Sir Philip Dowson, president of the Royal Academy, has travelled all over the world - but he feels most at home in sunny southern Europe.
Sir Philip Dowson is just the kind of man you would expect to find presiding over the Royal Academy. Startlingly erudite, this highly cultured 74-year-old has a grand if slightly distracted air. His scholarly demeanour may appear at odds with the commercialism that is seeping into the world of art, but this is a man who was a senior partner at the engineering consultants Ove Arup Partnership until 1990.
Architecture has been his life's passion. He found his vocation while convalescing after the second world war and, since then, has had no regrets. 'If I had my life over, I'd do the same. I think architecture is the most exciting thing because it is the only art we inhabit,' he says. The boundaries between recreation and work have always been blurred for him. So much so that, after the war, he even decided to go off and build himself a house 'with (his) own hands' in the Pyrenees. 'The only way up in those days was by mule or donkey and we only had money for bread, cheese, wine and cement,' he reminisces. 'And I still go there - it's very simple, not a house really, more an extension of the landscapes, a place to enjoy friends away from the telephone.' His grandchildren go there 'and they love it', he adds with obvious satisfaction.
'What nobody tells you is really how satisfactory being old can be. I have six grandchildren and they are a totally new departure in life. Children are your responsibility for the rest of your life; grandchildren are a sort of second rung to the ladder. The relationship you have with your grandchildren is different, enormously particular and rewarding.'
Although Sir Philip has travelled 'all over the place', the Pyrenees draw him back to Europe. 'I feel happiest in the dust and the heat, the fig trees, olive trees and the brilliance of light you get in a southern climate. I think I'm a sort of Homo mediterraneus - that's the part of the world I love the best and I'd be happy to spend the rest of my days just travelling in Europe.' He recognises no artistic boundaries in Europe, seeing himself as a European through and through, and despairs of the parochial English outlook. 'I look on my culture as starting in Kiev and ending in Dublin. The idea that we're separate ... For God's sake - if it wasn't for a mistake on the part of Bonnie Prince Charlie, we'd have been under the Stuarts. It was only since very recently that the UK has existed. The whole notion of separateness is a fiction.'
He is equally passionate, if dilettante, in his literary tastes. Of books, he says: 'I like to spend time reading around subjects, different subjects to those one would normally get involved in. On one occasion I studied wine - a very expensive mistake. Or I take an historical character and I not only read biographies but all their letters, so as to get a 3-D picture of people within the context of their time.'
This, he argues, gives you a better idea of the way people lived - and that's what architecture is all about. 'I always say architecture is the clothing of society and it stems from how people live,' he adds. That is why he is a fan of contemporary architecture, and has no truck with the views of Prince Charles and his architectural supporters. As Sir Philip says: 'We have this terrible disease of nostalgia in this country and I've no wish to walk backwards into the 21st century.'
SIR PHILIP DOWSON SEES HIMSELF AS A EUROPEAN
After the war, Sir Philip built himself a house in the Pyrenees with his own hands. He describes himself as Homo mediterraneus and says he would be happy to spend the rest of his life travelling in Europe.