Two gentleman architects are gazing out over the London skyline, considering what to do next.“We’d very much like to get involved in brownfield housing,” says Sir Jeremy Dixon. “We feel we have something to offer in that territory.” “It would be nice to do a high-rise office building in the City,” muses his partner, Edward ones. “Something around 40 storeys. That would be fun.”
For Dixon and Jones, a golden period is coming to an end. During the 1990s lottery boom, they landed a string of major cultural commissions in the capital, practically becoming official purveyors of palatable modernism to venerable West End institutions.
“It was a very pleasant coincidence that we found ourselves with four national projects within a five-minute walk of our offices in Covent Garden,” says Jones. Of the four, three are now complete. Last November, the curtain finally rose on their magnum opus, the Royal Opera House. This week, their river terrace at Somerset House opened to the public. Earlier this month, the Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery was unveiled to rave reviews. Dixon describes the extension as the “overture to the Tate”, explaining how the opening of Bankside was graciously held back for them: “Nicholas Serota called us up and said: ‘You go first.’”
The crowning glory of the extension is the new roof-top Portrait Restaurant, with its unsurpassed views of Trafalgar Square and Westminster. From up here, chaotic, unplanned London is miraculously presented as an idealised Renaissance city of domes and columns. “It’s like a comic or tragic view of architecture,” says Dixon, sipping mineral water. “The lantern in front of us is like a duomo, the octagonal cupola is like a baptistry, and beyond it is this extraordinary city of empire.”
Dixon and Jones’ four London projects – the fourth is the ongoing masterplan for the National Gallery – all subtly seek to enhance the city’s stately fabric rather than to make new statements. “What gives us a buzz is the idea of re-presenting London to its citizens,
as opposed to showing off,” says Jones. “That kind of architectural narcissism is around rather a lot. ”He continues: “At Somerset House, you’ll be able to have lunch on the terrace, enjoying the views of the river. If Trafalgar Square is pedestrianised, there will be an opportunity to do a proper flight of stairs outside the National Gallery. That will create a great amphitheatre in which to sit and look at this great square.”
Dixon and Jones have known each other for 40 years, and have the air of longstanding companions who have grown to be like each other. On our meeting, both are wearing charcoal suits and black shirts. Both are extremely well spoken, utterly charming and unfailingly polite, taking turns to answer questions and continually deferring to each other. They are, in the nicest possible way, rather posh.
A duet for a decade
Dixon and Jones met in the early 1960s at the Architectural Association, becoming firm friends and sharing a house. In 1973, they briefly teamed up after Dixon won a competition for Northamptonshire County Offices with a design that would have had the council occupying a glass pyramid, but the project was cancelled, and the two went their separate ways. Their first big breaks came in 1983. Jones went to Canada to design Mississauga City Hall, while Dixon landed the Royal Opera House with BDP.
Their formal partnership began in 1989 after a transatlantic telephone call. Jones was in Toronto and looking for an excuse to turn down a full-time professorship at Princeton University in the USA. “I didn’t particularly want to become an academic,” he says. “I telephoned Jeremy several times but his phone was engaged, then suddenly I got through and he said he’d just been trying to phone me. We were both thinking of each other at the same time, 3000 miles apart. On the basis of that ridiculous coincidence, I cancelled going to America, returned to England and formed a partnership with Jeremy.”
The Royal Opera House, which Dixon had won six years previously, was to occupy the duo for another 10 years, eventually earning Dixon his knighthood. They claim that the project was unaffected – helped, even – by the perpetual controversy that surrounded it. “In a way, it was almost a smokescreen of publicity behind which the project could carry on unobserved,” says Dixon. He likens the way the two partners work to a duet. “We are both designers, so we share rather than divide tasks,” he says. “The crucial aspect of our relationship is the degree to which we genuinely spark ideas off each other through conversation, through sketches, through swapping ideas across a table.”
The conversation returns to future projects, or lack of them – they admit that they have little in the pipeline. The office has decamped to Primrose Hill and the staff has been reduced from 50 to 15. They were bitterly disappointed not to win the prestigious South Bank masterplanning job last year, coming second to Rick Mather. Their only major project at the moment is the £45m Said Business School at Oxford University, funded by Saudi businessman Wafic Said.
Their eagerness to design high-density brownfield housing reveals a deep desire to do something useful, to return to the modernist idealism of their formative years. “Everyone at the Architectural Association in the early 1960s did a thesis on housing,” says Jones. “One couldn’t think of modern architecture without its imperative to improve the common lot. Terrible crimes have been committed with these terribly good intentions, horrible slums have been built, but people were highly motivated to improve the plight of the common man.”
Dixon adds: “We are intrigued that there is to be a reassessment of housing, away from low-density suburban towards more high-density urban proposals. We’d very much like to get involved with that.”
The mention of the word brownfield triggers an amusing diversion. “Brownfield site is a horrible expression!” Jones exclaims. “The word leaves a kind of bad taste, like nicotine.”
“It’s a horrible expression for something that is terribly potent and uplifting,” says Dixon. For Sir Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, the phrase “urban renaissance” is far more fetching.