Robert Seymour, Dartmouth Architect
In Conversation with...Robert Seymour
Robert Seymour, head of the eponymous Robert Seymour & Associates, is one of Dartmouth’s better-known architects having built up, in the past 20 years, a significant local and county-wide reputation as an enthusiast and specialist in the conservation, modernisation and refurbishment of old buildings, or as he puts it, “breathing new life into old buildings.”
But this fascination for how the “old” can be merged with the “new or contemporary” is not merely a love affair with buildings per se but a fundamental understanding and empathy with the way people relate to a buildings either as a living or working space.
Robert’s interest in old buildings and how people relate to them began at an early age although it has to be said he hated history as a schoolboy and was, in his own words, “awful at it.” “I went to a pretty poor school in Bournemouth,” he says, “but was lucky enough to meet one or two kind teachers, who guided and encouraged me to develop whatever talent I had. But when I left school, I was still unsure of what to do and it was my mother who really pointed me down the path of becoming an architect. She didn’t know much about what it entailed but sensed it was a ‘good job’. I had always had a talent and interest for drawing, particularly technically including perspectives of buildings. So I joined a local architect’s office.”
Robert is a great believer that, if we are lucky, we meet five or possibly ten people in the course of our lives whose kindness, interest and influence can have a profound impact on the direction we take and the successes we make of our careers and personal relationships. One or two of these he met were teachers either at school or subsequently university; another was a senior colleague at the firm of architects who encouraged him to build on his talent for drawing and qualify as an architect by going to University.
After university, Robert travelled to Finland. He had always been interested in Scandinavia and especially their architecture and how their buildings fitted in or were influenced by the way people lived – “living life to the full during summer and hibernating during the winter.”
He was particularly fascinated by the work of a famous Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, whose reputation had been built around simple, clean and, often white, buildings where the use of light defined the building and his style. He was “my first professional hero” says Robert. “I loved his work but he had the temerity to die just three months before I got to Finland! I nonetheless foisted myself on his widow and his colleagues and drank in all I could about him. I went on a pilgrimage around Finland visiting all his buildings and also the buildings of other great Scandinavian architects who had been influenced by him.”
Robert ended up working and living in Finland for five years, almost settling there, before moving to join friends in Sydney, Australia where he worked for a further two years. He says this experience continues to influence the way he designs buildings today, especially the way in which light is used and in the details and textures of a building.
Serendipity played a part in him eventually turning up in Dartmouth and developing his skills as a conservation architect. He had returned to work in London after Australia, had met his wife Rita and they had a son (Kristian who is now the new reporter for the Dartmouth Chronicle). A subsequent holiday in Dartmouth when the weather was beautiful persuaded them that possibly this could be a place to build a career and raise a family. Robert acknowledges, ”in those days, Dartmouth was a bit sleepy but it had something very special that it still has today.” He joined Baldock & Benns, now known as BBH.
After a year, he decided to set up a practice on his own, although not quite cutting off his professional links with. “Devon has an unusually high number of old buildings compared to the rest of the country,” says Robert,” and we found ourselves increasingly being asked to look at converting or refurbishing such buildings.” It was clear that he needed to learn more about how to deal with these. So as a (very) mature student, he went off to Oxford University to study a MSc. course whilst still running projects here and in London. “A rather busy time,” admits Robert with a degree of understatement!
Over subsequent years, the practice has built a reputation for this type of work, designing new additions to old buildings or upgrading old buildings with new elements as well as integrating contemporary elements into a historic fabric. This can sometimes mean integrating the contemporary against the backdrop of older surrounding buildings. A fine example of this is the award-winning Riverhouse on Dartmouth’s South Town.
“We have become expert not just in designing these buildings but dealing with stakeholders such as English Heritage, planning departments etc or understanding the legislation governing conservation areas and listed buildings. We’ve also been able to identify and source the skills and crafts required to do this work sympathetically and expertly.”
“We do a lot of quirky stuff – from converting tin mines to underground houses, windmills, yurts etc.”
Should you be lucky enough to need the services of Robert and his team, you may find him at your first meeting being given a pen and asked to draw what you want. Fear not, he’s not expecting you do his work for him but, “my work is all about the communication between myself and the client, translating their needs correctly. They are not necessarily drawing what they want but having the pen on the paper makes the brain engage and the ideas flow.”
Robert is keen that we raise our eyes above street level taking time to notice the beauty in the detail and reflect on the skills that have allowed these buildings to be built. “Dartmouth is a particularly interesting place where its typography means we are more aware of the buildings that surround us. They often seem to grow around each other as they are altered, extended and refurbished over the centuries.
“I don’t have a favourite building – it’s like being asked to choose a favourite child. I can also get as much pleasure in a little detail – we are thinking of developing something called ‘Art in Architecture’, taking photographs of small details of local buildings and blowing them up. They can be beautiful images – pure art! I love the beauty of Dartmouth, when the sun shines and the air is especially clear and the shadows help create contrast. You don’t need to go anywhere else when Dartmouth is having a good day!”
First published July 2010 By the Dart