I retired in 2013, aged sixty, after a thirty-year academic career, and am now busier than ever putting into practice ideas developed through teaching and writing.
The work shown on this website – designs for houses and gardens, scarves for Liberty, an app for children – may appear disparate to the point of incoherence. But underpinning it all is a passionate belief that architecture and design need to change radically to contribute creatively to what John Ruskin called the 'earth veil' – the living skin of our Planet in all its diversity and beauty. While addressing the technical challenges of Climate Change, architecture and design need to give compelling expression to new ways of living with each other and with the natural world of which we are part. As Le Corbusier, to my mind the greatest architect ever to pick up a T-square, put it, 'what matters in life is the poetry'.
Habitable spaces are framed by surfaces, and I am exploring the implications of technical changes in the way we now build, which put an increasing emphasis on 'building skins' (or 'wall veils'), in a book entitled Surface Matters. To be published in 2024 this is, like everything I now do, a collaborative enterprise: involving former students and various other 'young' practitioners, co-ordinated by my co-author (and former student), Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects. I employ a digital coder, Joe Offside, and design assistant, Manisha Harkins, and create with a network of designers and makers, glimpses of whose work are shown to the right.
If you like what you see on this website and have a project in mind, please contact me at:
Visiting Professor of Surface Design,
Cardiff Metropolitan University, and
Director of CreateForAll Ltd and
Molly’s World CIC
Barton Engineers: Bob's work ranges from lightweight structures to conserving the National Gallery in London.
Coffey Architects: Phil’s work ranges from private houses in the UK to a tower in Dacca and a corporate campus in China.
Oliver Chapman: a former student, Oliver runs a practice in Edinburgh and will collaborate on architectural projects.
Victoria Wade: Vicki is an RHS Gold Medal-winning landscape and garden designer with a vast knowledge of plants.
Innovative Glass Products: run by Rodney Bender, who works on everyting from luxury taps to art installations.
Charlotte Moore: another former student, Charlotte now practices in various media as a designer-maker.
Francesca De-Lilla: a former employee, Francesca is a visual merchandiser and freelance textile designer.
H4 Group: run by environmental engineer Guy Middleton, H4 make CGI’s that can look more real than the real thing.
Already packed with minerals and fossils, ceramics and 'curiosities', my house is being turned into a full-blown, latter-day Cabinet of Curiosities. It will be experienced locally by children attending workshops with the MollyApp, and globally via pop-ups and webcams on the Molly's World website. The plans and sections capture something of the intensity of it all. The major addition will be the large aquarium shown in the CGI below. The back garden is also being comprehensively re-designed. On occasions it will offer the surreal sight of an igloo in the middle of a small wildflower meadow – a nod to our online Antarctica project. (shown later in 'New Work': we are hoping to materialise it as a travelling exhibition. I’m adding guinea pigs to complement the goldfish in the front garden. The mezzanine of their house, reached by a modernist ramp (!), will sit on a new stone terrace. They will also have the freedom of a 15 metre run of turf around two sides of the garden – a 'living linear meal' to supplement their regular diet, protected by steel mesh.
I am lucky to have pro bono help from Guy Middleton, an environmental engineer who runs a leading CGI visualisation company, the H4 Group. His team transformed an iPhone snap of my dining room into this premonition of things to come (I can claim credit for Photoshopping in the fish and rocks! The tank will be installed in June by Ritchie Newell, a talented local ‘aquascaper’). The glass-fin base will be made by my old friends Hourglass in Hampshire, and harks back to Radiant House and my fascination with structural glass. The tank will weigh half a ton and the base has been given the once-over by my favourite structural engineer, Bob Barton, another pro bono helper who took time off from leading the team restoring the Trafalgar Square elevation of the National Gallery. Bob’s ran the bent-steel Sunspot Chair through his computers, and determined that it needs to be made from 5mm steel sheet. The design is a reinterpretation of Gerrit Rietveld’s wooden Zig Zag Chair of 1934. Made of steel, mine has no need of sneaky triangular fillets to channel forces round the folds. But it is also very heavy – a two-man job to move! Just as Rietveld’s earlier and almost equally impractical Red and Blue chair was adopted by Mondrian - whose mature style it anticipated, as an absract expression of ‘the cosmic rhythm which runs through all things’. The Chair will sit permanently on my terrace, gently celebrating the passage of the morning sun with slowly moving shadows and sunspots.
My wooden Aalto dining table is showing severe signs of age, courtesy of a constantly available bowl of water for my cats, and so I have decided to dust off a design made several years ago. Intended to evoke the feeling of looking down on a coral reef through a glass-bottomed boat, it uses my ‘signature’ mineral image – a colour-inverted version of red-andgreen Indiant bloodstone (aka heliotrope, a variety of jasper). I’m, to put it mildly, not a great lover of ‘selfie’ culture but this image became linked to me through a superb portrait taken by Rick Pushinsky for the Independent on Sunday. He decided to wrap my face below the nose with one of my Liberty scarves but had no idea that I was rather self-conscious about my mouth and cheek, having just recovered from a molar abscess resulting in lockjaw. I normally work at the dining table, with Ellie sleeping in an Amazon delivery box which is slowly turning into something like a live cast. I wouldn’t dream of depriving her of it when the table arrives. My attitude to interiors is not that beloved of magazine editors: the designerly, stylish, not-a-thing-out-of-place ‘aesthetic’ they generally promote seems to me antithetical to a genuinely architectural celebration of domesticity. The silk fish hanging above the table are not there as witty touches, but one of many expressions in my house of a genuine passion for the living ‘earth veil’, as Ruskin put it, of our planet. Now, the cats’ blue water bowl feels at home, in a dialogue with the lemon-fringed ‘jellyfish’ captured from a Montana agate. I’m not sure if this is what Hölderlin meant by ‘poetically man dwells’, but it feels like it to me
We are seeking sponsorship for a travelling exhibition focussed around a dome, in which we would evoke the atmosphere of four threatened ecosystems – Antarctica, wildflower meadows, plastic-polluted oceans, coral reefs – and conduct informative, creative workshops. Intended to run in 2024/5, in parallel with our online MollysWorld projects on the same themes, the dome’s setting would be augmented with elements of Molly’s World. It is shown here in Middleton Hall in Milton Keynes, and we are exploring other likely locations such as the Eden Project in Cornwall and Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. The dome would be carved from styrofoam, using a CNC multi-axis cutter, by Cordex, a leader in making complex moulds for casting concrete. And it will be echoed in the ‘igloo’ in my garden, which we plan to offer to others via the online MollyShop: using digital techniques it is a one-off product, with no significant savings from replication.
CGI’s courtesy of Guy Middleton / H4 Group
The 'precious' quality of the rug laid out for the Lady and her guests is echoed in the smoothness of the tiles - garden paving fit for Ginger Rogers!
The world of medieval manuscripts and art is well-suited to both children's love of detail and the MollyApp. In this spirit the starting point for the design is a tapestry from the millefleur-rich 'Lady and the Unicorn' series in Paris. The circular rug is turned into a circle of porcelain tiles, digitally printed with children's flower drawings from the Walthamstow Meadow project (see 'Working with Children'). This will be set in a carpet of wildflowers, scattered with illuminated quartz crystals powered by a vertical wind turbine with a Slovenius-like rotor based on the split pennant flag.
When I showed the design to my friend and former colleague, Prof Stephen Kite, he asked if I knew the lost garden at William Morris’s Red House. I wasn’t, and he sent me a paper, based on a chapter in his then fortchoming book Shaping the Surface. This explained how Morris created an enclosure with trellises (inspired by gardens illustrated in Islamic manucripts in the British Museum), which in turn were the inspiration for his ‘breakthrough’ trellis wallpapers intended to link house and garden. In the MollyGarden the trellises are of stell, not wood, and children will be able to apply drawings of flowers, birds, butterflies, bees, etc., using magnets. The garden is scattered with circles: steel-drum-planters for herbs, salads, exotic plants and a drinking place for birds, planetary glass disks from orbicular jasper, and an image from delaminating mica that hints - to me at least! - at a rising sun. Immediately recognisable by children is a cloudeating strizzato is seen devouring a slatted timber cloud which echoes that on the MollysWorld interface. Trees and climbers planted on my land, but beyond the fences, enhance the feeling of space by creating a ‘borrowed landscape’ in the spirit of Japanese shakkei.
This is the first of two speculative projects for gardens for a future Chelsea Flower Show. The first is an adaptation of my own front garden, designed to fit on one of the smallest plots at the Show. It would be transported in two sections, almost fully planted, on a flatbed lorry, first to the Show and then on to a permanent home. I will be approaching a well known children’s charity in Wales in the hope that together we might be able to raise the required sponsorship.
Gardens have often been ‘bearers of meaning’ and one of the most evocative is the Désert de Retz in France (left). It was inspired by the English Landscape Garden before Capability Brown banished statuary and architectural features. Much has been lost, but enough survives to convey its spirit: a tent made of sheet metal, a pyramidal ice house that alludes to ancient Egypt, and most famously a ruined but inhabitable Doric column. The proposal that follows - a glimpse is shown below - is designed in a similar spirit. Every element alludes to an aspect of its subject, California, and it is composed as a montage in which elements are layered to overlap and collide and thereby create events reminiscent of the often seemingly happenstance delights of nature.
The plot is based on one of the larger show garden sites at Chelsea and the detailed brief (a vital element of any Chelsea proposal) is to celebrate the landscape and culture of California (with a view to attracting sponsorship from one of the ‘big tech’ firms, naturally!). The garden reflects ‘universal’ features of the landscape and culture of the State, and distant but still vivid memories of three glorious weeks I spent there after completing my studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The design begins with the pattern of the globally-warmed floor of Death Valley. The enlarged cracks are rendered as steel-lined rills, fabricated like the interclocking plates of the ‘Steel Cliff’ in my own garden.
The network of islands is overlaid by a pattern derived from a microchip circuit board, whose features are used to determine the placement of almost all the secondary elements of the garden: spots of solder become fountains; circular terminations, planters; changes of surface are echoed as planting or paving; etc.
The location I have chosen is a corner plot, framed on two sides. Down the long side runs a steel-cliff ‘mountain range’ with waterfalls (memories of Yosemite Park in the Sierra)
The lower two levels of the mountain range return as retaining walls to contain elevated strips of vegetation - vines and the golden grass of the coastal hills in summer.
The ‘islands’ are rich with contrasting kinds of planting. Native wild flowers and grasses form a fragmented meadow across the whole garden.
California’s native flora is exceptional, and it is also the source of some 70% of the cut flowers sold in the USA. To emphasise their ‘artificiality’ the cultivated flowers would be grown in brush-finished stainless steel drums.
The other elements of the planting scheme include an ‘orchard’ of flowering peach trees - California produces 700,000 tons annually.
Succulents and cacti are planted in the small ‘pockets’ created by the steelframing of the rills. These reflect one of my most vivid memories, a visit to Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula, a location made famous by the great photographer Edward Weston. In his late pictures the plants glow like stars among the rocks and cypress-tree roots that cling to the cliffs.
Public fountains, like these in San Pedro (part of Los Angeles), are a familiar sight in California. In the garden, small fountains rising directly from the paving are scattered throughout.
California’s natural riches include gold - the source, of course, of its early prosperity - and commercially valuable minerals. Images of minerals, printed on tiles, will be used to mark particular places within the garden. Here, for example, turquoise forms the setting for four California-designed Eames chairs and a table with a channel of winecooling water modelled on the famous stone table at the Villa Lante in Rome.
No ‘California Dream’ would be complete without reference to the ultimate dream-maker, Hollywood, from where I borrow a ‘Walk of Stars’ to the pioneers of the Digital Revolution.
The digital technologies that have transformed the world in the 21st century allow inobtrusive ways of enriching our experiences of the world. For the garden, a special app would be coded to enable visitors to discover information about its many features, from plants and minerals to the fossils and ‘Stars’ inlaid in the paving.
The narrative elements described above are readily identified in the plan. At a more practical level, circulation is via a series of glass bridges across the rills, layered with shallow strips of stainless steel to provide grip. Benches, tables and seats offer places to linger. Without wishing to anticipate the garden’s reception, HM The Queen does seem to be taking a keen interest...