Supporter's Column: Clare Wright

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition and his creation of camaraderie amongst the crew, acts as a point of inspiration for the culture and community fostered at Wright & Wright Architects.

Learning from Endurance


By Clare Wright (Wright & Wright Architects)  

Throughout my long involvement with practice, I consider the quality of working collectively to be of equal importance to what we produce. Life experience enhances how we design buildings and places, and having a team with a range of backgrounds and commitments inestimably enriches our outlook and culture. Ensuring that we prioritize the well-being of people in our practice is also critical. I started working a four-day week eight years ago. I was worried that I would be missed but wanted to spend time with my family, in particular my baby granddaughter. The office adjusted immediately; after all I could have been going to a regular project slot. But if I could choose flexibility, then why not everyone else?

While our libraries’ shelves are filled with tomes of projects, practices, and architects we admire, there is one - perhaps surprising - history that encapsulates my approach. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is an account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition; it is a story of ambition, resilience, and expedition. Mostly, however, it is an exemplary study of the power of camaraderie, optimism, and interdependence. As we all know, Shackleton’s crew didn’t make it to the South Pole. They ended up trapped in ice, facing excruciating adversity. Yet, against all odds, everyone made it home with many crew members saying it was one of the happiest times of their lives.

Shackleton cultivated a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. He created a positive and purposeful mission. Even before setting out, he sought to employ those who were highly skilled but above all optimistic and willing to muck in. He created an environment in which people felt part of a team but were also valued as individuals. He broadened the crew’s cultural and social horizons so they could think flexibly and adapt. He paid them well and kitted them out with the best equipment he could afford. He was honest, sharing news of the good times and the bad. Most importantly, he looked forward, avoiding the spiraling traps of ‘what if’ or regret. Throughout, Shackleton stayed present and nurtured the collective spirit. As Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance said, ‘No matter what turns up, he was ready to alter plans and make fresh ones, and in the meantime laughs, and enjoys a joke with anyone’.

Since co-founding Wright & Wright in 1994, I have tried to emulate Shackleton’s approach, maintaining a creative and supportive environment in which we share responsibility for each other and forecasts, good and bad. The tenets of transparency, collective agency, and collaborative care have underpinned our practice philosophy for three decades. Today, well-being is more important than ever. In an era of increased demands on one’s time and always-on technology; when multitasking, portfolio professionalism, and ‘busyness’ tempt us to appear ever-more productive and efficient yet threaten to deprive us of the necessary balance which will ultimately sustain us, I would argue that a culture of work-life balance and attention to what makes us human is of paramount importance. Whether it’s a four-day week or affording time to care for family and friends, or stimulating office trips, or birthdays and engagements celebrated as much as practice awards or competition wins, we strive to foster a culture in which commitment need not be demonstrated by self-abandonment.

After all, as Shackleton demonstrated, endurance is also the result of letting go and letting be. As in Keat’s negative capability theory: ‘When a person is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ …. The answer often falls into place.


Article written by Clare Wright, Wright & Wright Architects, as part of the Architecture Foundation's Supporter's Column series.