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A conversation with: Tim Marlow OBE

The director and CEO of London’s Design Museum on the emotional impact of architecture

Tim Marlow, director and CEO of London’s Design Museum Tim Marlow, director and CEO of London’s Design Museum

With The Royal Exchange celebrating 450 years at the heart of the City this year, we asked  Tim Marlow, director and CEO of London’s Design Museum, about why humans are so fascinated by grand buildings, how it is that spaces and structures are able to elicit an emotional response in us, and why the City of London is so special from an architectural perspective. Here’s what he had to say:


Architectural landmarks have long been a source of attraction for humans, both in our home cities and when we visit a new place. What makes us so fascinated with grand buildings?

Well, I think there are many things. From a practical perspective, landmark buildings allow us to map a city, so they act as staging posts to help us make sense of the place. They function as literal and cultural co-ordinates and become entry points to understanding a particular city or place.

More interestingly though, there’s a sense of collectivism and collective memory. Buildings link us to our collective past as a species, as human beings. Ancient buildings are like a sort of historical dip stick, where you feel more literally that there are layers of historical traces embedded into the surface of the building. We want to share the experience of what others have had, and then make our own judgement. We like the idea that thousands, if not millions before us, have seen and felt the presence of these buildings and that we can become part of that shared experience.

And then there’s the notion of human achievement, human capability and human ambition. Being inspired and awestruck by our collective capacity as a species, which is why new buildings can inspire something equally powerful. That’s one of the connections – because obviously new buildings don’t have history, but the potential of their projected history is interesting too.

"Buildings link us to our collective past as a species, as human beings"

Tim Marlow

How is it that some structures and spaces are able to elicit such an emotional response in us and affect the way we feel upon seeing or entering them?

There are many reasons and it’s complex but I think there’s a strong and interesting connection to the sublime, an idea first formulated by the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke. He identified and articulated an overwhelming feeling we, as human beings, have when we’re confronted by the terrifying or awe-inspiring forces of nature, which makes us aware of our own mortality, our own vulnerability, our own fragility.

We get something of that when we’re confronted by substantial and impressive ancient buildings. There’s something about an historic sublime – where it becomes awe-inspiring as to what human beings were capable of doing, or how many people have experienced this – but there’s also sometimes a physical, visceral response too.

The pyramids, for example, evoke a sense of the sublime when you see them and get close to them. I think St Paul’s Cathedral does – I find it a physically overwhelming building. If I go to Evensong or a school service there, I find it incredibly emotional and overwhelming, in a very powerful way. And in literal terms – how does the dome stay up? How is it suspended? Could the thing fall on top of me? But also just the cavernous sense of space, amplified by painting as well as architecture, where you seem to have a heightened awareness of your own vulnerability and place in the grand scheme of things.

The Burj Kalifa in Dubai and the view from the top The Burj Kalifa in Dubai (left) and the view from the top (right)

Do you think we absorb – perhaps subconsciously – a sense of the engineering, craftsmanship, time and effort that has gone into creating magnificent buildings, and does this influence our emotional response to them?

Yes, I do. And I think this is where there is a parallel, and a crossover, with works of art. Architecture is both an art form and a form of engineering, too. As with artworks, some people may be amazed by the perceived technological dexterity, but in the end it’s the emotional or cultural impact of the work of art that affects us most. There’s something similar with buildings, but it tends to be that the technological achievement is often the dominant force, and then the emotional experience of being in a place can take over, so it’s an interesting mixture of the two.

There are some buildings that seem to be extraordinarily accomplished, miraculous even, and I think that a lot of skyscrapers initially had that perception around them. Even now, if you take the Burj Khalifa in Dubai as an example – when you see shots of it from the ground and then you go up to the top and look down, there’s a sense of wonder as to how human beings are able to create something as vast, as high and as potentially perilous as that.

There are geometric and mathematical principals that apply to architecture, in the same way that there’s the golden section in composition in painting; and certainly in music, where there are specific harmonies that resonate in certain ways within our ear, and then can generate profound emotional responses. The cruciform, the cross, is one example – it literally echoes the human body – the circle is another. These are universal forms that architecture plays with. I would certainly shy away from making the point that mathematical formulas can actually lead to great buildings per se, it’s more complicated than that. It’s how architects and builders can play with the formula that makes for great buildings. In the same way that musical disharmony can still evoke incredibly strong responses – sometimes stronger responses than conventional harmony – the same applies to buildings and architecture.

And those things are only a starting point for our experience, which is intensely personal and, interestingly, mysteriously collective too. If you experience a building with a particular person on a particular day, its memory and impact on you is personal and vastly significant to you as an individual. But what’s interesting is how it can become cumulative, for millions.

The Royal Exchange, City of London The Royal Exchange is situated at the heart of the City of London, where ancient and contemporary architecture coexist in the modern day

The City of London is a great example of new and ancient architecture coexisting in the same space. How would you describe the City of London as it is today and what makes it unique?

The City of London is, like many great cities, a palimpsest of cultural, physical and historical activity. But I can’t think of another place where the architectural experience is so intensive.

The Square Mile has evolved from an ancient settlement, to a Roman city, to one of the greatest ports in Europe, to becoming the dominant financial centre in the world. It has evolved and changed but it still keeps its medieval street plan. It has managed to incorporate major landmarks – from St Pauls, the Bank of England and The Royal Exchange to the Hawksmoor/Wren churches and (more recently) modernist and post-modernist buildings such as the Barbican, the Lloyd’s building and the proposed new Museum of London.

I think there’s something architecturally very special about the City of London – it’s the density, the intimacy, the explicit historicism of the place. There’s also a knowledge – that’s now been made much more prominent – of ancient architecture and that sense of an underground city: sewers, the underground river, the archaeology of places like the ancient Temple of Mithras, which Norman Foster and his practice incorporated into the design of the new Bloomberg headquarters in such a sensitive and, I think, visionary way.

It’s fair to say that the City didn’t embrace Modernism initially but the last four decades or so have seen significant engagement with major contemporary architects in a variety of ways. This renewed sense of energy contributes to the range and intensity of what was there already and amplifies the Square Mile as a microcosm of western architecture over the last 2,000 years.

"There’s something architecturally very special about the City of London – it’s the density, the intimacy, the explicit historicism of the place"

Tim Marlow

Do you think it’s important that we preserve heritage buildings, and that we keep them as part of our cities among all of these new builds that are going up?

I absolutely do, yes. I think it’s a tragedy that so many buildings were wilfully destroyed in the past, in certain parts of Britain and indeed across the world. I mean, it would be a cultural catastrophe if the pyramids collapsed and we should do everything, globally, to preserve them. In the same way, a city like Venice is a sort of international monument, a city as sculpture, and likewise, somewhere that needs to be preserved for as long as possible.

I don’t believe in blanket conservation, but I think we should clearly seek to preserve certain buildings. They become identity points or pivots in cities. Human beings evolve, and we constantly reinvent, but we also know we reinvent based on that which we’ve experienced and that which our ancestors experienced and created. So we need to find a balance in trying to preserve certain things, but also evolve with and from them.

People often talk about the danger of buildings being preserved and then becoming mausoleums, but actually there’s an important opportunity there because the functionality and purpose, as well as the impact, of a building can also re-incorporate aspects of its past that have been preserved. The murals and some of the architectural detailing at The Royal Exchange are an example of this. Those wonderful and rather under-rated wall paintings by artists including Frederic Leighton, Frank Brangwyn and Stanhope Forbes are significant works of late 19th-century British art. So that’s a reason for visiting just as much as its modern-day function as a place for shopping and dining. It provides an interesting backdrop but also another positive or activating aspect to The Royal Exchange, reinforcing the view that there are things to go and see, as well as things to consume or to buy.

Inside the dome of St Paul’s cathedral (left); The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (right) The ornately decorated interior of St Paul’s cathedral dome (left); an artists impression of the mythological Hanging Gardens of Babylon (right)

In your view, what elements must a building have in order to inspire awe and become iconic?

The emotional impact of a particular place is really interesting because it is collective but it’s also intensely personal. The mystery is why certain buildings catch the human imagination more collectively than others. There’s all sorts of speculation about that, and it’s also about the notion of fame. Sometimes there comes a trigger point where there’s such momentum of interest around a particular building or structure that, in the end, it becomes an emblem of a particular place, or a particular period of history, that is virtually unchallengeable.

I always give the example of the Mona Lisa. There are specific reasons why the Mona Lisa has become so celebrated. It’s one of fewer than 20 works completed by one of the three great figures of the Italian Renaissance, which in itself is seen as pivotal in the history of western art. And it happened to be one of the earliest examples of art that was reproduced on postcards. Walter Pater wrote poetic descriptions of it, that struck a universal chord. It was in the world’s first great museum (arguably), the Louvre; it was stolen and in the news as a crime story and finally some sort of critical mass is reached where the fame of this particular work of art or image transcends almost all others. In turn, millions visit the Louvre and feel compelled to go and see the painting and its status is reinforced and then amplified.

There are buildings and structures that also obtain that kind of status too, in a parallel process of human curiosity and mass appeal that is reinforced through global tourism, but also the mass reproduction of images which chime in our collective imagination and become mythic. I mean, it’s funny how I know that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of the great wonders of the world. It doesn’t exist now, I’ve never seen or experienced it, but it still pervades a sense of being one of the greatest human structures ever created. It’s almost instinctive in us, as human beings, to create myths. And buildings and the impact they have, in a sense, are one of the most prominent visual manifestations of the notion of myth.

Tim Marlow is chief executive and director of the Design Museum in London. Formerly artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts and director of exhibitions at White Cube. He sits on the Board of Trustees for the Imperial War Museum, Art on the Underground Advisory Board and Cultureshock Media. Marlow was awarded an OBE in 2019.

A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our journal and Instagram for more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year