An agile firm with an open-minded remit, Simone de Gale Architects champions a wide range of design typologies, innovation in materials, and diversity in architecture. The practice’s founder speaks to Sébastien Reed
Simone de Gale Architects founded her practice in London in 2009. Her aim was to realise a childhood dream to run her own architectural practice, and “share my vision of design with the world,” says de Gale. With her grandfather having been an architect in Jamaica, and her father and uncles working in construction in London, she grappled with the question of whether to pursue a career in the same industry at possibly a younger age than most designers.
The firm currently oscillates between 15 and 20 staff – roughly two thirds are designers. De Gale explains that the firm’s size results from a strategy of staying agile as project requirements change, and new work is taken on or completed. She puts particular stock into those roles usually considered as ‘support’ in an architectural practice; business development and sales, marketing and promotion, accounting and office management, as key to the firm’s longevity. Project staff range from architects to interior designers and project managers, who steer the bulk of the firm’s design work.
Maintaining a broad scope, the four primary components which comprise the practice’s work are masterplanning – ranging from 200,000 to 6,000,000 square feet; architecture – including residential, commercial and hotels; interiors – from commercial to luxury; and, finally, innovation. An unusual example of the latter is that Simone de Gale Architects has developed and patented an advanced technique of processing materials to make them more resistant to blast and pressure waves.
Dreams do come true
The practice’s chosen mantra when bidding for work is: ‘We will achieve your vision’. For de Gale, it’s about the fact the client’s resources are at stake. “It is our duty to listen very carefully to what the client wants to achieve,” says the architect, “and then use our skills, creativity and expertise to go beyond their expectations, optimise the value of their assets and realise their dream or business strategy.”
A conscious effort is made at the practice to cultivate a transparent and fruitful working relationship with each client. That said, de Gale chooses to only work with clients when she feels comfortable and capable of servicing the agreement, so that the project is as much of a fulfilling experience – “both creatively and intellectually” – as possible.
When asked to what extent clients’ briefs should be challenged by architects, de Gale responds: “I believe it is fundamental.” For her, the architectural profession is one of stewardship; a client will engage an architect’s services because they already have a vision and expectation of what they want to achieve. The architect’s role is to impart knowledge and bring the latest innovations, trends, and developments on sustainability to each project.
De Gale has invested significant effort in developing the practice’s own signature style, which she says goes beyond rigid theoretical and mathematical principles. Rhythm, pattern and repetition of form and material are staples of each project however, de Gale explains: “Our use of classical rules of architecture informs direction, distance, timing and use of space.”
According to the architect, the practice’s most salient translation of these tenets is a masterplan in Tbilisi, Georgia, where it is working with Georgian politicians and the country’s largest manufacturing and distribution firm, the Omega Group. A 30 m2 module was designed and replicated regularly in plan across the site, creating a distinct pattern. Then, differing heights were used to mass the different structures, and openings for squares were placed up and down the site to create new vistas.
The use of simple geometry in its designs is also key to the practice’s approach, easing the definition of modular specifications where possible within a project – which comes with ecological and resource-saving benefits.
“We are planning for expansion,” says de Gale, “and to this end, we are securing more international projects.” The practice has made its mark in Georgia, having already completed a number of schemes, with another 10 in the pipeline. In addition, a new plan for twin towers in Rijeka, Croatia, comprising 200 luxury apartments overlooking the Adriatic Sea, talks on development opportunities in Ukraine, and a trade mission to Hong Kong are additional evidence of organic international growth.
International affairs have not always been in the practice’s favour, however: “The main challenge we were facing,” says de Gale, “was in 2016 when Britain decided to leave the EU. A large portion of our then-current UK based projects were shelved.” Sourcing new revenue streams with international work and diversification of the project portfolio was one way of overcoming this challenge.
The practice’s founder expresses keenness to continue developing work in the hotel and high-end commercial office sectors, including “more luxury hotels abroad and in London, and to explore the company ethos and signature approach towards design.” She continues: “I would love to design an airport, so next year we will start to strategise for the transportation sector.”
Recruiting the right workforce for these changes, de Gale says, shouldn’t be a challenge: “We receive CVs every day from designers and engineers.”
A diverse portfolio
Beyond the design of buildings and masterplans, a spherical art gallery design concept by the practice has precipitated a project developing material processing technology to create a light, strong material which led to a Ministry of Defence commission. Simone de Gale explains: “We applied to the Ministry for funding, and won a number of grants to prove the concept. We then tested prototypes on the MoD’s blast test range.”
The architect, who is the named inventor of the technology, has patented the process and is licensing it to specific partners across a range of industries, such as civilian vehicle armour, and blast-proof structures for buildings.
Diversity in the architectural profession is also a key concern for de Gale, who, along with her colleagues, curated a series of exhibitions in London in 2017, under the banner ‘Celebrating Excellent Black Architects.’ In collaboration with RIBA, New London Architecture, Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Arup, the event gave a platform for promoting the work of some of the most inspiring black architects from around the world, such as Phil Freelon and Elsie Owusu OBE.
Since the exhibitions, de Gale noted an increase in diversity in the industry and greater promotion and acknowledgement of black architects: “Before our exhibitions, there was nothing like this taking place in industry, providing inspiration for young aspiring architects. But we took a measured risk driven by passion, and the successes of our four events set the perfect exemplar of what the profession should be doing.”
The architect says that in 2018, RIBA followed the format the practice had pioneered, with its ‘Celebrating the Next Generation of Black Architects’ initiative for Black History Month – and again in 2019, this time ‘Celebrating BAME Award Winners.’ Concludes de Gale, “Our approach set a new standard for our profession, and our legacy continues, but one can always do more.”