Heaven and Hell: Christopher Ash and James Soane

Christopher Ash and James Soane, directors of Project Orange.

Christopher Ash and James Soane, directors of Project Orange. - Credit: Alex Sargison

Christopher and James are architects who met at Cambridge when they were 19 and have been together ever since. 

Christopher set up Project Orange in 1997 and James joined him full time three years later. Their work has taken them around the world, from hotels in India and Ireland, to an office in Moscow, and a house in Hong Kong. However, in light of the climate crisis, they made the decision not to travel far for work and are focussing their energies on projects throughout East Anglia.

Here they talk to Gina Long. 

Shoreham Street, designed by architects Project Orange.

Shoreham Street, designed by architects Project Orange. - Credit: Jack Hobhouse

How has Covid-19 impacted you, and how are you adapting?

For us everything has changed. We have moved our studio from London to Lavenham and are working full time from here. People have changed their working patterns and we have staff happily home working, some coming in three days a week and some full time. We are all much more flexible, but it does mean a more fragmented culture.

What is your connection to East Anglia?

Christopher: I grew up in Sheffield and we used to take Summer holidays in Suffolk. I have a photo of myself with my grandma sitting outside The Angel Hotel in Lavenham’s Market Place in 1978. It looks just the same! Our East Anglian clients keep us very connected to the region. 

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James: We came to Suffolk for a holiday in 1998 and fell in love with the countryside. A year later we had bought a tiny cottage in Lavenham.

James Soane and Christopher Ash, directors of Project Orange.

James Soane and Christopher Ash, directors of Project Orange. - Credit: Christopher Ash

What is your East Anglian Heaven?

James: I love the land. We are both gardeners which means you always get your hands dirty....

Christopher: Long walks at the weekend discovering new corners of the county.

What is your East Anglian Hell?

James: Everyone says the traffic – but I reckon we are at peak lorry. In the future there will be smaller, less polluting electric deliveries and public transport will be brilliant.

Christopher: The dash to build more housing without due consideration to the uniqueness of the region's landscape and historic built environment. We must build, but we should build better!

What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?

James: The house in the clouds in Thorpeness. My old tutor used to show slides of it as an example of how creative and eccentric British design can be.

Christopher: Sizewell B from Aldeburgh beach.

Orange Cottage, designed by architects Project Orange.

Orange Cottage in Lavenham, designed by architects Project Orange. - Credit: Gareth Gardner

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

James: Hidden Gardens! It is a brilliant initiative that means you can visit places that are private but full of inspiration and love.

What is your favourite restaurant?

James: I am going to have to say the Great House in Lavenham! It really is a little piece of France in mediaeval Suffolk.

Christopher: The Still Room at The Swan in Southwold (unbiased, even though we designed it!) and it’s always treat to stay at The Victoria at Holkham. 

The Swan Drawing Room, designed by Project Orange.

The Swan Drawing Room, designed by Project Orange. - Credit: James Bedford/Project Orange

What your specialist Mastermind subject?

James: Architectural education. I have always been involved in teaching or writing about architecture.

Christopher: English domestic architecture between the wars.

What is always in your fridge?

James: Homemade soup. Every weekday after an hour’s exercise I make soup for lunch. It is a brilliant way of using leftovers.

Christopher: Butter. Can’t live without it.

The Swan bar, part of a design by Project Orange.

The Swan bar, part of a design by Project Orange. - Credit: Project Orange

What’s your simple philosophy of life?

James: It’s not about you.

What’s your favourite film?

James: I love sci-fi so I am going to nominate the Matrix, but it could equally be Star Wars which I saw when it first came out in 1977.

Christopher: Anything Peter Greenaway, but especially The Draftsman’s Contract. A brilliant combination of structure and caprice.

What was your first job?

James: I worked for an architect in Liverpool when I was 17. I couldn't do anything useful apart from making tea but I learned a lot!

Christopher: I worked in my father’s department at the then National Coal Board in the summer after my O-levels. Had no idea then what I was doing, and even less now. Earned some pocket money though!

What is your most treasured possession?

James: I have a sculpture made by Ronald Pope that was given to me by my grandparents. He lived in a self-build house in their orchard, and I remember him making it. 

Christopher: Tricky for me – I’m very unsentimental about things but I love my piano.

Whites Farm, designed by architects Project Orange.

Whites Farm, designed by architects Project Orange. - Credit: Paul Dixon

Who do you admire most?

James: This changes, though right now I would say Greta Thunberg. Her courage and directness cuts right through the blah, blah, blah.

Christopher: Have to agree with James on this one.

What is your biggest indulgence?

James: Reading when I have the time.

Christopher: We included a space for a grand piano when we designed our house in Lavenham. Now that we live here full time, I can play every day.

Whites Farm, designed by architects Project Orange.

Whites Farm, designed by architects Project Orange. - Credit: Paul Dixon

What do you like about yourself most?

James: This is a bit of a self-help question! I would say my belief in the future even though it is alarming.

What’s your worst character trait?

James: That’s easy – I tend to get into heavy conversations when all people want to talk about is their day (see above).

Christopher: It’s not that I am a control freak per se. But everything goes so much better when I get my way!

Where is your favourite holiday destination?

James and Christopher: We have been to Sri Lanka many times and find it such a beautiful and serene country. However we have taken the decision not to fly until you can do so with zero pollution. So now it is anywhere on the coast.

Best day of your life?

James: Our civil partnership was a red letter day!

Christopher: I’m hoping it’s yet to come.

What’s your favourite breakfast?

James: I make a really good overnight oats with fruit from the garden, nuts and seeds.

Christopher: Scrambled eggs made with lots of butter and fresh herbs from the garden and served on toasted granary bread from Sparling and Fairs, Lavenham’s fabulously old-school bakery.

What’s your favourite tipple?

James: Rose wine. Not fussy.

Christopher: Negroni – always warms me up in so many ways.

What’s your hidden talent?

James: I can make a mean floral wreath

Christopher: Classical Piano, Mozart, Debussy with some recent ventures into 21st century composers.

What’s your earliest memory?

James: Lying on a bed as a baby looking up at a Habitat paper lightshade with a blue lightbulb in on top of a pile of coats. It was a neighbour’s party in 1969.

Christopher: Throwing my toys out of the cot (literally).

Tell us something people don’t know about you?

James: I used to play the Bassoon (badly).

Christopher: Generally better that they don’t know….

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

James: When I was young being gay was seen as a problem and an embarrassment, so people said terrible things. We are lucky in the UK that the situation has improved – though there is still a way to go.

Christopher: ‘I do like your [grey] beard. It’s such a shame it doesn’t match your hair.’

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?

James: Having lived in London for over 30 years I find living in East Anglia such a life affirming place.

Christopher: East Anglia really is its own unique place – gentle and rural yet bristling with colour and culture – life here is nourishing socially, physically and spiritually.

What do you want to tell our readers about most?

James: In 2016 I was involved in founding the London School of Architecture. It was a really brave venture that sought to widen access for students and to teach the climate emergency (at post graduate level).

We developed a network of practices which employed students for three days a week for a year, which paid for two years of fees.

We all have to find a way of understanding and engaging with the climate crisis which is difficult because it is so frightening. However unless we all make changes then the future is bleak.  

Christopher: There is a great deal of pressure on our towns and villages to accept new housing estate development in order to meet government targets. Understandably, many are concerned about the impact this will have on existing communities.

We have spent time working with and shaping those policies (in particular Neighbourhood Plans) that aim to control and elicit the best outcomes for such new developments.

We have also worked incredibly hard, as architects, to evolve new sustainable and appropriate models of housing that can meet this need whilst enhancing the county’s built heritage. 

For more information please visit projectorange.com.

I am always looking for interesting people from Suffolk and Norfolk to feature in my Q & A. Please do contact me gina@hallfarmfornham.com.

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