We join JOA co-founder Jane O’Connor walking across London from Waterloo to visit a client’s site in Euston. Setting off across Waterloo Bridge she reflects on her career to date as we admire the ever changing panorama of the skyline, pointing out several buildings she has worked on over the years. She first moved to the city she now calls home over 20 years ago to work for a practice specialising in theatres, initially working on the National Youth Theatre HQ where she transformed a listed old gentleman’s club and warehouse into offices, rehearsal rooms and workshops.
Jane thrives on the challenges involved in transforming spaces and discovering the potential in old and often listed buildings, making them relevant to modern day requirements. “Future Proofing” she calls it. Indeed the Grade II listed mid 19th century building we are on our way to visit was originally a Royal Mail sorting office. She has been creating a contemporary flexible working space within to house 180 of the UK wide engineering company’s 300 strong staff.
Engineering is integral to architecture and she has worked in close partnership with her current client in Euston on a number of projects, including Deloitte and a highly challenging one at the Houses of Parliament in the early 90s. Over the years Jane has found many clients have become friends, and friends have become clients. Jane finds that she often becomes quite embedded within the companies she is working for, absorbing their culture to better understand their needs.
“In our current Covid era, I’ve been able to bring my experience of workplace design to people’s homes, helping people adjust to this new lifestyle of working from home and getting the most from the space available. At the moment, we are working on residential projects in Kingston, Richmond, Ealing and Elmbridge. I’m particularly proud to say we have a 100% success rate when it comes to getting planning permission! But there is a reason for that. We understand the requirements of planning departments, and crucially we appreciate the history and heritage of the buildings we are working with.
Our walk leads us through Covent Garden into the heart of London’s Theatreland. Jane reminisces about some of her past theatre projects included the Gresham School Theatre (at a boarding school in Norfolk, for whom she delivered a new build naturally ventilated theatre) and the Brighton Corn Exchange (where she created a flexible performance space using retractable seating). A fountain of knowledge and quirky trivia, she tells me we are walking along the only street in Zone 1 to be home to two public swimming pools (I can smell the chlorine), before pointing out a building under construction which until recently housed a very hush-hush government ministry.
After the theatre practice, Jane moved on to commercial office architecture. Working for companies such as Moreysmith, MCM and HLW. At Arup Associates she designed a new sports centre for Cambridge University and then worked on the Shell Centre in London. She also worked on Ernst & Young’s Global’s first London HQ, providing offices for 300 staff, many of whom were relocating from New York. The company was very keen to make an impressive home for their transatlantic team. While the offices enjoyed an enviable location with views over the Thames and the Waterloo terminus, the building they had taken on was a slightly drab former MOD building with low ceilings. Jane exposed the concrete and creatively fitted services into smaller cavities, broke through floor plates to open up spaces and worked to enhance the striking views the building enjoyed.
This was followed by several dated 60’s and 70’s office blocks in the City which needed new life breathed into them. This is something of a specialism for Jane: “By nature I am a modernist. My approach is to be respectful of heritage whilst breathing life into it a building. I love working on something which is a fusion of crisp modernism with polite heritage.”
She took this approach to form a cohesive campus for Deloitte around New Street Square. This was a vast complex comprising the refurbishment of three existing buildings and creation of two new buildings. Her background in theatres and particular expertise in acoustics came to the fore here in the construction of a 200 person auditorium and theatre.
After Deloitte she was approached to head up the architectural department of a large design and build company. Here she worked with a global Russian organisation, finding the right building and converting it to incorporate offices and meeting rooms. The company culture involved lots of client entertaining and the brief was to include a large scale suite suitable for day time meetings and social evening gatherings. She created a sleek versatile space with moving walls and a stage. The company were so happy they appointed her to lead a large and complex contract converting a hotel into their new flagship offices in the heart of St Petersburg.
Jane acknowledges that she is unusual amongst architects having maintained interests in both interiors and exteriors. Many large practices employ specialists for each. She also loves bringing her expertise and creativity to smaller residential projects. One of her proudest achievements was refurbishing and converting a flat in a listed Tudor building into a first home for herself and her family. She remembers how she saw the potential as soon as she set foot in it. Over the years she has advised many friends and clients on the purchase or refurbishment of homes. Tapping into architect’s knowledge at the outset is something she strongly recommends to homebuyers. “When you are choosing your next home, talking to an architect early on can save a fortune in potentially expensive mistakes in the long run. An architect will look at the layout, and use their knowledge of construction and planning constraints to see potential as well as pitfalls. Pre-sales advice is a growing part of our business.”
Our walk has brought us to Bloomsbury. Jane pauses now to look in through the window of a gallery near the British Museum displaying ceramics, another passion of hers. A keen amateur potter herself she admires the clean lines of some Japanese inspired pieces and points out how the clever construction gives the illusion that they are floating. Her eye is then drawn to some other pieces at the back of the gallery with monochrome exteriors and bold orange interiors. Colour too, is a key interest of hers (she even won awards for her colour work at University).
Talking of colours, she laughs suddenly and opens her stylish handbag to reveal a full range of grouting colour samples within. This seems to really encompass the JOA ethos. Working with JOA you get a vast wealth of experience combined with a passion for detail. She is animated as she describes the process of doing a colour audit of a building’s existing palette and working to introduce other colours.
We are now approaching our destination where we pause for a moment to admire the elegant Victorian façade of the former Royal Mail sorting office. Inside we find that Jane is at the stage of putting finishing touches to a crisp, clean and contemporary work space. Innovative suspended lighting fixtures work in harmony with the high ceilings and long sash windows. Original wrought iron features and timber paneling are lovingly restored and the old blends with the new in a very simple, pared-back colour palette. The client is delighted with the results, but having worked with Jane before he had no doubt she would nail it.
Interview with Francesca Crutchfield