Architect in Profile - Ben McKenna

Ben McKenna started out studying interior architecture at Brighton. From there, he joined a small practice that worked in sensitive locations in rural Kent and Sussex. Ben’s work here was focused on listed building alterations and rural housing. With a desire to expand on what he’d learnt working at a small practice, Ben joined Conran and Partners to work largely on estate regeneration and residential projects in London and the South East. Having recently joined DMWR Architects, Ben talks to us about his time at Conran and Partners and runs through a few of his favourite designs.

Gallery

Ben McKenna

is an Associate Director at DMWR Architects

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

The skills I learnt, being very hands-on with the design and construction process after I’d left university, served me well at Conran and Partners. I was able to bring the same attention to detail that I applied to a rural extension to a large-scale housing regeneration.

An ethos I’ve lived and breathed over the past decade is that good design should be accessible to all, and I am passionate about well-designed, affordable housing.

Having stayed at Conran for 12 years, I’m excited to have recently joined DMWR to work with their extensive range of clients and to expand the residential side of the business.

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

Yes. Since I was seven and sat drawing my mum’s house all afternoon from across the road – I knew then this was what I wanted to do.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

There have been loads, but to mention one, it would have to be Yves Saint Laurent for his determination and dedication to his craft (although, I don’t like the polo shirts!). Alright, maybe two; I can’t help mentioning Damien Hirst for his ability to merge business and art.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few – Portobello Square and the Green Man Lane estate regeneration, a brief stint on Centre Point Tower and the iconic Embassy Court. Over and above those, though – a truly affordable housing scheme for Brighton and Hove City Council, called St James Square in Portslade, where new homes are tied to the living wage. There’s also a delightful narrative where we reintroduced a former square into the heart of the project, creating a much-needed public realm to what otherwise was quite a harsh setting.

How do you approach your projects?

•  Site first – site specificity is key
•  Simple, elegant and refined
•  Don’t cook with too many ingredients!

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

Clients wanting to pay for it.

What is your favourite building and why?

There are too many to mention, however, at the moment:

•  Favourite office – the ‘Cheese Grater’ by RSH – an elegant, easily-identifiable form, impeccably detailed

•  Favourite house – Fayland House by David Chipperfield – it’s so refined, and I love the way it accentuates the topography

•  More houses – Craddock Cottages by Steven Taylor – beautiful, simple, rural modern houses with perfectly subtle detailing

•  Favourite apartments – Embassy Court by Wells Coates – I was lucky enough to work on some of the refurbishment works to this coastal icon

•  Favourite hotel – Knoll House, Studland Bay, not for the hotel as it is today, but for its setting and potential. It’s also steeped in a fascinating history with guests that included Enid Blyton. The setting is said to have provided her and Artist Roger Fry with inspiration. Another project that I was lucky enough to work on. I’m hoping that one day (in my lifetime!) the luxury retreat, with spa and stunning landscape proposals, will be seen through to realise the site’s full potential.

•  Favourite educational building – Ibstock Place School Refectory by Maccreanor Lavington for its incredible interior space and cloister.

•  Museum/gallery – I recently went to see a Lutyens classic at Great Dixter. Whilst it’s arguably more of a house than a museum, being home to the late Christopher Lloyd, it was inspiring to see the seamless transition between the old Tudor building and Lutyens extension.

•  Transport – having been locked down in Brighton for the past year and a half, travelling back into London has reminded me how much I love some of the new stations along the Thameslink line. London Bridge, King’s Cross and Blackfriars make the top three but, as I’ve been getting off at Farringdon more recently, it’s been exciting watching the slow unveiling of the new station and public spaces.

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

Again, there are too many. Keeping up to date with regulatory change whilst making the most out of the economic recovery and creating buildings and places where people and communities can thrive.

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

It’s been said loads of times already over the past year or so. Still, it’s gaining that subtle experience through working in the studio or office – overhearing conversations, inferences from a quick sketch and collaborative working.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Think about what you want out of a practice and where you want to be – it’s all too easy to get pigeonholed, so push for the things you want to be doing. Ask questions and try to understand the broader project issues and requirements.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of a support network, speak to colleagues and try to embrace social events.

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

No pressure! Settling in and integrating into my new practice – DMWR, building on their residential portfolio and huge experience to date.

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