Tony Fretton
Tony Fretton (1945) graduated from the Architectural Association (AA) in London, after which he worked for a number of practices; including Arup, Neyland & Ungless, and Chapman Taylor, before establishing Tony Fretton Architects in 1982. The practice’s work ranges from embassies, government and commercial offices, residential, and buildings for art and culture.

His first major project was the Lisson Gallery (London) in 1990. He is known for designing "location sensitive art spaces" using a combination of vernacular and minimalist approaches, balancing new and age-old designs.

Fretton is deeply committed to architectural education and has experience teaching worldwide, including at the Architectural Association (AA) and Harvard University. From 1999 to 2015 he held the post of Professor within the Chair of Architecture and Interiors at TU Delft, the Netherlands.
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Portrait of Tony Fretton (© Chris Clunn)
When you were a child what did you want to be when you were older?
For a long while I wanted to be an artist, a painter, and then at a certain moment when I was about 17 I discovered architecture and I thought it was very beautiful, because it was a social art, and 4 years later I went to architecture school.
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Art Museum, Fuglsang, Denmark, 2008 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
What was your favourite subject at school?
Art but also mathematics. There is something very beautiful about its formality. I had wonderful teachers in languages, english literature, art and mathematics. My english teacher introduced us to American poetry and my mathematics teacher showed us how probability related to life.
What was your educational path?
A provincial grammar school in the 1970’s, where we studied mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, Latin, French, Russian, and German. It was an education in the sciences and humanities.
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Kapoor House, London, 2008 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
When and how did your career start?
I decided to start my own office in 1983 with a few small projects, and it took off with the Lisson Gallery.
You have built in your country and abroad. But how do you remember your first built project?
At Arup Associates I first saw what I had drawn realised in building and understood the relationship between intention and reality. There I also had the experience of being a site-controller which gave me a grounding in construction, but I also worked on construction sites for around three years before studying architecture and would occasionally return during summer breaks from architecture school.
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Lisson gallery, London, 1992 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
How do you approach new projects?
When a new project comes into the office it is analyzed by a team before I look at it, so that I don’t propose things that are dead-ends. They look at it pragmatically, determine what its brief is, propose two or three versions, after which I elaborate the design. Then the process is repeated, and discussed amongst the partners and developed with the project architect. It’s a very collaborative office, but I am the design voice.

I have three partners, two of whom bring tremendous construction knowledge to the projects.
Which architects have influenced you the most?
Different architects have influenced me in different ways. James Gowan, James Stirling’s partner, was a very interesting architect and great teacher, who like Luigi Snozzi had an effect on a very large number of people. James let me see the intellectual and historical dimensions of architecture.

Alvaro Siza let me understand the relationship of architecture to the human-made and natural world, and Louis Kahn how a formal architecture can be open to interpretation. I’m not influenced too much by other architects.
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Camden Arts center, London, 2004 (Ph.© Hélène Binet)
How do other creative fields influence your architectural work?
I wouldn’t say influence but I’m interested in them. It’s difficult to say what they bring to architecture. I read poetry frequently, the same poets again and again. I listen to jazz and watch films. I think that architecture should be a popular art form that connects with the people. In a way it’s like film-making, where the director’s work has to be commercially successful, accessible and creatively progressive. As an architect you’re constantly dealing with societal forces, the big skill is finding a way to make significant architecture that will be built and then liked by people.

Huge amounts of money are not always good for cities, look at recent developments like Hudson Yards in New York, for example. But there’s a type of energy and ambition that can only exist in a metropolis. I’m a thorough Londoner, my family has been here for centuries. Londoners are naturally cosmopolitan and accept and enjoy other cultures, and so I love other European cities and their cultures. Building in Holland and being a professor in TU Delft let me appreciate its methodological approach, but there’s a certain freedom of thought in Britain, which I think is valuable to Pan-European culture. As an architect I have always felt part of the European culture, and my friends and architects I admire are mainly European.
The key features of your architecture:
I think that’s for other people to say. As an architect you do the work and other people interpret it. It’s something I can’t answer.
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The Red House, London, 2001 (Ph. © Peter Cook)
Your architecture studio is now based in London. Is there something in particular about this city that fascinates you and influence your professional work?
It’s a wonderful city which I understand more and more as I continue to look at other European cities. London’s relationship to Europe is like New York, it’s a very big place where lots of people converge. My friend Felix Claus said about the Red House that it could not have happened in Amsterdam because Amsterdam is not a Metropolis, while London is of course.
A project or building you would like to realise:
As an architect you get projects unexpectedly, and each one you do with interest. I don’t have a dream project. It’s more about turning things that come my way into life.
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Gallery and Archive, Longside, Yorkshire, UK, 1986 (Ph.© Antony Gormley)
In his interview, Jonathan Sergison spoke very highly of you. He considers you, amongst others, a very important teacher and influence in his career. Have you always felt a responsibility to pass on your acquired knowledge to the next generation or those in your charge?
I don’t feel like my way of doing architecture should become a formula for others, but I think that the insights and things I have discovered are worth presenting in case other people find them useful. It’s with this sense that I teach, never trying to confine people to my way of doing things, (although that’s much harder to do than you imagine). I teach students the pleasure of designing and thinking like an architect, how to recognise and realise their own ideas.

I have met many great educators: Peter Märkli who is a true great; Luigi Snozzi with whom I did critiques at EPFL was quick, analytical, and a natural educator; James Gowan as I have said; Mark Pimlott, my great friend and wonderful thinker and maker; and in the current generation Andrew Clancy, Professor at Kingston who combines exceptional intellectual design skills, and his practice partner Colm Moore who teaches at Queens in Belfast.
You have taught at multiple universities: ETH Zürich, ETSAB Barcelona, Harvard, TU Delft, EPFL Lausanne, Berlage Institute Amsterdam, The University of Navarra, and The University of East London. What does teaching architecture represent to you?
It is about repayment, helping successive generations to have confidence and good technique, helping to create strong individual minds that understand the need for collaboration, supporting their diversity without individualism. I like teaching as much as designing.
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Faith House, H. Lee center for disability in the Arts, Poole, UK, 2012 (Ph.© Hélène Binet)
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?
A lot of what you need to know as an architect you have to learn yourself, because it’s practical knowledge. We design something, build it, look at it, repeat it. You can’t advise people on that.

During one’s studies I would advise being fearless and enquiring, willing to take risks while recognizing your duty to society. If you want to be a good, practicing architect, you have to look at architecture as something you will study your whole life. You have to buy books; you have to visit buildings.
In his interview, Jonathan Sergison shared his memory of a time when you, Adam Caruso, David Adjaye and others would meet in his London apartment every Sunday, to discuss architecture. How do you remember this time? And looking back now, are you surprised at the level of success experienced by so many of the group’s members?
We didn’t know who we were or what we stood for, and our meetings were to find this out through discussion and writing. The writing that emerged from it was not strong or publishable and different positions emerged that at first were interesting then uncontainable. However, a number of people, Jonathan Sergison, Adam Caruso and I, who were in that room attempting a writing project, went on to become professors at European universities and in that capacity produced bodies of writing. So the intended school of British architectural writing was realised through a diaspora into Europe.

Regarding the second half of the question, I am no longer surprised, because they have established themselves as significant architects. We share a broad sensibility despite not being in frequent contact, a sensibility that was formed by the politics, ideas and circumstances of the times and places in which we found ourselves. I recall thinking how the views of Alan Colquhoun, a friend and wonderful and relevant writer, relied on a wide group of friends in the UK, Europe, and the USA and the time from post war modernism through to the postmodernism of the 1970’s.
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Lisson gallery, London, 1992 (Ph.© Mark Pimlott)
Is there a book which is of particular importance to you as an architect?
I do not buy books as frequently as when I was developing my position. If I see a great book I do not hesitate, because print runs are sort. Erasmus said, ‘if I have some money, I buy books, if I have some more, I buy food’. I have a more balanced view of the relation between eating and reading.

My two-volume book on Lewerentz is the best I know, as is the huge book of Louis Kahn sketches. I have more books on Adolf Loos than I know what to do with.
An instance of architecture important to you:
The work of Alvaro Siza and Fernando Tavora in the 1950’s and 60’s. I still look at that work with enormous pleasure. They are the ones who have the most humanity and artistry that I’ve ever seen
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Art Museum, Fuglsang, Denmark, 2008 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
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The Red House, London, 2001 (Ph. © Peter Cook)
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Family Housing, Pewsey Village, UK, 2015 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
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Faith House, H. Lee center for disability in the Arts, Poole, UK, 2012 (Ph.© Hélène Binet)
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Kapoor House, London, 2008 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
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Kapoor House, London, 2008 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
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Family Housing, Pewsey Village, UK, 2015 (Ph.© Peter Cook)
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The Red House, London, 2001 (Ph. © Peter Cook)
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Westkaai Towers, Antwerp, Belgium, 2016 (Ph. © Peter Cook)
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