How do we bring our plans to life? How can we inform our design process by better understanding our end users and their interactions with the places we create during the course of a typical day? This is a challenge for all architects engaged in early stages of design and one that prompts us to look at new techniques and collaborations. Partner, Nigel Bidwell and Architectural Assistant, Francesca Naddafi of JTP, explain how this desire for innovation in conjunction with the emerging designs for ‘The Waterside’ in Wembley allowed them to imagine the process for revealing the life of the current and future communities.
We didn’t want to be constrained by simply thinking about new residents. We wanted to imagine a range of people that would use and interact with the new spaces and buildings, so that we could shape the proposition and explain the story of the proposals. The best places in our cities allow you to spend time in them for free and our design very much looked to provide a hard and soft landscape that all people could enjoy. So, to respond to this philosophy we considered people that might visit the site, be drawn to the new landscape, choose to live there, work in the area or use the new facilities. We wanted to consider different cultures, ages and backgrounds to properly represent the population of Brent, one of London’s most diverse boroughs.
We needed time on the ground. Being local allowed us to cover the tarmac, cross and circumvent the area, sit in local cafés to people-watch, drag our complaining children around at the weekends and observe the theatre of life play out. We questioned workspace specialist Andrew Sissons from AND London as to who worked here now and who formed the pent-up demand for workspace, and we absorbed the views and stories of local people reached by zoom sessions, letter drops and the project website during the heights of lockdown. This gave us a deeper understanding of local nuances with which to inform our bespoke strategy moving forward.
Finding the right ‘voice’
In a world of ever-impressive technology, computer visualisations and the blurring of reality, we wanted to find a way to tell the story of people, in a way that engaged people. As passionate hand drawers, it’s always exciting to commission artists but we had a hunch that this wasn’t a job for our regular stable of architectural illustrators. Instead, we needed the focus to be on people and their interaction. We knew of the work of Holly Le Var and instantly connected with her friendly, accessible style and the compassion evident in her work. Her role as a tutor at Central St Martin’s would also help; we were learning as we went.
Holly proved to be as engaging as her drawings and our first video conference proved a meeting of minds. As two groups of visual people, we knew that emails wouldn’t suffice so we’d prepared a virtual whiteboard on Conceptboard, on which we crammed lots of content to help Holly become familiar with the proposals and to assist in brainstorming ideas which enabled meaningful and instant feedback. “Being fully briefed on the context and location, alongside being provided with Computer Generated Images (CGIs) and plans, assisted massively with my ability to understand the tone of the Wembley Scheme” she reflects.
Introducing the cast
We then set about creating the characters, buoyed by our research and debated a number before settling on five: A local schoolboy who cycles past the site, a carer for a relative renting in the scheme, a local family visiting Wembley Park for the day, a business entrepreneur and a young couple having purchased an apartment at The Waterside. We were confident that each would have sufficient ‘touch points’ with the new place during the course of a day to reveal the true merits of the proposal. Now for the hard part! Using a series of swirling sequential bubble diagrams we plotted the characters’ movements through the day and around Wembley Park, tracking their emotions and adding snippets of dialogue. With five completed we knew it was time to update the Client; Regal London. What would they make of these rambling narratives? They were a far cry from the many schedules denoting gross internal area and net internal area they were used to receiving from us. We held our breath.
Putting pen to paper
“Keep going!” was the instruction from Regal and we quickly uploaded the ‘scripts’ onto the Conceptboard. Meanwhile Holly had posted some examples of her work also and together we marked up aspects that we thought would work for the day in the life drawings. Holly then distilled down the meandering sequence of moments into manageable lists to give some focus to her outputs. Then came the tricky decision, should the drawings be linear, reflecting a timeline or geographical? Should the activities on the brook, which exists to the north, occur at the top of the drawing? As ever with all good design, it turned out to be a bit of a compromise and Holly’s first passes generally reflected activities in the four spaces located to the edge of the proposals. She notes of the process, “Starting with the written scripts and an existing narrative really helped me build the visuals and provide JTP with options. The detail of my briefing allowed me to go off independently, with a rooted knowledge of what was expected of me which, as a freelancer, is a massive help!”
Developing the personalities
Holly’s gift is imbuing her drawings with personality, and she soon had developed the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her characters; with the father’s fanciful facial hair, the business owner’s woolly hat and the schoolboy’s cornrows allowing for the cast to come to life and be followed through the sequence of drawings. We were particularly pleased with how she represented the interaction of the characters with others and how this gave the impression of a connected community.
Testing the concept
We’d all got to know the characters well by now with their movements becoming familiar. Too familiar perhaps and we needed to adopt a critical eye to ensure that the drawings were sufficiently navigable and properly described the design. With Holly’s help we added arrows between the parts, additional text bubbles to help the narrative and included some simple architectural references. The latter proved important in locating the scene and this was sometimes as simple as showing the unique curve of the brook or the green glazed brick portals that framed the workspace. Holly herself identified this as the key issue.
It was sometimes difficult to unite the narrative with place - ensuring that the intricate story of each character came across while still capturing a sense of the surroundings. Simplifying this to its most condensed components with the team at JTP was essential for getting that balance right.
Comment from Holly Le Var
The completed drawings
Many mark-ups and virtual meetings later, Holly had finished the drawings. Conceptboard had been essential to supporting our process, “a melting pot for feedback and adjustments and updates” as Holly calls it. We downloaded the illustrations one at a time and marvelled at how she had captured our thoughts, observations and scheme references into a set of highly evocative and complex drawings. With the set laid out in front of us, and the characters alive in our imaginations it proved simple to then name the individuals and craft the text that supported each character; the words and illustrations sitting together as a cohesive output.
Reflecting on the process
At JTP we strive for creative new ways to express our ideas and designs. In a world where roles, specialisms and ways of working are continuing to blur and change, this creates opportunities for us to look outside traditional architectural methods and welcome in the imagination and skills of artists and illustrators. This enriches our processes and outcomes and makes us look again at the very essence of design and our role in creating great places for people to enjoy.