Taylor-Made Teaching

Piers Taylor, accomplished architect and current Reading PhD student, credits a single lecture for inspiring the blueprint to an award-winning career. 

Whether as a scholar, guest speaker or tutor, Piers Taylor has used academia as a resource of choice since being awoken to his “vocation” in his 20s.

Having been devoid of any clear plan for his professional path prior to embarking on a design degree at the University of Sydney, Piers is now one of the brightest talents in his field and a seasoned television presenter. He is a case study in the positive impact a good teacher can have on an individual.

Building a career

“Growing up I had no idea what I wanted to be,” explained the man known to millions for fronting BBC Two’s The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes and three series of The House that £100k Built.

“Friends of mine were quite clear as to what they wanted to do but even when I had finished my A-Levels, I still wasn’t sure. I was a mature student when I started at university having already completed an art foundation course, set up a small construction company and gone travelling,” added the former Design Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

“I had begun to think that I wanted to be an industrial designer, creating components and bits and pieces, but the degree course that I chose had a combined first year where all of the design disciplines were lumped together.

“The first lecture I went to was by an amazing seminal, and now very famous, Australian architect called Glenn Murcutt, and he spoke in such a way – and I was so inspired – that I left the lecture and changed immediately to architecture.

“He spoke about the way that quite modest buildings can take on really big themes like climate, identity and sustainability.

Industrial design was concerned with making objects whereas Glenn located those objects in both culture and geography. This gave me a framework to bring together my interests and through which to see the world.”

Delivered by a role model renowned for environmentally-engaged buildings that “touch the earth lightly”, it is a lesson Piers has never forgotten and one he is doing his utmost to share with future generations.

Opting for an exploratory approach to architecture that “felt for many years like I was just scratching around with sticks in the wood”, the father-of-four turned his back on the corporate mainstream to forge a reputation for structures focused on frugality and sustainability.

It is a decision that has ultimately paid dividends. He has won plaudits for his support of projects for schools in the most deprived communities in the UK. Furthermore, in 2017, the architectural practice he founded, Invisible Studio, scooped three major Royal Institute of British Architects awards for its design of the Wolfson Tree Management Centre for Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire.

Returning to ground zero

Despite his rise to prominence and having more than 20 years of practice to his name, Piers’ passion for the power of education remains which has led him to an enduring relationship with Reading.

When away from his business and the self-built woodland house he shares with his family near Bath, the architect is a regular fixture in Berkshire. The TV personality worked as a studio practitioner within the University’s School of Architecture when it opened to students in September 2016, and a year later, won one of ten Anniversary PhD Scholarships.

Piers, who is close to completing his studies and will deliver an alumni lecture titled Making Architecture – Making Communities on campus next month, told CONNECTED why he welcomed education’s embrace:

“I have never thought of myself as a great teacher, but I am really interested in the dialogue between a practitioner and a student.

“You develop buildings through conversations and in many ways, I think the conversation between a teacher and student is incredibly potent.

“One of the things Reading is really good at is forging that link between academia and practice.”

Piers’ own PhD, entitled Contingent Negotiation, explores the opportunities to bridge the gap between design and making: “It has been one of the best and most interesting things I have done in my architectural life. It has been a great time for me to do it – mid-career and middle aged – and has allowed me to really look at what I have done and understand what I might do going forward that is better.

“My PhD is a mechanism for testing the mode of practice my own work has been involved in. Generally, architects pre-design everything before it is made, which is unlike almost every other creative discipline. A painter or sculptor, for example, fuse together design and making in a way that we used to pre-Renaissance.

“Buildings such as the Notre Dame and Salisbury Cathedral were designed and made simultaneously, and I am trying to understand what we can learn in the twenty-first century from that mode of practice.”

Teaching future generations

While Piers modestly dismisses any notion that he is having the same impact on others as his former lecturer had on him, he firmly believes that the lessons instilled in him by one of the greatest living architects – and on which he has built a career – are becoming increasingly important for society to master.

“I would never have the conceit to call myself an architect who was able to make a difference to global environmental issues,” he concluded. “Development is not sustainable, and architects have to be very careful not to delude ourselves that our buildings are making a big difference, but we do have to try our hardest, and best, to work as wisely as possible and to ensure the least amount of damage.

“Unlike 10 years ago when people paid lip service to the sustainability of projects, now people are really interested and are drilling down into the choices they make about their impact on a landscape, on an environment and their consumption of resources.

“There is nowhere to hide now and people have to ask themselves why am I doing this, how am I doing this, is it right that I am doing it, am I doing it the right way, and am I doing it as effectively as I possibly can in terms of minimising damage to the environment?

“It is really bad practice to work on a building that does not address all of those things head on.”

You can hear more about Piers’ work at our next alumni lecture on Wednesday 13 November.