Joff Casciani: Can you tell us a bit about the background to Letts Wheeler and how you got started?
Matthew Letts: Myself and Andrew Wheeler, who is my business partner, studied in London together at UCL. We went our separate ways after doing our degrees, he went to Berlin and I stayed in London. I then got a job in Nottingham and thought it would good to start out on my own. We had a client up in Doncaster who was working for the Earth Centre, which at the time was a millennial project, so they asked us the design one of the buildings, and so I got Andrew to come back from Berlin and we started the practice in 1994, so 22 years ago!
J: What brought you to Nottingham?
M: I just ended up here really! Kate my wife applied for a job and was successful and I followed her up, so it wasn’t something we decided on, just circumstances drew us here rather than us deciding to come to Nottingham. Chance!
J: How would you describe Nottingham architecturally, 22 years ago, when you first set up Letts Wheeler?
M: Very similar to today, generally a very red brick, industrial town in the Midlands. It was captured in various films in the 1960s such as ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’. I don’t think it’s changed a huge amount since I got here. One or two new buildings have come along, not necessarily all good but not necessarily all bad, but it still retains its original character. A good solid red brick conurbation surrounded by mining towns.
J: Do you think the scene of contemporary architecture has improved? Are there more good architects about?
M: I wouldn’t say there are more good architects about than there were then. I think there are some good buildings about that have been procured by the City Council, the more interesting ones. I think their flagship buildings have been pretty successful and have certainly contributed to the townscape, like Nottingham Contemporary and the Market Square. Before I came along, the Theatre Royal was quite significant with the new building and refurbishment but I couldn’t honestly say that the quality of architecture was that great then or now, it’s much of a muchness in terms of the standard and practises that there are.
J: Did you have a particular vision when you started for the type of architecture you wanted to design?
M: We’ve always been very contextual architects and we’ve always been interested in responding to site and surroundings, rather than designing buildings that look like they come from ‘outer space’. We want our buildings to look like they fit in. They’re carefully considered and beautifully detailed and they have a modern character that fits into the context.
J: Can you describe some of the challenges, from a design and planning point of view, in making a building which feels contemporary and interesting but also fits in with its surroundings?
M: There’s a number of challenges. Planning can be difficult to negotiate, although I think it has become smoother over the years. Planners are much more open to contemporary buildings than they possibly were at the beginning. I remember one of the first schemes we did, they flatly said they couldn’t have any flat roofs, it was a blanket requirement and they banned flat roofs! You have to get the planning department on board and making sure that they understand and appreciate what you’re doing. It’s also the same with your clients, making sure that you’re singing from the same hymn sheet. If you’re not together or you don’t have the same understanding, if you don’t get on and you don’t understand each other, then it can lead to problems in terms of pushing the design forward and making a good building. Cost is always a big one. How do you make a building look good when you don’t have quite enough money or when the cost of the building is being reduced or how do you keep the quality in it? That can be quite challenging.
J: You clearly have a specialism in designing houses, whether that’s for an individual or for a development. There’s an impressive diversity of houses in your portfolio, tell us a bit about the projects you’re most proud of - from the high end to the low end.
M: I think housing is a really interesting area of work. It seems really simple as everyone lives in a house so architects often think they know how a house should be designed but actually there’s a lot of subtlety in the design of a house and little things make a big difference. The other really interesting thing about houses is how inside spaces can be transformed by the external arrangement of the houses, maybe around a common space or a street or a courtyard, you can make them feel completely different. You can make them feel like characterless spaces or you can make a community come together depending on how you go about it.
One of the schemes that we’re most proud of is on Castle Boulevard called Park Rock which is a series of flats and duplexes arranged around a courtyard with a listed monument at the back and The Park estate above it, with its ancient caves.
J: I can imagine it was quite a difficult site to work on because it’s long and thin?
M: Yes, it had a lot of challenges connected to it, not least of which, the ridge set down below The Park has houses on it and there were quite a few objections. It was adjacent to the ancient caves and it was tricky with English Heritage and the planning authority to get permission for the development. There were trees we wanted to preserve along the street so the openings relate to the existing trees. Then we wanted to make each courtyard have a character and feel different. So the houses are very carefully arranged and overlook the different spaces in a very controlled way so that people feel like they belong there and that there’s a community there. They all had different views into the courtyards and out.
J: It’s one of the ones that sticks in my mind and I remember noticing that at the time and thinking ‘Ah, there’s somebody doing progressive houses in Nottingham! I associate Nottingham with poor diversity in its housing stock and there’s little in terms of contemporary houses, which is obviously changing with projects like Green Street and Trent Basin. Hedley House is another landmark. Before we started working with Letts Wheeler, I associated the practice with progressive architecture, but there have only ever been a few architects that I would put in that category.
There’s a house on your website called Willow House which is a modernist property which is obviously the top end of the scale. Tell us a little bit about that project, it looks really interesting.
M: It’s a building set in a huge garden on the outskirts of Cambridge. We had a client who we worked with before in Nottingham who came to us and said they wanted to refurbish it and make it into a family house and it required extending, putting up some walls and making it more energy efficient. It was one of the earliest modernist houses in the country by George Tickley and one of the things about modernist houses is that they’re incredibly poorly insulated, the windows are all single glazed, there’s no insulation in the walls so they’re very cold and the environment is very unpleasant to live in. However, it was an interesting house, it was interestingly laid out and it was a pleasure to work with it. The things that we did to it made it a much easier to place live in.
Following that project, they asked us to build a little garden house. Again, modernist houses are a pleasure to look at but they often don’t have a very good relationship to the outside. They often have strip windows and don’t have any opening doors or openings in the houses, so they wanted somewhere where they could go outside, be in an internal environment whilst being much more in the garden. We completed that last year. I’m very proud of that, they’re really interesting buildings.
J: It must be really interesting having the privilege to work on such a rare and specific kind of property, the diversity of your work must inform your practice as a whole?
M: You learn a lot from working on someone else’s building because you learn what they’ve put into it and how they’ve gone about it. So while you’re upgrading it and refurbishing it, you’re also learning from the way they’ve laid it out and the lessons they’ve learnt through their life and you can apply them to your practises and your buildings.
J: How about Rock House?
M: Set again in a beautiful garden, it was a jeweller’s studio and garage below on the first floor, with a small living quarters at the other end. That was an interesting building to do because the planning department in Sussex were insistent that, whatever its function, it should look like a barn. Our challenge was to make it look like a contemporary barn so that you would know that it wasn’t built 100 years ago. It had all the functions that the client required so it worked well as a jeweller’s studio and as a place to live.
J: I think the aesthetic of that project is fascinating because whilst on one level it does look like a barn, it’s so far away from being a barn. You associate barns with being very crude buildings and I think it’s a really good example of taking what is essentially a simple classic form, but because of the detailing and execution, it elevates its status. I feel detailing is crucial to the success of building. You see a lot of buildings which you think, because of the detailing and execution, ‘that’s a poor building’ when it really could have been a good one.
M: That’s what I mean about housing, you have to think about it on so many different levels and it’s often a very subtle approach that’s required, being a house it’s a much more domestic scale and therefore the details matter even more.
The interesting thing about Rock House is that the detailing is led by the technical requirements of the material. It was an oak building, partly because that’s what barns are made of, partly because it was built after the storm of 1987 which mowed quite a big trench through Sussex and Surrey and left lots of oak trees on the ground, so it seemed like a good material to make use. Then looking at how the material works, green oak expands and contracts a lot so the way to limit that is to make the cladding in very short planks and to put oversized holes and screw it to the structure. So that came through a real understanding of how the material reacts and what material was available at the time.
J: How about Sneinton? Why it’s an interesting area to be designing houses?
M: I think it’s a very historic place. It has a lot of very interesting listed and non-listed buildings. It’s a real mixed area on the boundary of the city, areas that inhabit that in between space are really interesting because they are always changing and you can’t nail them into being one thing or another thing.
I also think Sneinton is undergoing a lot of change at the moment, in terms of the market place there which is being refurbished and new people moving into it. Defining it as the Creative Quarter is helping to develop the character of the area and attract people, helping them to see its value. It is already an artistic area as there are lots of artists and galleries there. I like Sneinton because there’s some beautiful buildings and in particular on the edge of the Fruit Market site that we’re looking at.
J: Fruit Market is a very innovative development and we’re aware of the fact that the collaborative or co-housing development has been very successful for many years in Germany, Holland, Belgium and several other European countries. Why do you think it is so important in terms of development for Nottingham and the UK?
M: Because that’s how houses should be made! How can you not think of your community or how people socialise when you’re designing a development of houses, surely that’s one of the most, if not the most important thing! This way of looking at houses as not just being a series of separate spaces but looking at them as a series of interconnected houses where people will interact and socialise to me is so important. It’s also providing communities with places where they can meet and facilities where they can do things together.
J: Do you think it’s an opportunity to set a new standard of developing housing in Nottingham and potentially setting a new standard in the UK because there’s so few of these developments? Do you think it will have a knock on effect?
M: I would like to think that we’ll set a new level of quality in terms of housing. I certainly think that we’re setting up something new that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Nottingham so if someone wants to live in a community where you can get to know your neighbours, meet your neighbours, choose your neighbours and design your own house, I can’t think of anywhere else where you can do that. I like to think a lot of people are interested in doing that.
J: Is there any aspect of the process that you’re personally very excited about?
M: Well, I’ve never built my own house! So that’s part of it I’m really interested in as I imagine everyone else is who is involved in the project. The houses are going to be customised so there’ll be a set footprint for the houses but beyond that, we’ll be fairly free to choose the layout of our own houses. I’m really interested in doing that, that’s really exciting for me as an architect to design my own house and I’m also looking forward to getting together with other people in the group and designing the external spaces. We’ll be making the courtyards exactly the way we want them with the kind of facilities we want. I challenge anyone to think of another scheme that does anything like that.
J: The approach that’s been taken between yourselves as architects, Blueprint as developers, and the residents, is an innovation in terms of the approach to collaborative development. Do you know of any other projects that have used a similar technique? It seems to me that it’s quite fresh.
M: I can’t really think of any, or not any in this country. I’m sure there are other schemes abroad. Blueprint are involved in similar schemes in different parts of the country including right down in Cornwall, but with this particular one in Fruit Market, Blueprint are a facilitator and the group is leading. In the other projects there are much more set parameters so we’re much freer here than we are in other schemes.
J: As an architect who lives and works in Nottingham not far away from the site of Fruit Market, what kind of advantage do you think that gives you?
M: It's always helpful because you know the people involved in the process. You meet with them on a regular basis, you know the area and the context very well, you know the neighbourhoods and the buildings and you know the character and the feel of the place, which is really important. Also when you begin to build it, you’re there on site all the time, all those things make it much easier to work on a project like this when you’re living next door.
J: Can you sum up your ambition for Fruit Market? What would be the best outcome?
M: For us to have a group of very happy families living in houses that they’ve designed and are really happy with, that meet up on a regular basis and love the place they live in.