Broadcaster Jon Snow may be better known for his loud ties than his knowledge of architecture and sustainability, but that is what he will be speaking about at the RIBA conference in Venice this weekend. Vikki Miller met the man who had a say in the commissioning of the Tate Modern extension

Jon Snow
Jon Snow

Veteran broadcaster Jon Snow is used to standing out from the crowd. Today, as he shifts uncomfortably in front of Building’s photographer, a small group has gathered to peer at this unusually tall man with fluorescent bicycle clips clasped around bright lilac socks that match an equally luminous lilac tie.

A self-declared “bloody-public-school-pinko-liberal”, Snow’s views are often as singular as his outfit. While we stroll back to his office – the Norman Foster-designed ITN building on the Grays Inn Road – he confesses, in his familiar upper-class drawl, that, really, he’s no expert on architecture or sustainability. Yet despite his declaration of ignorance, he is a fellow of the RIBA, and his views are informed enough to have won him an invitation to talk at the institute’s conference in Venice this weekend on both subjects, alongside green guru Aubrey Meyer and international architect Massimiliano Fuksas.

A student revolutionary, and the son of a bishop, Snow has always had one foot inside the establishment, while kicking it with the other. An example of this is when, at the age of 22, he led an anti-apartheid protest by occupying Liverpool University’s new senate building. Following a sit-in lasting several weeks, he held all the students back for an epic two-day clean-up, because he actually quite liked the new building and “was determined to leave it as we found it”.

After 17 years as the main man for Channel Four News, and having interviewed, among others, Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinski and Nelson Mandela, Snow admits he’s pretty much establishment now. At times, being part of the elite can be positive, he says. In his capacity as a trustee of the Tate, he was responsible for commissioning what will soon be an exciting and radical addition to the UK skyline – the Tate Modern extension on London’s South Bank.

Even though the £215m scheme was rapturously received, Snow admits that the design process was not all smooth sailing. “Jacques [Herzog, founder of commissioned architect Herzog & de Meuron] came in with this plasticine lump in the shape of a twisted pyramid, but we didn’t feel it was iconic enough, and it would have been extremely expensive to build. So he starts stretching the plasticine and pulling bits out right there in front of us like this [Snow gesticulates wildly with one hand while the other balances his bicycle] and that’s how the whole idea of this rather spiky Aztec development came about. It’s a very, very exciting building,” he concludes triumphantly.

If people of great power and achievement don’t stand up and be counted, then the bullying will go on

Jon Snow

As we round the corner to his office in the ITN building, Snow tries hard to contain himself – but fails. “Look, look at these,” he exclaims, pointing to the revolving glass doors, which have the accolade of being the tallest of their type in Europe. “They look awfully nice and everything, but, actually, you can only get one person out at a time and that’s a bit of an absurdity for a building where 2,500 people work.”

Jon Snow

To prove his point, he steps into the same compartment as the photographer and they shuffle awkwardly round, spilling over each other into the huge atrium of the building.

“Let’s say it’s a spectacular, well-lit building,” he adds diplomatically, conscious not to insult Foster, one of the most popular architects of the 20th century. “Until you get down to where I work, which is subterranean, and it’s grim, it’s grim.”

We settle in a break-out area on a balcony overlooking Snow’s underground office and he glances down and around, as if seeing it for the first time. He turns back suddenly and, with a wry smile, says: “Okay – I admit that I’m a Richard Rogers fan. I loved the Lloyd’s building when it went up and I loved the Pompidou. I loved seeing the bowels. I thought the whole freedom and breaking out of all the old constraints was ever so exciting.”

Snow, with his precarious revolutionary/ establishment attitude to life, evidently sees a kindred spirit in Rogers. However, he was less impressed when the architect caught the first flight to New York to apologise to his Jewish clients for hosting an Architects and Planners for Justice for Palestine meeting at his office. “I think he should have called their bluff,” he says resolutely, eyebrows furrowed. “I believe that if people of great power and achievement don’t stand up and be counted, then the bullying will go on.”

Snow is planning to use his speech at the RIBA conference to insist that the bicycle plays a key role in future sustainable schemes

And Snow is an example of a man living by his principles. He cycles everywhere he goes and proudly announces he has just been made president of the Cycle Touring Club.

He is planning to use his speech at the RIBA conference to insist that the bicycle plays a key role in any future sustainable schemes. “It should be impossible now to build big urban developments that don’t have major provisions for bicycles,” he maintains.

He is considering installing solar power in his home, he confides, but admits that the “monumental costs” are putting him off. “What we need,” he declares, sitting back in his chair, arms folded over his chest, “are fantastic tax concessions – like being excused from council tax for the period of the outlay – for people who are prepared to do it. There’s no revolution without it.”

But he has, he says, already adopted other measures. His heating in winter never goes above 18ºC, 3º below the recommended 21ºC. This eco-awareness could be put down to his brother, Nick, who is an architect with Kirklees council, widely recognised as one of the leading councils on green issues.

“He’s the last of a dying breed,” Snow muses, looking genuinely disappointed. “A local authority architect.” But he soon perks up again as he describes his open envy of the architecture community.

“I think it’s incredibly lively and open to new ideas,” he enthuses. “They are less elitist and more engaged now. They are able to change the face of a community and the dynamic of a community – have a fantastic impact. Look at the Gherkin. I don’t know if it is full even now, but who cares? It has transformed London incredibly.”

Snow flops back in his chair and runs a large hand through his mop of silver hair. He looks pensively around the building one more time, perhaps contemplating the revolutionary life he might have had as an architect …