Striking a balance with Edmund Fowles
Architect. Cyclist. Escapist.
By Kit Nicholson
Escapism is freedom by a different name, freedom from the burdens of real life, from work, from the city. It’s something that is commonly sought after by cyclists of all shapes and sizes, disciplines and desires.
For architect and fanatical cyclist Edmund Fowles, the bike is a source of escape and exploration, but it is also a means to source ideas from his surroundings. From the bike, he harvests inspiration that he takes back to the studio with him, all while enjoying the exhilaration of riding a bike.
We met Fowles at his studio in Waterloo to talk about achieving a good work-life balance and how cycling enters into the equation.
Can you tell us a little about what cycling means for you?,/h4>
I choose to ride because for me, it’s a form of escapism from the city, but it’s also a really wonderful opportunity to explore the landscape outside of London, and also within Europe and beyond.
Cycling for me is a way to release, to have a contemplative time outside of the weight or burden of professional life and practice. It’s a time when I can gather my thoughts and think about projects that we might be doing here in the studio. It’s quite meditative in that respect.
So would you say it’s a source of inspiration for you?
Yes, as an architect, it’s really valuable to be able to traverse whole countries, or certainly outside of London to the places where we design our buildings and understand different forms of local architecture, vernacular architecture. It’s really important; understanding a sense of place.
You mentioned meditation and escapism, but you also experience a sense of exhilaration, of having fun?
I’ve cycled from a very young age and I suppose for me, cycling today really captures the excitement of riding a bike that I felt when I was five or six or seven years old. I used to have a BMX and then moved onto mountain bikes and was able just to escape into the woods. So, cycling really captures that real exhilaration that you get from the wind in your hair, whistling through the woodland down a track or on a road.
And there are very few moments in adult life where you can really do that, right? When you’re dressed for nine to five in the workplace, you’re presenting your professional persona to your clients, but when you’re on your bike, you can be whatever and wherever you like.
That’s right, I think there’s a sense of abandonment when you get on your bike and you’re almost anonymous; it’s just you and the mountains, or whatever landscape surrounds you, and it’s a really special time to just appreciate the seasons passing. That’s something that you don’t get in the middle of London, in the middle of any city, so being able to cycle out into the landscape, you can really enjoy the passing of time, experience the wind in your hair, fly down a mountainside. It’s great fun.
Do you think the urban environment lends itself to freedom and exploration at all?
I’d say the urban environment is incredibly dense and frenetic. In fact, I can feel quite burdened by the city, so the bicycle has always been a tool for escaping the urban space, regaining that sense of freedom and abandonment.
How does riding change your perception inside and outside the city?
There’s something very interesting about the pace of cycling as opposed to getting a train or driving somewhere, that when you’re on a bicycle and you’re not encapsulated by anything, you’re directly in contact with nature and with your surroundings. There’s a real ability to contemplate different landscapes, different vernacular architectures and the sounds around you, the textures of certain materials. As an architect, materiality is such a crucial part of the job we have and we draw that inspiration from our surroundings, so cycling for me magnifies my exposure to all of those surroundings, that richness of the natural world around us.
When I’m cycling, I feel completely immersed in my surroundings and in the context that I’m riding in. Whether it be woodlands, a mountain trail or a road climb, you’re completely immersed and there’s nothing that can quite replicate that experience.
How does cycling inspire you? How does it affect your work?
From a very young age, I was not just interested in cycling for the experiential quality of riding the bike, but also the physical nature of the bicycle itself and how beautiful they are as an object and as a piece of engineering. I would spend hours taking different parts, stripping them down, putting them back together, so I get a real joy from working out the way things are put together and how they’re made. That’s reflective of the work of an architect as well, having an understanding of the way things work and the way they’re put together.
So you’re almost more interested by the object than the riding?
I think the inspiration goes hand-in-hand with the marvel at the bicycle itself, the piece of machinery. Year on year, bicycles are developing and changing, so it’s very exciting. It’s the technical geeky side of cycling.
Does your experience of cycling enter into your work life at all? We’re sitting in your beautiful studio right now, was the design inspired by your escapism on the bike?
I don’t think it’s accidental that the studio around us here is almost a reflection of things that I discover when I’m cycling. We’re here in the middle of Waterloo, in the middle of the city and yet we have sheep bleating in the background, a beautiful walled garden outside and for us, we tried to encapsulate our joy of the landscape that we explore cycling, I explore cycling, and bring that to the heart of the city.
When I’m out cycling and exploring all sorts of rural terrains, I’m almost making a mental sketchbook of all the things that I see. As an architect, being able to bring those ideas, details, textures back to the studio and share them with colleagues and with the people we work with is really valuable.
Do you think you’re the same Ed out on the bike as the Ed who comes to work every day?
This idea of the kind of balancing act of work life and cycling, that the cycling is that release, giving me the ability to just go a bit mad and have absolute abandon. Cycling is just sheer enjoyment really, and obviously, when you’re working in the studio, you have to have a certain professionalism and cycling has always been the counterpart. But if there’s a good balance between the two, there’s a perfect harmony.
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