Interview with Sir Donald Insall

Sir Donald Insall CBE FRIBA RWA is a long-standing Academician and the founder of Donald Insall Associates, an Architecture firm with branches in both London and Bath. A keen watercolourist, the RWA currently has on display a series of Donald's paintings, which span several decades and many locations. We asked Donald to answer a few questions for us:

RWA: What are you working on at the moment?

DI: We (Donald Insall Architects) always have a wide range of differing projects on hand, and from some highly active branches. London are busy with the restoration of the great Temperate House at Kew (which when constructed, was the biggest Glasshouse in Europe). This overlooks the extraordinary Marianne North Gallery, with its 800-plus paintings by that intrepid lady, and where we also recently completed an interesting restoration. Nearer to Bristol is our Bath Branch, whose work at Cholderton House recently received a Commendation from the Georgian Group for 2016. And they are also much involved at present with work on three Welsh Castles – Llansteffan, Cilgerran and Lamphey. Chester has just received the Museum and Heritage Award for 2016 for a project at the Lion Salt Works; and a Cambridge project for the National Trust at Wimpole Hall – the repair and restoration of the Skyline 'Castle' folly there – was the Grand Prix this year for Europa Nostra and the European Commission So we are kept out of mischief!

RWA: Where do you find inspiration?

DI: Our greatest source of inspiration is I think the living variety of history, expressed through the medium of its architecture. We see great importance in the special personality of buildings, and their relationship with their creators, occupants and users, then we can try to help in understanding and promoting their continuing lives. Hence too perhaps, the title of my recent book on 'Living Buildings', which we see as being just as individual as people, and all of whom and which need nourishment, encouragement and care.

RWA: What are the overlaps, if any, between art and architecture?

DI: Overlaps between architecture and art? In all the creative arts, a fundamental energy is simply that of organisation – our word 'Composition' if you like. Arriving at and sustaining unity, for an ordered response from the senses. This basic skill is of course, the universal ingredient in all of the arts! Speaking more specifically of draughtsmanship, this too is an expectable skill requirement in an architect – but with the advance of digital media, less so than it was. Even his three-dimensional imagination now has its competitors in the latest optical and drafting devices he must know about and can use.

RWA: What does the RWA mean to you?

DI: With a very long history of family connection with the city, a Bristolian looks naturally and unbidden to the Academy for leadership in the Arts. In my own case too, and interrupted by a spell of conscript military service (I was allocated to wartime guardsman duties, as a Coldstreamer!) there came the very much stronger link of five precious years spent at the RWA School of Architecture – mostly at its then headquarters at No. 25 Great George Street. It was a wonderfully formative experience; and like many others, I grieve today that this is no longer a training ground for our profession.

RWA: What would be your dream project?

DI: I think that perhaps my own Dream Project today would be to be able to take part in saving lovely Venice – for me, definitely my favourite place on this earth. To wander its maze-like pedestrian routes, with surprises and delights at every turn, is for me the epitome of artistic experience – I love simply getting lost there! But the threats and dangers – not only from the 'aqua-alta' but from over-exploitation by tourism, are at the same time immense. Between them, the two combine into a dramatic threat. I do hope that such a superb City can be saved; and it would be wonderful to be able to help in arriving at a viable future for anywhere so superb, so soaked in the Arts and in History, as an inspiration for all of us.

RWA: Who is your hero?

DI: Every walk of life has its own hero (some have their villains too!). In the field of artistic-works-in-picture-frames (although his inspirations were so much wider), I am a huge admirer of John Piper. I only wish I had ever met him; I did try, but by that time he was too elderly for his time to be available (we had invited him to illustrate our work on the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge). In the field of Town Planning, I always feel an immense attraction to the ideas, work and principles of Sir Patrick Geddes, who later became our Patron Saint at the School of Planning. His appreciation of the strength and organic energies of places and their growth, and their guidance and encouragement (organic'cultivation', almost!) were an example as yet unmatched. He was always our Planner-Hero.

RWA: What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

The best advice I suspect anyone could follow, within the supremacy of the Sermon on the Mount, was set out in the maxims of King George V, to which I was introduced in my youth. I have no doubt that other philosophies have their own fundamental truths and guiding stars to follow, but these two were perhaps mine. I never had the pleasure or exemplar to follow of being a Boy Scout.

RWA: If you could own any artwork, what would it be?

DI: Ownership of artworks is a serious snare. Acquiring anything beautifully crafted and designed is a very special joy. A tribute, in a way, to its creator. But there are dangers too – a fine work on one’s wall can become a  prey to familiarity, almost becoming unnoticed; and this does not happen when effort has to be made to visit it, to see and more consciously enjoy its allure. One is tempted to suggest one art and craft of which I lack all knowledge, but of which it would be a great and daily pleasure to own an example – that would be a cleverly designed, beautifully crafted living watch or clock – and preferably one with exposed and visible workings!

RWA: How do you see the future of the RWA?

DI: I see the future of the RWA with admiration and optimism – as a lively encourager, stimulator and co-ordinator – a place for artists to meet and share ideas – and a lively exemplar for exhibition visitors. And hope to continue to contribute my congratulations and delight at all the Academy so effectively does. So Bravo, Bristol!

Donald's exhibition runs until 29 January in the Fedden Room and Link Space.