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WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Architect Wendy Shillam

'I’m a real old stayer by Fitzrovia standards'

12 November, 2016 — By Alina Polianskaya

Wendy Shillam, pictured at Great Titchfield Street café Gitane

THE chairwoman of FitzWest Neighbourhood Forum, Wendy Shillam, says developers and communities “speak such a different language… and often I am the translator”.

An architect, she still practises a little and advises on planning applications. But much of her time lately has been spent trying to get the best deal for those who live and work in Fitzrovia, through the Neighbourhood Plan.

Wendy studied architecture at Bristol University, where she met her husband-to-be, Mike, and they moved to London to “seek our fortunes”. They set up their architecture business in the place they now call home, an old converted dress factory in Great Titchfield Street, which they share with a Miniature Schnauzer dog.

“I’ve worked there since 1986 and lived here for a lot of that time. I’m a real old stayer by Fitzrovia standards,” she says. “Very quickly we decided to set up our own business, we were still in our 20s. We were lucky, we won some competitions and got some good contracts and had a very enjoyable time. Mike and I have always worked together. For most of our lives we have been in the same room, we still work in the same studio even though we work on different projects.”

Before starting their firm, Wendy spent some time working for Richard MacCormac – an architect who designed part of BBC Broadcasting House – and counts working on a number of university buildings, including Worcester College at Oxford and Hughes Hall at Cambridge, among her greatest achievements.

Another, is her beautiful rooftop garden at her home in the centre of the city, where she grows everything from sweet peas to wisteria.

The FitzWest Neigh­bourhood Forum is currently drafting policies, on the area’s issues and the main thing on every­one’s mind at the moment is “the big question of the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street”.

Wendy says: “If Oxford Street gets pedestrianised and the buses, taxis and motorbikes get diverted onto more quiet streets, it will really add to the pollution problem… We have got to get this right.

“This isn’t about getting a cough in the winter, it is about serious diseases. We have got to make it better not worse,” she says.

She adds: “With a shopping street, you need public transport closer than you can get private vehicles. That is rule number one of urban planning. People will take the easiest route, and if that is to park the car, that is what they will do.

“Personally I am not convinced that no public transport of any kind on Oxford Street is correct,” she says. “Little light-wheeled mini buses” or a “tram light rail” could work. “When I was an au pair in Heidelberg, south Germany, they were pedestrianising the high street and putting a tram in, and that was 40 years ago. So I’m sorry London, we’re a bit behind the times.”

Wendy also used to be heavily involved in voluntary work with the Fitzrovia Chapel, formerly known as the Middlesex Hospital Chapel, but has since retired from that as “it was becoming a full-time job”. She remains a trustee. “It is in a transition period,” she says.

In their spare time, she likes to go on walks with Mike, exploring London, and seeing “whether the dream of living in an avenue with a front garden and a back garden, three bedrooms, and an open fire… whether that still exists,” she says.

She is pleased to see facilities such as libraries, parks and swimming pools dating back to the turn of the last century that “are still around and contributing to life… even though some things are just hanging on. Libraries, for example have taken a hit recently. “I really do think that cultural things, sporting things and green spaces are not optional extras,” she says.

The area’s pollution problem is part of the reason Wendy started her own rooftop vegetable garden. “I think it is really important to have green space in the city and the roof is a really good place to have it,” she says. “I also think it is really important to grow a few of one’s own vegetables because you know where they’ve been.”

Wendy grows French beans and sweet peas, a grapevine growing in and out of wisteria, and lots of complementary flowers.

She also runs a popular gardening blog, with advice to others about how to garden in the city centre. “There wasn’t much information out there, so I took it upon myself to learn,” she says.

This led her to doing a talk last year at the Royal Society of Arts about being a modern urban gardener.

But one of Wendy’s greatest achievements recently is losing 25 kilos in a year and “curing [herself] of type 2 diabetes”. After being diagnosed, she followed a “strict diet” for eight weeks, and a “less strict” diet after that. “Now I am much healthier and have so much more energy, and it’s nice to be a bit thinner as well.”

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