Architect and TV presenter, Laura Clark is certainly not your normal run-of-the-mill kind of architect! Best known for her Crystal Palace Underground Toilet conversion project, where she now lives, Laura spent a great deal of time whilst at university, labouring on building sites. She talks to Lynda Clark about her amazing career and unusual home
I have met people who live in some very extraordinary homes, but never before have I heard of someone living in a converted toilet! So, it was with great interest that I arranged to meet Laura and discover just how this all came about. But, more of that story later – Laura is a vibrant, very enthusiastic and passionate architect and her life story is fascinating.
She grew up in Prestatyn, North Wales, which she describes as “a lovely seaside town.” Her father is a surgeon and, growing up, Laura was fixed on following in his footsteps. “I always wanted to be a surgeon and, even when I was very young, I would draw pictures of operating theatres! When I could, I would go out with my dad on call, as I was so keen. Then, on my 16th birthday, we went to Glasgow, as it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture. When we were there, we went to an exhibition of Rennie Mackintosh and, while looking at his sketchbooks, I had a weird epiphany moment and I decided then and there that I wanted to become an architect. I was hooked and had to explain to my dad that I had changed my mind. So, instead of spending five years doing medicine, I wanted to study architecture – which would take seven years! My parents were very supportive, though, and only wanted the best for me. During the school holidays, I looked in the yellow pages to get the names and address of architects, as I wanted some work experience. I wrote about 10 letters, including one to Zaha Hadid, and amazingly I got a reply from Crawford and Gray in Holland Park and Guy Greenfield. I worked with both of them and it was a fabulous experience. Back in North Wales, I was studying for my A-levels, plus I had a part-time job in a beauty salon. Despite this, I wanted to get some hands-on experience, so I decided to start labouring at building sites in my spare time. Everyone was enthusiastic and I learnt so many different trades – from roughcasting to joinery – which has been very useful with many of my different projects.”
Laura eventually went to the Mackintosh School of Art but, surprisingly, she had difficulty with the course. “I struggled and it wasn’t until about the third year when I began to enjoy myself – although I had a great time living in Glasgow. Each summer, I would go back to the building sites, which I always looked forward to.”
During her time at the Art School, Laura would take tours around the Rennie Mackintosh sites in Glasgow and then she was offered a place to study in Chicago. She explains, “I was waiting for my visa to come through but, at the same time, 9/11 happened in New York, so I couldn’t get it. I ended up going to Dublin for a year and I did my final year at Liverpool School of Art. After I qualified, I wrote to Guy Greenfield, as I had always stayed in touch with him, and he offered me my first job. It was a small team and I worked on seven apartments in Falmouth, which was great. However, I always wanted to start my own business, so I formed Lamp Architects in 2007.”
At this time, Laura had already taken her first foot on the property ladder and bought a house in Sydenham. She explains, “Back then, you could get a self-certified mortgage and I think I must have been one of the last people to get one. They were great – if used well and diligently – and helped many people buy their first home. To help pay the mortgage, I rented out a room, which was a real lifesaver and I highly recommend doing it. Sydenham is very close to Crystal Palace and it was there that I discovered the disused toilets. They were completely derelict and covered in graffiti, but I took an immediate liking to them and wanted to create something from the dead space. Unfortunately, they were located within a triangle of three different councils – Lambeth, Bromley and Croydon – which made things fairly complicated. I had an idea of turning them into a bar or an art cinema and, when I was able to go inside, I couldn’t believe it! They were built in 1929, used until 1983, and even survived the bombings during the War. They were very Art Deco and the area where the urinals were had a wonderful sense of light and space.”
This dream became a true labour of love, as Laura had to work extremely hard to get the council to agree to sell them to her. “It was always my ambition to work on wasted brownfield sites. I love the idea that derelict buildings or spaces can be brought back to life, as part of the contemporary architecture of our towns and cities. It saddens me to see swathes of greenfield land being taken up for new housing when there is so much potential to regenerate existing space. It may be a little trickier to design and build, with less profit for the developer, but I strongly believe that architecture and development should strive to create more progressive and sustainable housing and townscapes.”
Eventually, it took Laura and her husband, Kevin, two years to turn it into the most amazing, bijous one bedroom home. They kept many of the Art Deco features and created a lovely little courtyard in the open space. “Of course, I added my special little touches, like putting very fine gold leaf on the wall behind the bath, which is very decadent. We did it on a shoestring, though, as I did a lot of the labouring myself!”
Now Laura is working on a new project, which once again appeals to her sense of micro-regeneration. She has bought and is transforming, a three bedroom old tenement apartment in Glasgow, which was in complete disrepair and had no heating. “It was very run-down but had so much potential – with high ceilings and original cornices. I always champion British-made products and use them whenever I can. I love finding both cutting-edge technology and traditional companies in the UK, such as hi-tech laser cutting in Barnsley, or cast iron brassware forged in Wolverhampton.”
Laura now splits her time between Glasgow and London and is currently very busy working on several development projects, including extending an independent cinema in Kensal Rise, north London.
George Clarke featured her toilet conversion on his show, Amazing Spaces and invited her to give some talks at the Grand Designs show. Following this, Laura was asked to be a judge on the highly popular Channel 4 TV show, Shed of the Year. “It’s a clever and ingenious idea and we had great fun making the series.”
The Shed of the Year competition is the brainchild of shed-fanatic Uncle Wilco – Andrew Wilcox – who launched the nationwide competition to celebrate the best of British sheds. The winners are selected by a panel of shed experts including Andrew Wilcox, last year’s overall winner Alex Holland, George Clarke and his team – craftsman William Hardie, industrial designer Max McMurdo, and of course, Laura.
With so much previous experience Laura has some good advice for first time buyers. She emphasises, “Don’t take no for an answer. Persevere and you will instinctively know if the property you are interested in is right for you. Always make sure you have enough money to cover the mortgage and, with the prospect of an interest rate rise, have the foresight to get a fixed rate, even if it’s just for a couple of years. Buy in an area which is on the up and look at the location carefully to see if it works for you. Have confidence in yourself and don’t be afraid
to take the plunge.”
Laura has many plans for the future. Her husband was a mental health social worker but has given it up to follow his passion for product design in lighting. “We want to get a run-down building and turn it into workshop spaces for craftsmen. It would be cost-effective and renting space would be inexpensive, as it’s very important to help and encourage the extremely talented people we have in this country.”
As Laura leaves to catch a train to Glasgow and work on her tenement flat, I can only think that her dad must be delighted that he took her to see Rennie Mackintosh all those years ago – otherwise we wouldn’t have such a talented architect in our midst.