Ideology, inspiration and the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure
Updated: Jun 18
There are very few people in the property world who can be considered real tastemakers. Finding one who would be slightly embarrassed to be described as one is even rarer. Extraordinary success and humility are not normally natural bedfellows.
To avoid doing an injustice to the Simon that I know, perhaps it’s more fitting that I leave his introduction to his co-founder at Derwent London, John Burns.
“Simon has evolved the Derwent London brand for over 35 years. Starting with 4,000 sq ft in Islington to recently completing 380,000 sq ft at 80 Charlotte Street, he has brought cutting edge design to every project with his eye for detail and creativity, making Derwent’s buildings exciting and instantly recognisable. As both a colleague and friend he is exceptional. His understanding of the central London office market is outstanding and he has worked extensively to share those skills across the Derwent London team for many years”
Derwent’s journey as a business is well known. Founded in 1984, at the time of Simon’s retirement earlier this year, Derwent owned and managed an investment portfolio of 5.6 million square feet, worth £5.4 billion. Though, it’s not the numbers I wanted him to talk about.
Derwent’s portfolio includes some of London’s landmarks, new and old - from the Tea Building in Shoreditch to the Brunel Building in Paddington.
Over the last four decades, Simon has not only championed young architects but also entrusted them with delivering on the core of his design aesthetic, encapsulated in three words - “volume and light”.
Over the past 37 years, the philosophy at Derwent London has included a fairly simple ideology - ‘borrowing from the past to enhance the future.’
In fact, we have tried to borrow inspiration from some of history’s most revered architects. Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, Louis Khan, Gordon Bunshaft, Pierre Chareau and Denis Lasdun have all provided impetus for creativity. In our own way we have tried to reflect their aesthetics, even if only with minor details.
When contemplating any of our projects, artisanship has always been high on our list of priorities. Whilst our architects have always maintained the leading role, we were never slow to refer them to the many specialist firms we have discovered over the years.
From weathered steel reception desks, bespoke joinery or metal fabrications, we have tried to find specialist firms who we believed could make a valuable contribution to our buildings.
We have always been incredibly passionate when it comes to both materiality and the utilisation of those materials. Stone, concrete, (there are so many ways to use this incredibly versatile medium), brick and timber have all been extremely important within our preferred palette.
I always encouraged architects to use fewer materials, and by doing so selecting those that contrasted best with one another. Done well this can enrich the overall aesthetic - another of our golden rules - less is more.
We have often travelled for inspiration. A 2005 journey to Yale University, with its wonderful array of modernist architecture was a particularly important trip. Viewing the Beinecke Library by Gordon Bunshaft of architects SOM was a special and enriching experience.
Selecting stone from quarries in Italy, brick from manufacturers in Denmark, beautiful timber flooring sourced from the Black Forest and manufactured by Dinesen - these have all been instrumental in helping us achieve our aesthetic ambitions, realised in some truly beautiful finishes.
The design journey can be long, but it is always worthwhile. Seeing some of our choices move from concept to reality is always particularly exciting, but also very fulfilling. It’s similar to witnessing new tenants move into a building. Seeing them thrive, inspired by their new surroundings, brings a sense of real satisfaction.
Of course, not all our projects have involved the construction of new buildings.
When I look back over the forty or so years I’ve spent on the design of Derwent’s buildings, the TEA Building in Shoreditch is perhaps one of my favourites.
Originally built in the late 1930’s, it was used as both a factory and tea storage facility by the Lipton brand. We purchased the building in the nineties, when it was a redundant warehouse.
Now, thanks to architects AHMM, it is a thriving office building, housing a variety of creative companies, replete with a swimming pool on its roof and two Michelin starred restaurants on the ground floor.
Simon Silver, FRIBA.
Things I’ve been inspired by this week
Of course whilst Simon won’t say this himself, the truth is that the TEA Building is an icon - synonymous with both the Shoreditch of old and new. It’s repurposing as an office building sparked a revolution that led this rather unloved part of east London to become a global centre for creativity.
I spoke in a recent blog post about my own career arc, and expectations vs. reality.
It must be incredible to look back at 40 years of work and realise that you made a real difference to people’s lives. In Simon’s case, enabling young architects to showcase their ability, and creative individuals to work in inspiring environments.
To be able to spend time in different parts of London and walk past buildings that you had a hand in creating. Not just because it was good business, but because it gave you a sense of purpose, and of course, you really enjoyed it too.
It’s probably as close as you’re going to get to the definition of a successful career.