Robin Partington (1964-1978)

I grew up in Lostock, Bolton surrounded by architects and engineers. School holidays were spent immersed in heavy engineering and cutting oil, working in my stepfather’s factory in Nelson Square, Bolton, or at my mother’s architectural practice on Chorley New Road, close to the School. These early experiences nurtured a fascination for the properties of materials, how things are made, and a healthy respect for the craftsmanship and skills involved, coupled with a desire to learn.

After completing my A levels I went to study Architecture at Liverpool University, securing my RIBA Part I BA (Hons) degree between 1978 and 1981. I then had my first year out working at Scott Brownrigg and Turner, in Guildford, Surrey, before returning to Liverpool University to complete my RIBA Part II BArch (Hons) degree between 1982 and 1984. I then joined Foster + Partners in 1984 for my final year out, before returning briefly to Liverpool University to sit my professional practice examinations and secure my RIBA Part III qualification. I was then accepted as a qualified architect by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB), and continued to work with Norman Foster for the next 17 years. I now run my own architectural practice, Robin Partington and Partners, with offices in the West End of London.

I feel hugely fortunate to have ‘found my slot’, and to have been involved in so many fascinating projects: I’ve had a charmed life. Norman Foster’s practice was simply the best finishing school for architects; there, I learnt how to explore and develop ideas, how to understand my client business drivers, the brief, where and how to look for inspiration, the art of persuasion, working with clients, consultants, contractors and craftsmen in a collaborative process to build your ideas, a process which has resulted in many amazing projects, making you feel like you are riding the crest of a wave.

St Mary Axe, or ‘The Gherkin’, on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, was one of my last projects at Foster’s, and probably the one that I enjoyed the most. Others, such as the American Air Museum for the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, were much lower profile, but equally enjoyable, because the buildings (in this case, a simple concrete arch over a B52 bomber) fit the brief so perfectly. I have also worked on many projects that sadly will never be built but have been enjoyable nonetheless. Architecture is very much about the process, and the team that works on a project, rather than just the finished result.

What is your connection to Bolton School? Were any other members of your family here?
My schooling started at Beech House, with Mrs Boston as Headmistress. I remember spending quite a lot of time standing underneath the clock outside her study, but also enjoyed the rush for our bottle of deliciously cold milk at break times. I then went onto Park Road with Mr James as Headmaster, before joining the Senior School, where Mr Baggley was Headmaster. My sister, Christa Lossin (née Partington) attended the Girls’ Division but was a year ahead of me; the imaginary dividing line between the two schools was still very much in operation at that time.

I returned to School in June 2016 to present the prizes at the Boys’ Division’s Prizegiving Ceremony, and I was delighted with how I found the School. The new buildings, particularly the Riley Centre, are open and engaging, engendering friendliness – I saw so many smiles that day. I particularly enjoyed the palpable pride that the teachers had in their students’ achievements: I believe that children learn better when their lessons are relaxed, fun and memorable, as they are now. School felt much more serious and austere when I was a pupil there.

What is your fondest Bolton School memory?
At Park Road, I remember playing Crab Soccer and British Bulldog in the Gym – a friend and I discovered that if you took the end of the rope up with you as you climbed, and tied a knot at the top and sat on it, no one could get you back down. In the Senior School, I have fond memories of Geography, Chemistry, Physics and Biology, fuelling a fascination with the world around me, which was enhanced by regularly reading magazines including National Geographic, Scientific American, New Scientist, as well as a book called How Things Work.

Did any member of teaching staff particularly inspire you while you were at school?
Eric Dawber brought an added dimension and an edge to Physics lessons, especially the practical classes, with his ability to keep control and focus the attention of the pupils by exploring the direct engagement of individuals with particular experiments, ranging from the complex mechanics of the Van de Graaf generator, to the equally electric ebonite rod and cat fur. I always looked forward to his lessons as we never had any idea where they would take us.

I still have the formula to calculate the volume of a sphere indelibly etched on my brain from Jim “Killer” Dawson’s Maths lessons, whilst Mr Walsh’s Chemistry lessons out on the levels have given me a lifelong love of fireworks, and loud bangs which my son has since inherited.

What do you feel your experience at Bolton School has given to you personally?
I was a lazy pupil, but had one or two teachers who inspired me to do better, notably Eric Dawber, who I mention above. His lessons were fun, Eric’s twisted sense of humour and keen sense of the ridiculous ensured that, and this led me to realise that I wanted to do something I genuinely enjoyed and felt passionate about. I flunked my A levels but was determined not to forego my place at Liverpool to study Architecture. I drove across to the university and spent 12 hours persuading the senior tutor there that I still deserved my place, refusing various offers that he secured for me at other institutions. My enthusiasm for the subject must have shown through, as at 8pm he finally relented and agreed to give me my place. This passion for the subject is something I look for now, when I’m recruiting. I would always rather employ someone who has genuine passion and raw skills than someone who is fully qualified but lacks enthusiasm.

The size of the School and the variety of cultures that co-existed happily within the pupil community certainly helped to give me a worldly perspective and look beyond where I had been brought up in terms of a future career. Once qualified, I readily took on the running of projects around the world, learning as I went.

I was a Direct Grant pupil, and this, and the ethos of the School, taught me the importance of giving back. I am proud to support universities in order to help them improve the quality of their architectural teaching, and provide several paid work experience positions for A level and university students annually.

What is the best career advice you can give to Bolton School pupils today?
Working out what you want to do in life is difficult. An interest in particular subjects can certainly help guide you, but it is often chance meetings and experiences that nudge you in a particular direction. I would urge pupils to seize every opportunity to meet people and explore the world, and to secure opportunities for work experience wherever they can, to get a better understanding of the life that various careers have to offer. Learning what you don’t want to do is just as important as looking for the right job, whilst the “real life” experience and people skills that paid work develop are truly invaluable.

I was encouraged to find a particular vocation, but students leaving school should now expect to have a number of careers in their lives, with far greater freedom and opportunity to explore what life has to offer. This can help make the decisions that we have to make less fraught, as if it all goes wrong then you can simply pick another path, learning all the time. Universities are now geared up to support students in developing the skill sets to navigate these flexible career paths.

Have an inquisitive mind – be curious, and stoke your curiosity. One book which I believe should be a set text for everyone is Manufacturing Processes for Design Professionals by Rob Thompson, which explains how a variety of products, both artisan and mass-produced, are manufactured. I defy anyone not to look through this book and find a process, or product, which sparks their interest. Lighting a spark, and then fanning the flame by following up with individual companies, can lead anywhere: passion can never be refused!

Finally, the world is both large and small, so always remember your friends. The friends you make at school and university will be with you for life: it’s inevitable that your paths will cross, regardless of the career that you pursue.

What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund?
Bolton School’s 100 Campaign is a great initiative that should be encouraged.

When you have something that works well, particularly in education, it is imperative that the benefit is spread to as many people as possible. Providing open access to this fantastic educational establishment and all it has to offer through its bursary fund will allow future generations to acquire a better understanding of the world in which we live and how important it is to look after our environment, helping to improve the quality of all our lives, not just those who are less fortunate than ourselves.