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Published in Architecture on 06/07/2020

Lunch with Arthur O’Brien C+W O’Brien Architects


CNI Editor reports

The Principal Architect and Managing Director of C+W O’Brien Architects, over the last 25 years Arthur O’Brien has garnered international experience and a reputation for excellence working in London and Dublin.

The son of a small builder and brought up in the midlands, working on a building site from a young age engendered a passion for the building industry in O’Brien, with his first projects constructed in the hazel woods near his Tullamore home as a child.

Seeing how highly regarded the architect by his father and others on site led him to pursue a career in architecture that has led to the creation of one of Ireland’s busiest and highly regarded firms.

Happiest with the wind in his face while on a bike, or with the wind at his back while sailing or windsurfing, outside of the office Arthur is most often found outdoors.

How do you start your day?

I’m up between 5:30 and 6:00am most mornings and I try to get between an hour and an hour and a half cycling in, at least 30km.

Sometimes if I have a very early meeting that can blow it out of the water, but I try to get exercise in almost every morning as it gets the blood circulating and I get to work fully awake and alive.

It beats trying to struggle through trying to wake up in the first meeting. It is tough to get started sometimes, but it wakes you up and invigorates you and I’m always glad that I’ve done it.

Are you from a large or small family?

A typical Irish country family of my generation, I have three brothers and three sisters, so seven siblings and my parents, nine in total.

My own family now is probably a little atypical as I have five children, four girls and a boy.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I think from an early age I wanted to be an architect. My father was a small builder based in Tullamore and I spent my childhood holidays doing small jobs around the sites and got an early engagement with construction.

When I was younger the architect visiting the site was “somebody” and I always thought I would like to be that person – I liked how they would sketch their ideas and come up with creative solutions. I was by no means an artist as a child, but I liked to make things and build things.

Being brought up in the countryside we didn’t have playgrounds so we would have spent a lot of time making treehouses & huts in the woods – all quite creative and probably quite formative, but you don’t realise that at the time.

Where were you educated?

Bolton St DIT and I completed my master’s in architecture (M. Arch) at the University of Greenwich while working in the UK.

Have you ever had a mentor?

I’ve always listened, watched and learned from those who are older and wiser than me as I’ve gone through my career – and at this point in my career the people I am paying closest attention to are wiser though not necessarily older.

That includes people in my family, people I have worked with, sports people that I have admired, friends that I’ve looked up to. I don’t know if many of them realised that was what was happening, but it has all contributed to my development.

How physically fit are you?

I would describe myself as healthily fit – I am not a health fanatic by any means, but I enjoy being active and I think that really helps my work as well.

What is more important – ambition or talent?

I think you need a healthy dose of both – ambition without ability is like trying to swim without water.

If you can hitch your ambition to some ability – whether that’s, maths or football or driving – one will compensate for the other at points along your career and your life.

Where in the world are you happiest?

Outdoors with the wind blowing, whether that is on land or at sea. I cycle, I do a bit of sailing, I’ve done some windsurfing and I just love feeling that wind blowing through me wherever I am in the world.

What would you like to own that you currently do not?

That is a tough one to answer. To me material things are not the be all and end all and I think that ownership is a transient thing – you think own something, but in time you either pass that thing on or it passes you by in some other way.

Ultimately long-lasting memories are much more important than amassing material things.

What drives you?

I love what I do, I love the people I get to meet, and I love the challenge of solving the things that need to be dealt with every day.

Some of those things are enjoyable and some are not, but whether it’s making enjoyable or difficult decisions it’s all contributing to succeeding in what you want to achieve.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I would like to be remembered as a decent person. Someone who gave as much as possible and had a positive impact on people’s lives.

It is important to me to be successful with people – I don’t want to be remembered as having had great achievements alone.

Brining your community with you and celebrating that achievement with them – family, colleagues, clients – is important.

What trait do you find most irritating in people?

Probably arrogance – and perhaps I am guilty of that myself sometimes, but arrogance is something that none of us should practice. The moment that you think you are better than the person you are dealing with, that is the day you are going to drop the ball.

What would 18-year-old Arthur think of who you are now

I think 18-year-old Arthur would be pretty happy with where I am – that I’m on the path that I set out to head down, that I’m still on that path and that I still have a lot left to do, but that I’ve done a lot along the way and that I’ve brought a lot of people with me.

As a young architect I never could have hoped that I would be where I am now, that I would have the people around me that I have around me now, that the work we are doing is this exciting…

I think 18-year-old Arthur would be pretty content with where 19-year-old Arthur is right now!

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry now?

This is worthy of an interview in and of itself. It may be a cliché but Covid and confidence. As an industry we need to remember that this is not a financial crisis, it is a health crisis, but it’s very much in danger of becoming a massive financial crisis.

We all need to work together to push and pull our way through this, not just in this industry, but in society. If that means going to restaurant and paying for a meal so that people who have been out of work for months can be supported, then you should do that.