18 February 2019
By Chris Dodd
The founders of the River & Rowing Museum sought an architect to realize their dream before they had funds to build. In the third article in his series on 21 years of the River and Rowing Museum, Chris Dodd meets a man who sketched his path to fame.
Having failed to find any major donors save seed-corn contributions from Henley Royal Regatta (HRR), Barclay’s Bank, Alan Burrough of Beefeater Gin and the Rowing Foundation, we decided to seek an architect to design a building and apply for planning permission.
Fortunately for us, there was not much work around for architects in the Thatcherite 1980s. Soon after announcing our presence and building plans, we had a ‘long list’ of 25 firms expressing interest. Five were shortlisted for interview in the boardroom of Henley Regatta’s post-modernist Terry Farrell headquarters. We five interviewers sat with our backs to the panoramic view of the river, while candidates were shown to a seat facing us. Each was allotted 40 minutes for presentation and 20 minutes to answer questions.
The fifth and last candidate to take the hot seat was a young unknown by the name of David Chipperfield. His predecessors arrived with models and printouts of schemes, a couple of which were quite appealing, although one model was a glass cube too small to house an eight. By contrast, Chipperfield entered with a large black sketchbook that he opened at a virgin spread. He spoke haltingly at first, his sentences interrupted by an irritating cough. After a few minutes I decided he was a waste of time.
But warming to his task, he began to talk of Oxfordshire barns, of the eclectic buildings of Thames Valley towns and the area’s vernacular architecture. He began to draw, and before we knew it he sketched the River & Rowing Museum before our very eyes. His pen outlined a letter H with long galleries for racing boats – essentially the building you see today.
It was soon apparent that this architect, who had been in Japan for several years because he couldn’t attract any major commissions at home, had taken care and time to study the purpose and context of the museum. When time was up, he answered a couple of questions, gathered up his sketchbook and closed the door behind him, leaving the room in a dead, long, silent pause. Nothing happened for what seemed like several minutes but was probably four or five seconds. Then somebody – I hope it was I – said: ‘Well, it’s got to be him.’ Everybody else sighed in happy affirmation. Job done.