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Norman Plastow interview: Career in architecture

I got a job with a firm who were working with pre-fabricated buildings mainly. I didn't stay there but it was quite interesting. A number of the people there were ex-Polish Air Force who didn't go back to Poland because the Russians were there but instead took up architecture. It was only for a year or two.

Then I went to Architects Co Partnership, quite a large firm, set up by I think originally eight people from the Architectural Association who qualified and decided to set up their own practice as a joint venture. It wasn't Communist but was very Socialist in its outlook and it was very open. Every job that everyone did was recorded in detail and reviewed by everyone. So every month we would have a meeting after normal office hours. Everyone from the top down to the office boy would present what they were doing and everyone would criticize, make suggestions and so on.

At Architects Co Partnership I got involved in their school programme building new schools which I found very interesting. Building new schools. All over the place. I started locally at Garrett Green School. That was nearly complete and I came in at the later stages. There were one or two others but then I got on to Bingham School near Nottingham that a complete design project from start to finish. Another one I did was in Cornwall, near St Austell. Charleston Secondary School there, a complete school.

Because I had become interested in schools I got to the point where I felt I ought to be earning a little bit more. When I started off it was £400 a year salary. By the time I got to ACP and was in charge of schools and had an office team I was approaching £1000 but I eventually made the thousand when I went to what was then the LCC schools department and I was put in charge of some projects there. I had actually reached the magic £1000 a year - fantastic. I worked on schools there. There were several of them but the biggest one was what is now part of the City University, Finsbury, which was a large teaching block, assembly, gymnasium, dining blocks and student accommodation 18 storeys high. Quite a substantial building. The pricing for that was incredible. I think the whole project was only about £1million. Would be £100 million now.

Building a new home:

Having got to this point I was still in contact with someone from ACP who was thinking about setting up on his own and asked me if I would like to join him. At this time I had also been doing one or two other projects myself part time and I finished up at the LCC working three days a week and spending the rest of the time on a project after finding a piece of land in Arterberry Road.

We were going to build ourselves a house there so we designed the house, bought the land - £1600 for the land - and built a house there. I literally built a lot of it myself. Various friends used to help there. Would work there during the day and go up to the Hand in Hand at night for a late night drink.

We were living at that time in a converted coach house in Beaumont Road off West Hill. We found this old coach house literally as the horses had walked out including the stalls and mangers still there. That cost £1800. Spent quite a lot on converting it. That was in 1955. We lived there for about seven or eight years I think. Then we were looking for possible alternatives and got this site in Arterberry Road and built the house there. But by that time we had found this site in Hillside and this was a rather better site. There was nothing on this site. It was the kitchen garden of a large Victorian house half way up the road. In the post war years there had been two or three houses built on the garden but the kitchen garden was still vacant at the end and we managed to buy that and then build this house. The one in Arterberry Road we then sold. We made a few hundred pounds profit on it, I suppose.

I enjoyed doing the carpentry on that house and this house. I even did all the wiring here. It would probably be condemned today but it was done in 1964 and it is still functioning perfectly.

Scandinavian style roof:

That came about because of a house I designed for a couple in Kent. They lived in a large Victorian house which was converted. But the thing about it was that it had these very high ceilings and they liked this spacious feel of high ceilings. They wanted this house built at Downham, somewhere near Brands Hatch. I had to design a house for them but their budget was fairly limited and they wanted space so I had this idea of making full use of the interior without an inch wasted. So the rooms went up into the roof. You didn't have an attic. It was floor to ceiling as in this one you see. 18 feet high. That's how this one came about. I built that house and then Ray and I went to stay with them. I was already designing a house for this site. Having stayed there she liked it so much she said I want a house like that and that's why we built this house. The other one was a more or less flat site but the idea of sloping up from practically zero to two storeys, making use of the roof space in between still applied.

Our own business:

We built this house in 1964 and at this time I was setting up this independent practice. We had an office in Charlotte Street just near ACP and we did various things there. We did work for Coutts Bank, a big wine place in Germyn Street and so on in town. But we also did work further out - flats in Chiswick and so on. We finished up going up in the morning, driving up and had difficulty parking but also had to go to some other site and it was very inconvenient. So of course I was building this and had built a small office here. My partner was looking to get into the country and found a place down in Wells - in Wells Cathedral Close and set up an office there. We still kept in touch and sometimes he came up here and we dealt with things together. But we were physically separated although running the business from our homes.

When did that continue until?

Right until I retired at 65 which I didn't have to but I'm very glad I did because things were then still financially quite viable. I didn't have a vast amount of money but it did enable me to buy an endowment policy which actually had some worth. If I had stayed on another year or so it would have been half as much. It was very lucky.