Star Turn: Malcolm Parry

June 29, 2001

David Mosford talks to a charismatic Welshman who wants to see architecture in vogue


Malcolm Parry does not believe in teaching. This may seem odd coming from someone who is head of the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, but it does not mean Parry is neglecting his duties. Quite the reverse.

"I think the idea of filling up this empty vessel with knowledge is outdated," he says. "I want students who like learning and will test their knowledge through design projects in the studio. I believe in reciprocity between staff and students. Communication is a very important skill for an architect."

He tells how he interviewed the judges for the competition for the Welsh Assembly building. "Do you know what each of them said about Richard Rogers? 'He was the only architect who gave us our building. Our building.'" His enthusiasm for architecture - and Welsh politics - is contagious. Parry speaks fluently, accompanied by a flurry of hand gestures and laughter. No wonder television has snapped him up. He has under his belt two BBC Wales series, two series of his own about domestic architecture, a three-parter, House of the Future , and a six-parter about the role of individual rooms.

Born and bred in the Welsh mining valleys, Parry left school at 15 and trained as a mining surveyor. "I really loved that job. I enjoyed measuring things. The only problem was that I qualified early - I was 20 - and you couldn't have your own mine until you were 21.

"Worse, I could see pits closing everywhere so there clearly wasn't going to be a job for me. As I was thinking about what to do, I realised that I'd really enjoyed my day-release classes at the tech, so I decided to become a full-time student."

Parry was going to read civil engineering at Cardiff University, but when he was introduced to Dewi Prys Thomas, the head of architecture, he found his mentor.

"After I qualified, I did some private practice but I also applied for a teaching post outside the university. At the interview they asked me to explain something odd in my references. Thomas had been very positive about my ability to do the job, but added: 'He certainly won't be interested in taking it.'" The head of architecture wanted Parry to teach and research at Cardiff. "And I've been here ever since," Parry laughs.

Parry is keen to broaden the architectural debate.

"I want the public involved. Architects talk a lot to architects but there is another community out there. Architecture has become too esoteric. I want it to be the new fashion. People will talk about Damien Hirst but they don't talk about buildings. That's why I get out there."

Parry is wary of being seen as a history teacher. "I won't describe the provenance of every lintel in a 13th-century door frame. I remember when we were shooting my first programme, a little old lady came and asked me what it was all about and I said architecture, and she said, 'oh good, I like history'.

"I love the idea of lifelong learning. I don't think I've ever grown up. Grown older but not up. Up suggests the journey is complete."

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