Architect in Profile - David Kirkland

After studying architecture at Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and The Royal College of Art in London, David Kirkland undertook his first practical year out at Nicholas Grimshaw’s practice in London, where he ended up staying for 18 years. Since 2000, he has run his own practice – Kirkland Fraser Moor. Here, FC&A talks to David about his career and finds out when his passion for architecture began.


David Kirkland

is a founding principal of Kirkland Fraser Moor

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

Yes, for as long as I can recall. At an early age, this did not mean much to me other than the ‘grown ups’ telling me I will be an architect. Our school’s careers advisor suggested the RAF or an electrical apprenticeship – I think most of my class were similarly advised. A brief rebellious two-year period at 17 drew me to being a photographer, but the call back to architecture eventually took hold again.

Who/what has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I have been very fortunate to have had some great teachers, including Alfred Caldwell, who taught me at IIT in Chicago. At the time, he was 83 and still going strong. He had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, also key influencers of mine. Over the last 20 years, however, I have been more influenced by nature and drawn to first principles – archetypal and ‘primitive’ architecture and art. I am a huge fan of technology but now tend to look at it as a simple tool and best used for enabling a growing planet full of people to live fruitful and healthy lives whilst also ensuring that the rest of life can flourish equally well.

What has been your most notable project to date?

Working with Nicholas Grimshaw provided me with wonderful opportunities to work on some landmark projects, both at home and abroad. These included Waterloo International Station and The Eden Project. My current work is at a far smaller scale but tends to have a very high level of innovation still. Most projects are Para 79 houses in extremely challenging and politically-sensitive locations. Risks are high, but we enjoy the ability to include untried ideas that would not normally be accepted in standard projects – the aim being to demonstrate what could be possible with lower-cost housing.

Ashraya, our latest project for my neighbour, has just completed, and we are particularly excited to see how this will perform over the next few years. The difficult brief called for a highly-sustainable, low-carbon house but with fully glazed facades. The design team has developed an innovative passive cooling system to keep the overheating temperatures comfortable.

How do you approach your projects?

I find our current scale of work attractive as it allows me to fully enjoy the design process while tackling difficult community stakeholder and planning issues. I very much enjoy working with landscape and ecology – the rougher the terrain, the better. Recently, we have been growing our expertise in eco-tourism, which allows us to actively include the economic and social aspects of the triple bottom line.

To make headway with getting our projects past planning, we must exhibit high degrees of diplomacy and patience. Although relatively small, most Para 79 projects take five to six years to complete. Helping people see things they cannot see for themselves is hugely challenging but also greatly rewarding. I try to view buildings not as static objects but as catalysts within a societal and natural ecosystem.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

Having spent most of my career being involved in various sectors of the sustainable design agenda, I can say that during the first 10 years of struggle, it would have been beneficial to understand that to get these things fully embedded into projects, it is always best to speak in the natural language of the client, and this invariably means a healthy return on investment. All possible, but only if the whole initial design principles bend to what the client, climate and community are asking for.

What is your favourite building and why?

This is very difficult to answer, much like offering a favourite piece of music. I appreciate different buildings for different things. In my early career, this may have been the rigour and order of Miessian spatial qualities or, more likely, the sophistication of the technology or structure. How something was built was very important to me. Recently, however, I am far more drawn to a narrative – how the silent speech of buildings creates and binds society. As such, I find myself drawn to early architecture and first people’s buildings – so powerful, usually very parsimonious but always hugely meaningful, and in ways we may never understand.

I am fascinated by buildings and structures such as Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic archaeological site near the city of Şanlıurfa in Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey. The earliest layers are around 11,000 years old and certainly disrupt our views on whether the adoption of farming caused people to settle down or settling down caused people to adopt farming. Still, either way, the building process caused significant numbers of people to draw together and expend vast amounts of precious energy over 6000 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was started.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

Many fear AI and automation, but as they say – an architect’s education is unique in that we are asked to have our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground. I believe this way of thinking can be hugely important for our near future. However, communicating the value that we provide society is something I think the profession and education need to better grip. For certain, we need to recover our role as servant to society, and a good architect should not fear this as an impingement on his creative skills.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students at the moment?

I believe something is not quite working for students of architecture in the UK. Our research at D-Lab shows this is currently the longest course and the most expensive – I believe a debt of around £100k is typical, and entering a relatively low-paid profession does not help. The undergraduate course also registers the highest rates of mental health issues across all courses. Diversity and social mobility are certainly also a massive issue that needs to be addressed. As part of our contribution to helping in these areas, we have set up our A^3 Program (Architectural Apprentice Accelerator) at D-Lab. We are currently looking to industry and education partners to work alongside us to make this as effective as possible.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

I understand approximately 70% of our profession within the UK work in very small and micro-businesses. I recommend at least five years working under the tutelage of a big practice and then venture out into the lesser areas of the UK and make your mark by bringing high-quality, sustainable solutions to these communities. I would also greatly advise better soft skills in the art of listening and diplomacy and of making narratives that are appealing and workable for the local and wider community. A full understanding of systemic thinking, balancing economic, social, ecological, and equity/justice is essential for any future role.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

We have just gone through a company restructure, and I hope we can build on the work we have been investing energy and risk in over the last six to seven years. We look forward to working on projects that can enable us to find a better balance between human thriving and natural systems.

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