you want to do. Up until that point I had a fascination with making and the built world. I was very interested in what I thought architecture was, but until I started training, I had no idea. Until you try it, you also have no idea if you have any ability. I took a year out when I finished my A-levels went to Italy and elsewhere. I also worked in a drawing office in London, with tracing paper and ink pens among draftswomen who were really skilled at making technical drawings. At architecture school you are not really taught to draw, and I really benefitted from the year I spent in that drawing office.
Inner city housing and crèche, Geneva, Switzerland, 2011 (Ph. © David Grandorge)
When and how did your career start?
I met Stephen Bates, who had studied at the RCA in London, where he had been taught by David Chipperfield, amongst others. After working in Barcelona, he came to Chipperfield’s office to take up a job he had been offered before he went to Spain. Unfortunately, David didn't have enough work to employ him at the time, but we found ourselves talking, and our conversations developed to a point where we agreed we should do a competition together. We did this in our spare time and won a competition for a building to exhibit art and crafts. This was in 1991 and around the same time we had a number of other commissions. The competition, however, was put on hold and eventually cancelled. When that happened, we both decided we needed more time working for other people. I carried on working for David Chipperfield and also with Tony Fretton. Over the years Tony became a very good friend. For his part, Stephen worked in an office where he learned much more about building and construction and contracts, because we felt we needed to have that kind of knowledge.
How do you remember your first work with Stephen Bates?
Officially Stephen and I established our practice in 1996 in London, but before that – as I mentioned – we had worked together on a number of projects: the building for art and craft exhibitions; a house we were asked to design in Spain, a commission which was eventually cancelled; and we also worked on a synagogue in London. When I was working with Tony Fretton, one of the things I helped him with was a competition entry for a gallery in Walsall. Eventually Caruso St John won that competition and Tony came second. He was not happy! But part of the project included a separate building to the gallery, for a new public house. Adam Caruso and Peter St John felt that the gallery was a big enough job for them, as they had a very small office at the time. So, they invited Stephen and me to do the project for the public house, which was the first building we built.
Taking a step back in time, I started teaching in 1991, first with Micha Bandini and Adam Caruso at the North London School of Architecture, then in Nottingham, Hull, East London and eventually at the AA London. There was a group of people who rather organically got together at that time; we all knew each other and shared many of the same interests. For one and a half years we met, more or less every Sunday, in my apartment – the apartment I bought from Rodrigo Perez de Arce. What started as a series of discussions became a process of writing, presenting papers and discussing the ideas put forward in the papers. We all believed that it was important to write about architecture, as a way of formalising our thoughts. The idea was to make a journal, which in the end didn’t happen. The group included Tony Fretton, Adam Caruso, Stephen Bates, Jonathan Woolf, Ferruccio Izzo, Mark Pimlott, David Adjaye, Brad Lochore and Juan Salgado, amongst others. It was a really important time, certainly for Stephen and me, and it allowed us to develop a position. Today these London practices – Tony Fretton, Caruso St John, Sergison Bates, as well as Jonathan Woolf who, sadly, is no longer with us – are considered by many the proponents of a London architecture. This position was partly developed through the conversations we had in the mid-1990s, when none of us had very much work.
Suburban housing, Aldershot, Hants, UK, 2016 (Ph. © Kristien Daem)
What was your first built project? How has your architectural practice evolved since then?
We had built other things, but the Walsall public house was our first building. It was a project that declared or represented our position, and was implicitly related to the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. For us they were an example of a form of practice we found inspiring. They wrote, taught and, of course, built. They had a position, which was objectionable to many. One of the aspects of their work that interested us was their approach to the ‘ordinary’. It was a theme that we often returned to in our conversation in the early years of our practice. Our first project, the Walsall public house, and later the twin houses in Stevenage, explored an attitude to the ordinary. When we developed that project, we wanted it to feel house-like, like the drawing a child would make of a house. In the case of the public house, we wanted it to feel just like a big shed, or a barn. In time, through the experience of building, we came to realize that there was a discrepancy between the conceptual intention and how in reality these buildings were read by the public and the buildings’ users. This led to a greater feeling of confidence in experimenting with form. And we gradually acquired more knowledge through the experience of building. Today we are building at a much larger scale and more widely outside the UK. In addition to the London studio we have smaller offices in Zurich and Brussels, as much of our work in is Belgium and Switzerland.
What particular aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your design principles and philosophies?
Both of my parents were creative people. My father was a civil engineer, and my mother was a teacher. Both of them could draw well. My mother was good at making things. Even as a teacher she was creative in the way that she educated children. My parents encouraged me to draw but also to do what I wanted to do. I'm one of three brothers, and we all do different things.
Welcome centre and offices, Shanghai, China, 2016 (Ph. © Kristien Daem)
How do other creative fields influence your architectural work?
I have an interest in painting and sculpture. I also like film. For me this is the great twentieth century artistic invention. When compared to the theatre for example, I'd much rather go to the cinema! Music is also very important to me, and literature too. I tend to read when I'm travelling.
How do you remember yourself as an architecture student?
I immediately had a real fascination for the subject. As a student, I spent a lot of time in the library. At Canterbury they had a wonderful library, and I would go through the back catalogues of Casabella, Domus and Japan Architect. It was a form of self-education, really, but I tried to understand the context in which architectural culture and theory were discussed. I found this really important. I would say – immodestly – that I was a good student at Canterbury. I won the prize for best degree student in my year. By contrast, the AA was incredibly competitive and stressful. On reflection, this was probably a good thing, but I look back at those two years at the AA as the most stressful I can remember in my life. Much more so than working as an architect in practice for nearly 25 years… I am not sure creating that sort of atmosphere was so healthy. A few did very well, but there were many casualties. And, interestingly, few that did well at the AA did well later. In Mendrisio (where I have been teaching for 12 years) students work incredibly hard, but there is an underlying sense of community, and students help each other. It also helps that when you look out of the window, the scenery makes you think that you are on holiday…
Care home, Wingene, Belgium, 2016 (Ph. © Kristien Daem)
What does teaching represent to you?
I was drawn to teaching soon after I finished my studies. Unfortunately the UK does not have the assistant / professor structure that exists in continental European schools, where a couple of years after finishing your diploma you are eligible to work as an assistant. One of the responsibilities I feel I have as a professor is to teach my assistants how to teach. Micha Bandini (who I knew from the time she taught history and theory at the AA), called me when she was appointed head of the school of architecture at North London University, and invited me to be one of her teaching assistants (the other was Adam Caruso). She offered to teach me how to teach. I still often draw on the teaching techniques she taught me. That said, now that I'm an experienced teacher, I can say that beginning to teach in your late twenties is perhaps too early. In the UK teaching is a bit of a case of 'learning on the job'. I find the Swiss system much better in the sense that it allows younger architects to work as assistants, and the income they receive also helps them develop their own practices, while a few go on to become professors themselves later.
Stephen and I taught at the AA and at Bath, and we were then invited to teach at ETH as guest professors. This was a very important moment. We later taught at EPFL in Switzerland, and now Stephen runs the chair of housing and urbanism at T.U. Munich with Bruno Krucker. As I mentioned earlier, I have been teaching at Mendrisio since 2008. On and off Stephen and I have taught together since then, completing one semester in Oslo and one at the GSD, Harvard. We have been exposed to many schools with particular qualities and characteristics. For me the relationship between teaching and practice is fundamental, they feed off each other. My book Teaching/Practice expands on this.
Your architecture studio with Stephen Bates is based in London and Zurich. Is there something in particular about those two cities which fascinates you and continues to influence your professional work?
London is a city I love and it is where I grew up and came into my own as an architect. Today, however, I have a different relationship to it. I have been living in Zurich with my family for 7 years, and so I now look at London from afar. And I do not always like what I see. I see so many terrible decisions and bad buildings that will be with us for all of our lives. But there is something about the character of London that remains a constant fascination. It has this sort of loose-fit urban quality and brickness, and ultimately I think its spirit and energy is amazing, especially in relation to the creative industries.
Zurich is a very different city. It is much smaller, with a population of 400,000 compared to London’s 9,000,000 inhabitants. But despite its size, I still find it very rich and the way it has been planned is so utterly careful and considered. I have a great appreciation for this. I enjoy that while Zurich is part of the German-speaking world, it's still very close to the French- and Italian-speaking worlds. I like this feeling of living at the centre of Western Europe.
As a practice, we also have much work in Belgium. Sixty percent of our work as a practice is in this small country. So, Belgium is another country that we now know really quite well, one that's at first sight familiar, but altogether very different. There's a sort of beautiful strangeness to Belgium which I like, and the contemporary architectural scene is exceptional. It comes out of a special creative imagination… In general, because we have built and are building in so many other European countries, our practice has a strong connection to continental Europe. First and foremost, we have always considered ourselves European, and as a result are unhappy about the current political direction in the UK.
Business school, Whitechapel, London, 2015 (Ph. © Kristien Daem)
Since you started your practice in 1996, what do you think has changed in the profession of architecture? In your opinion, what are the necessary conditions to practice architecture today?
The changes that have occurred in the 23 years since Stephen and I have been in practice cannot be underestimated. When we started, digital was not a word we used. I actually remember computers starting to appear in offices and schools towards the end of my time as a student. We used Macs for writing, but I never learnt to draw on a computer. When we took photographs they were analogue; digital photography didn’t exist. When we introduced computer drawing into the studio, we wanted drawings to have the same kind of structure we had developed for drawing by hand.
Your question is very broad, but one example that comes to mind is how easy it is to copy and paste when drawing on a computer. When you draw by hand and have to draw the same element again and again, it's impossible to draw it exactly the same, and this affects the way you work. The relation between repetition and production is so different…
What has really changed for us is, of course, that we now have three studios, it's not just Stephen and I sitting across the desk from each other! We have many staff and collaborators.
Architects tend to complain about the changes that occur in the building industry, and sometimes I do too, but I've learnt that you have to embrace the circumstances you are faced with and respond to them. Complaining doesn't help, although given the resources, capacity and possibilities the contemporary building industry has at its disposal, you would expect to see more incredible buildings in the world.
Along the way, what is the best advice you have received, and is there one piece of advice in particular which you would share with young architects and architecture students?
As someone who is committed to teaching, I hope that what I share with the students every week is good advice! Over the years, Tony Fretton has offered me so many good pieces of advice. One of the things I remember him saying is that everything is an opportunity, and it's really how you deal with the opportunities that you encounter that matters. Once, during the time I worked with him, he was drawing a detail and suddenly said to himself, out loud : ”what is this detail saying in relation to the project?” And I remember being struck by that, the sense that everything somehow was connected to a conceptual ambition. I found that very instructive at the time, and still do. David Chipperfield has also offered good advice over the years. He is always very supportive, and gentle – in the sense that he is never overtly critical. You have to read between the lines of what he says. And I must mention again my wonderful teacher Rodrigo Pérez de Arce, who I still turn to for advice.
In terms of the advice I would give young architect, one of the things I feel strongly about is that one shouldn't be in a hurry. It takes a long time to absorb the lessons of architecture to the point that you can meaningfully implement them. I sometimes find younger architects impatient, and I urge them not to be! I would also say that it's better to learn from someone who has more experience than to work things out for yourself. I always tell my students not to start with the ambition to invent something original, as it takes a long time to master the discipline of architecture. It is futile to aspire to be original and unique in everything you do, as everything in architecture has been done before. It's just a question of what you can do to reshape or adjust the elements you're working with in relation to the long and wonderful tradition of architecture.
Mansion block, Hampstead, London, 2017 (© Sergison Bates Architects)
Is there a book which is of particular importance to you as an architect?
Every semester in the briefing document for my students I set a list of books that I encourage them to read. I always doubt that they even get hold of them, let alone read them! So, in previous semesters I have set a short text as part of the course work that they not only have to to read, but also interpret and discuss.
What I find myself reading and rereading is “The seduction of place”, by Joseph Rykwert, which is a fantastic and vivid history of cities and offers a very interesting interpretation of urbanity. He always goes back to the Roman city and his fascination with its origins as the basis of urbanism and, by implication, architecture.
In general, I always read. On holiday, I read fiction, which I find somehow connected to architecture. There are certain writers who are really brilliant at describing places and spaces. Georges Perec's ‘Species of Spaces’ is one of the books I often set as course work for my students: it starts with a piece of furniture, then the room, the apartment, the house, the neighborhood, and finally the city. It is wholly connected with architecture, and beautifully written. I tend to read the works of writers I like in a rather systematic way. More recently I have been reading Stefan Zweig, Amos Oz and David Grossman.
Who was the most influential person in your architectural education and why?
I had many wonderful teachers. When I was an undergraduate I came across Florian Beigel for the first time. He was a guest teacher at my university, and I remember him giving a lecture, which I thought was the first lesson on architecture I ever received. He talked about the recently completed Half Moon theatre in London, with that incredible voice he had, which students would impersonate. He spoke about the project’s urban investigation, the theme of reuse and explained what a theatre should be in contemporary terms. I never met anyone quite like him.
Then, at Canterbury, Adrian Sansom, who was one of the members of what was known as the Grunt Group, which included Mike Gold, Christopher Cross, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones was a very wise and encouraging teacher. Also, at that same time, Lorenzo Apicella was a very young and exciting teacher.
After graduating, I worked with David Chipperfield, who was also a teacher to me. And then, of course, at the AA, Rodrigo Pérez de Arce, who David encouraged me to study with, remains a great teacher. And finally, I have to mention Tony Fretton, who I also regard as one of my teachers.
Suburban housing, Seebach, Zürich, Switzerland, 2019 (Ph. © David Grandorge)
An instance of architecture:
My first encounter with Siza's buildings was very memorable. Then I would add the Half Moon theatre and the Lisson Gallery in London, which were such important buildings for architects of my generation.
Later, on a trip to Basel the buildings of Diener and Diener – each one so accurately considered – made a strong impression on me. I'm always reminded of Roger Diener's statement that, to paraphrase, you can bring order to a place with a single house.
A building you would like to design:
One building type I would love to design is a school of architecture. Looking at the one designed by Lacaton & Vassal, I think it's an amazing project, which offers so much space for creativity and isn't precious. Then, if I were really greedy, I would love to design an airport. Passing through City Airport in London I am always thinking about how I would love to redesign it! As a building type, the airport is a wonderful twentieth century invention, especially when you consider its social role, which has been very successfully explored at Stansted Airport by Norman Foster.
I'm happy to say that we have managed to work on most of the building types I wanted to design in my twenties – a library, and spaces for art, those sorts of public programmes. Most of our work considers housing and its place in the European city. This keeps us busy.
Kanal-Centre Pompidou, Brussels, Belgium, 2019 (Ph. © Secchi Smith)
A piece of art:
The series of paintings Mark Rothko made at the end of his life. They are so profound.
More recently my wife, Irina Davidovici, gave me a drawing by Peter Märkli as a wedding anniversary gift. I am very happy to live with it.
Performing Arts Quarters, Leuven, Belgium, 2019