Inside Job / The LFA Director

tamsie thompson london festival of architecture

London Festival of Architecture Director Tamsie Thomson talks about creating your own career path, and how time out travelling can be beneficial, rather than detrimental to your success.

Please describe your role.

I started in February as the London Festival of Architecture’s first ever permanent Festival Director. I direct, manage, organise and pull together everything – from sponsorship, to communications, to building a website. It’s a range of that strategic top-level stuff, and day to day project management. One minute you’ll be doing an interview on the radio, and the next you’re trying to convince someone to support the festival. It changes so much throughout the year. When the festival’s happening, it’s event organising, press and going out to events, meeting people and seeing what’s happening. There were 346 events this year, it was impossible to go to them all so we just tried our best.

Tamsie’s 2016 festival highlights:

Architectural Bake Off: ‘‘Teams of architects competed to build iconic buildings out of cake – it was a really fun atmosphere and the teams were very competitive, they took it very very seriously!’

Architect’s Pride Breakfast: ‘We did a breakfast before pride on the Saturday morning, with a talk chaired by Evan Davis. Then we just had a great party with Prosecco at eleven o’clock in the morning! It was really fun, full of pure energy and joy’

Architecture – You Ask The Questions, (chaired by the BBC’s Razia Iqbal). “We had a panel made up of Asif Khan, Amanda Levete and others. The public asked questions about architecture and where they saw it going – that was really positive.’


Where there any surprises this year?

We were surprised by the amount of events this year, it was almost double previous years and I think that’s partly down to the community theme, which really encouraged people to participate who perhaps hadn’t participated before.

How did you get where you are today?

My first degree was in architecture – so an obvious link. And then I went and did event production. I worked for a company that managed big stadium shows (previously Berlin wall and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ concerts). They were big, big stadium shows, and I worked with them at the old Wembley, and one in Moscow. I got a very good grounding there as with big events there’s a lot of pressure and time scales.

After a stint at the Civic Trust (which isn’t around anymore) and Shelter, I jacked it all in to go to India for three months. I then joined RIBA for eleven years. When I returned from maternity leave last year I was then offered this job, and it seemed like too good an opportunity to turn down.

Architecture-You ask the Questions at RA

So you never planned your career path?

No, I just got offered a job in the summer holiday by someone, and I was 19 and it’s working with famous pop stars – I was like ‘wow!’ it wasn’t purposeful, but somehow those two things, the event production and organising and the architecture have all come together, quite nicely for me in the end.

For a job like mine, it would be impossible to plan because it didn’t exist before. There’s a really good book called ‘Don’t Get A Job – Make A Job’ by Gem Barton and I can really relate to that. I was involved in the festival on and off through my time at RIBA and you see those opportunities which you can help create and nurture for yourself. I think you see that a lot now in London, with people who’ve created their own opportunities. I think unless you’re someone who very clearly wants to be a lawyer, accountant or an architect in the traditional sense, then gaining a lot of broad skills and creating your own opportunity within that is one of the best ways to go.

If you’re not doing something that really excites you, then it’s a bit of a waste of the majority of your life!

Have you got a theme yet for next year?

Not yet, but we’ve done a lot of talking about the theme, and one of the things that we want to do this year is widen the amount of people that have input into what it’s going to be. It used to be small group of people, but this year all of our partner organisations are going to be part of that process, to input, distill and refine it. Hopefully it’ll be ready for the Autumn – so we’ll be announcing it earlier than previous years.

Define ambition and what fuels yours?

I think it sounds really trite, but I’m really lucky that I do something that I really love, I don’t feel like I go to work. I thoroughly believe that no one lies on their deathbed thinking ‘I wish I’d learnt X more money’. It’s where you spend most of your time, it takes up most of your day. If you’re not doing something that really excites you, then it’s a bit of a waste of the majority of your life!

Ever had a career dip and what was the life lesson?

Taking the risk of quitting my job and going away. It sounds really really scary, but actually it’s quite easy to do. As long as you’ve got skills, you’ll still be able to sell those skills when you come back. It’s definitely something I’d advise people to do. Before I had kids I always used to take a month off every year and just go somewhere. I think you really need that chunk of time to just disconnect to then come back to it with a fresh perspective. Also people aren’t so scared now when they see that on CVs. As long as your break is adequately explained, it shouldn’t put anyone off.

What advice do you have for others looking to do something similar?

Firstly, being really personally interested and passionate about something. Also I think event management  is a really good background for anyone in most careers because it provides you with a whole range of really core skills – product management, budgetary and time management skills. People always need those skills, so whatever you go on to be, a barrister or an administrator, you still need to be able to manage your time and manage your budget.

The Great Architectural Bake Off

What’s next for you?

Growing and developing the festival. At the moment it’s been going for 12 years, but I think it’s still got a lot of growing to do – and now we have a professional team, we have the opportunity to do that. I think we have a claim to say London is the leading city for architecture in the world, and hopefully the festival will grow to support, develop and reflect that. It’s where people come from all over the world to learn and teach and practice and there’s a reason why someone like Zaha Hadid chose London to set up her practise, and why the Bartlett is full of international students. Also if you travel to China or any of the Gulf states, there’s buildings being created from London there as well.

Now 2016 is finished, are you plunging right into the 2017 festival?

We’re wrapping up this year and already thinking about next year – how we can evolve the model going forward, how we can increase our visibility, how we can make it easier for the wider public to engage with the festival, and also to improve the festival for organisers and the organiser experience.

Thank you Tamsie for inspiring others to craft their own career story.





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