Brief Encounter

Blog — 22 Jun 2023

On a recent visit to see Aldington and Craig’s work in Haddenham, Turn End, Peter Aldington explained how the brief was at the very heart of the design process. It could take months to develop and refine the brief before a pencil and tracing paper were used. Importantly, Aldington’s partner John Craig was not an architect, they met when he was creative director at an advertising agency, Aldington had been invited to refurbish their offices. Three years later Craig joined Aldington in practice. It was Craig who wrote the brief, distilling the clients’ aspirations into poetic rather than functional requirements.

For example, at Diggs Field on the edge of the village, the brief was to design a house with sun in every room and a space within it that enjoyed the sun from dawn to dusk. The house was to be shared by two owners and designed in a way that it could be divided in the future if required. In this instance the briefing process took more than six months, Craig unravelled the complexities of the clients’ lifestyles and their aspirations before Aldington set about designing the house. This results in an architecture that avoids typology, whilst being instantly recognisable as an Aldington and Craig design. The sunroom sits above the living room accessed via a stair and gallery, and it gloriously achieves its brief sitting above the landscape, beyond the shadows of the building beneath.

Diggs Field interior
Diggs Field

Similarly, at the Anderton House in Devon, (which is, incidentally, courtesy of the Landmark Trust, the only Aldington and Craig property you can stay in), the sloping site is exploited to create double height space in the living areas. However, its real interest is in how the briefing process tackled the issue of home working. A low blockwork enclosure sits between the kitchen and dining area overlooking the living space to the landscape beyond. This is the workspace.

Anderton House, Devon

Today, commissioning clients will usually come armed with a Pinterest board of references, and with a preconceived idea of what their project should be. The use of reference has become an innate part of the design process that we are all guilty of, fresh lateral thinking is rare. In a creative profession this should clearly not be the case, but brief writing is rarely the challenging and analytical process that John Craig employed. Today, who has six months to define a brief when artificial intelligence means that Apps like ChatGpt will do it for you in a few seconds?

An architect's most valuable skill is to initiate the design, to unlock the potential of an existing building or a site. However, the pitching process means that we often do this for free, our creative moment is short lived as the concept enters the dispiriting trudge through the RIBA work stages. If our profession has a future, it must be to value original thinking, something, of course, that AI cannot do.

Peter Aldington retired from practice in 1986 at 53 years of age, just 16 years after setting up with Craig. He was disillusioned with the profession; he found the bureaucracy and paperwork unbearable as he said, "To achieve something you were satisfied with you had to go through hell. It was a pleasure getting the job and a pleasure handing it over, but the two years in between were hell". He turned to his gardens and created designs them for some of the projects that the continuing practice, Aldington, Craig and Collinge, produced after he left. His unique legacy will live on thankfully, The Turn End Trust has been established to ensure that.

Peter Aldington at Diggs Field