EDMUND FOWLES - ARCHITECT AND ENDURANCE CYCLIST
"Cycling is a form of meditation for me, it is the ultimate way to wind down because there are no distractions when you are out on the bike, just hours of undisturbed time, which is extraordinary in this age."
Edmund Fowles is the co-founder of award winning London based architecture practice Feilden Fowles and a keen cyclist who has travelled throughout Europe in pursuit of his passion for exploring on his bike and competing in some of the toughest amateur cycling events. I spoke to Edmund about how cycling is an important counterbalance to his hectic work schedule, the characteristics he thinks cyclists and architects share, the appeal of extreme endurance cycling races, his interest in the design and style aspects of cycling and how cycling has helped prepare him for running his own business.
Where does your passion for cycling stem from?
I have been riding bikes since I was four and was really into mountain biking as a teenager because road cycling was very uncool then, the thought of wearing lycra was unbearable. I became more interested in road cycling when I went to university in Cambridge to study architecture and used a bike to get around town. The intensity of studying architecture took over when I was at Cambridge and I did not cycle very much but when I moved to London in my early twenties to study my Part 2 I suddenly started feeling the need to get out of the city on my bike. I had grown up in the countryside and was used to having great access to the outdoors. I was also reading a lot of psychogeography at the time, so used riding as a tool for exploring London and its hinterlands, through a number of ‘Dérive’ like rides which revealed the changing nature of the city through its cross sections and of the various vernaculars beyond London.
Are you interested in the design of the bicycle?
Most cyclists enjoy the bicycle itself, the purity in the design of it. I have always been interested in making things and built my first bike when I was 13 - it had an old Raleigh frame, I resprayed it and got all the parts working again. I love the fact that the design of bicycle components have been refined over time; the derailleur has not changed much for 100 years, it has just been refined and become more effective, it is amazing to see that honing of design.
What characteristics do you think cyclists share with architects?
I feel many cyclists have a quiet sensibility, you have to be quite an observant, contemplative personality because you can be on your own for long periods of time but there is also an inherent endurance and persistence that cycling breeds as well.
The Rapha Cent Cols Challenge sounds like a brutal race - why are you attracted to these extreme feats of human endurance?
There is an appeal to cycling to explore; on my first Cent Cols Challenge I cycled from Annecy to Nice and back. You get a tremendous sense of a place because you are not confined to the main roads like you would be in a car, you are going through quiet forests, villages and tiny hamlets. The Cent Cols is the purist way of cycling in a way because all you need to worry about is riding 250kms a day, everything else is taken care of. The camaraderie you build with the people you meet on these challenges is really extraordinary. Everyone is like-minded and often have deep, meaningful reasons for doing the ride. For instance, a friend of mine had lost his father a few years ago and he was riding it in memory of him.
Why do you think there is a growing interest in endurance cycling?
The trend in our working environment has a lot to do with it. There is increasingly an intellectual economy rather than a hands-on, physical economy, and therefore we are generally not getting enough exercise in our day jobs. That is finding expression in these extreme endurance cycling events. They connect us to nature and release endorphins, there is definitely a chemical lure to doing extreme exercise. I also think there is more awareness of health and wellbeing these days. For a lot of my friends who cycle, the thought of working in an office all day and then going to a basement gym to work out is counter to what they believe and the broader benefits cycling offers.
Have you been surprised by what your body is capable of on your extreme cycling challenges?
Before entering my first Cent Cols Challenge, I had never done 4500m of climbing in one day let alone repeatedly day after day. Living in London you do not have access to mountains so my normal training route would be London to Cambridge and back, which is completely flat. But the Cent Cols Challenge showed me that it is extraordinary what you can achieve within the right kind of framework and when you are away from the stresses of everyday life.
Do you think the mental fortitude required for cycling tough mountains has helped you deal with some of the challenges involved in running your own business?
When you are struggling up a mountain there are so many things going through your mind and there is always a point when you ask yourself why am I doing this, this is agony, I would much rather be at home. I think studying architecture breeds a certain competitiveness and persistence in you; you become used to fatigue, working all-nighters making models. There is something psychologically beneficial about climbing a mountain; you know you will eventually reach the top and when you get there you will enjoy spectacular views, a changing landscape, and amazing topography. In this sense there is always something else pulling you up the mountain.
It was a brave decision to found your own business with such little experience, is it fair to say you are a risk taker?
When we set up the business, we certainly did not envisage that it would grow so quickly. We fell into doing our first project Ty Pren and it was an organic process because we did not have much money at the time or a full-time job. We were used to surviving off student loans and never had to worry about a mortgage or kids so it was incredibly incremental, the availability of work determined when we went full-time. It certainly did not feel like a risk or reckless at the time, we were working day jobs and doing the other projects in the evening and at weekends so in a way it came down to the stamina to work all hours to get the first project built.
Does pushing the limits of what is possible apply to your architecture as well as your cycling?
We definitely have a persistence in our approach to work, we are not afraid to work long hours to achieve something exceptional. We are both very ambitious for the practice and for the people that work with us. Our job is to motivate them, mentor them and challenge them sufficiently so they can achieve really great things. Cycling encourages perseverance and that is a key quality for a good architect; for instance, when you are working on a design competition, it can involve up to 6 months of unpaid work developing and honing the design through sketches, models, drawings and visualisations before presenting your scheme to a panel for critique and evaluation. This breeds a certain resilience.
Is cycling a form of escapism for you, a chance to clear your mind and think about nothing, or do you think about work when cycling?
Cycling is a form of meditation for me, it is the ultimate way to wind down because there are no distractions when you are out on the bike, just hours of undisturbed time, which is extraordinary in this age.
Is there a link between your passion for cycling and your interest in sustainable design?
Whether my interest in sustainability stems from my interest in cycling or vice versa I am not sure. I have always watched my carbon footprint and resisted driving, using lots of energy or flying a lot. That was reinforced by our architectural education as we were made aware of the huge impact of buildings on the environment; buildings account for some 43% of the UK’s total carbon emissions so there is a great responsibility on architects to design conscientiously in respect of the environment.
Paul Smith is another designer who is passionate about cycling. He has always been fascinated by “stylish” riders. Are you also interested in the style aspects of the sport?
It is a happy coincidence that companies like Rapha came along when I was getting into cycling and I have a few friends who have worked for the brand over the years. Coming from a visual profession I am of course keen to look good on the bike and find bikes beautiful anyway. I think Rapha have successfully created this idea of cycling as a lifestyle, it balances an appreciation for the heritage of cycling design, referencing for example the rich history of the great Sping Classics races and Brevet d’Audax for example, but bringing it to a contemporary audience with a great attention to detail and advanced technical performance.
After the success of your first project, Ty Pren, and picking up a RIBA award, did you feel under pressure to live up to expectations? Has cycling helped prepare you to deal with that pressure?
When we moved into our first studio one of our earlier practice mentors Peter Clegg came along to the launch party and gave us some invaluable advice; he said you have done well with Ty Pren but you are only as good as your last building, useful words to hear at that point. Since we established the business seven years ago, we have not moved that quickly, we have always wanted to learn through building, and took on modest commissions to begin with as a way of literally ‘practicing’ our architecture. It was only through demonstrating that we can deliver built work that we would start getting the more exciting, public and cultural commissions. We are not especially pre-occupied by being a successful practice but rather that we wish for our buildings to be successful; that is well received by their users, long-lasting and timeless in their expression. But architecture is a slow process and it takes perseverance to deliver great buildings.
Where does your interest in food culture stem from and was that influential in inspiring the design for The Waterloo Community Farm?
I have always been interested in food and used to work in kitchens as I was growing up. When I was studying architecture, I went to a series of lectures by Carolyn Steel and that ignited an interest in how cities are shaped by food. As an architect, you are constantly trying to understand the built environment and urbanism; you need to understand a condition in order to be propositional. Supermarkets have sterilised the way food is presented, we don’t shop in markets anymore, it has become a leisure exercise, not a viable way to feed the city. The Waterloo Community Farm, created by the practice is intended to make people more aware of where their food comes from; we are working in partnership with two educational charities; Oasis Academy and Jamie’s Farm and their students visit the site to learn about farming, livestock, botany nutrition and generally engage in more outdoor approaches learning.
If you had to single out one architect that has particularly inspired you in your life, who would it be?
Tom Emerson of 6a Architects was a great mentor to Fergus and I as students and during the early years of our practice; he has been an eminently inspiring and encouraging figure from the beginning. He really pushed us during our first commission Ty Pren; we were nervous and questioned whether we could deliver the project as we had only done our Part 1 and weren’t qualified architects, however he gave us the confidence to go for it. He taught us the importance of having intellectual rigour in our approach to design and that everything should be driven by a core concept. He instilled in us a uniquely hands on approach which resonated with the way we both came to architecture and still underpins the work and approach of our practice today.