Colin Tweedy is built on a grander scale than his tiny cottage in Stockwell, south London. Not that he is portly: he is tall and trim.
The row of houses was built in 1832 for artisans and Tweedy has lived here since 1981, but the humble exterior gives no hint of the riches to be found inside — paintings, pottery, a dash of royalty.
Tweedy, 61, is the managing director of The Building Centre, a not-for-profit organisation that exists — it states online — “to promote innovation in the built environment”. The Building Centre was established in 1931 as a materials library for the construction industry.
Tweedy was hired to reinvent the London-based organisation in 2012. Beyond materials and construction, he is concerned with landscape, the way people live and how buildings relate to one another. “After thinking my whole world had ended, when I left Arts & Business [the UK arts charity], I’ve got a new world,” he says.
Between 1983 and 2011, Tweedy was the chief executive of Arts & Business. He promoted partnerships between the two, raising money for the arts and kudos for business. “I was a broker, a middle man. I used to joke that I was the ampersand between Arts & Business.” In 2000 he was awarded an OBE for this work, but in 2011 the government cut his funding — offices were closed and staff were lost.
“I fell on my sword,” says Tweedy. “It’s still very emotional. It was my life.” For the next six months “I basically sat here in my dressing gown feeling sorry for myself”.
From a certain perspective, there are worse places to sit in a dressing gown. Cosy, stylish, the sitting room is full of pictures and pottery. Tweedy, slightly hunched, sits in a deep tartan arm-chair surrounded by vivid, abstract paintings by the Malaysian-Chinese artist Hock-Aun Teh. He bought these “big sploshy” pictures from the artist’s studio — “I just love them.”
Between the front door and the foot of the stairs, there is a collage by Francis Davison. The colour is subtle, muted — the piece emanates an austere beauty. “It’s of a harbour,” says Tweedy, “and I just love it.”
For now, he loves his art more than the art world. Since leaving Arts & Business, he has felt snubbed. “The arts community are remarkably — to be blunt — ungrateful.” Yet for all the rancour, Tweedy retains the optimism of a missionary. He wants to help make “a better world through the built environment”. He intones the words like a mantra, or a prayer.
“Before I went up to Oxford, I was training for the Anglican priesthood.” He lived in Birmingham at the time, working as a manual labourer. “They had demolished all the back-to-back council houses and built high-rises.”
Tweedy never became a priest, but the defaced city left its mark. “The high-rises were a disaster,” he says, “appalling for humanity”. By contrast, the Victorian back-to-backs “with the loo outside” had a sense of community. Now, more than 40 years later, he is in a position to address these issues.
Above an old pedestal desk, there is a photograph of him with the Prince of Wales. “I have a signed photograph, as well,” he says, “but I’ve never put it up.” The two men have worked together, and Tweedy concurs with the prince that we should build “on a domestic scale”.
“High-rises look fabulous, but a kid needs to kick a can down the road, play in a field, be safe.” Tweedy wants public squares and organic markets, places to sit and talk. And he wants beauty. Is he a romantic at heart? “Total. Total,” he smiles. “We have to aspire to make everything as beautiful as possible.”
Undoubtedly, Tweedy’s house is beautiful, though his taste is more contemporary than that of his royal friend’s. He collects beer pots by Nesta Nala, a Zulu artist who dug her own clay and polished her pots with animal fat. Hanging above one of Nala’s pots is a painting by the abstract artist Callum Innes. Red, intense, moody: “it’s one of his drip paintings,” says Tweedy.
Tweedy lives with Campbell Gray, his civil partner, whom he met at the English National Opera on September 29 1978 (Tweedy knows the date well). “He was a lawyer and I was a banker.” They have been a couple ever since. “I never came out to my parents,” says Tweedy. “They knew — they stayed here — but I never said the words. I never wanted to upset them.”
When it comes to The Business Centre, he is less reticent. He wants to “rock boats”, he says. “If we’re to be relevant, we have to be a centre for discussion and debate, an environment where you can say challenging things.” About towers, for example.
“I find London a very ugly city,” he says. And he thinks it is getting uglier. Towers are popular in the construction industry. They are relatively cheap to build, because land is so expensive, and spectacular to look at. Yet the effect on the overall appearance of London is “random”, he says.
Tweedy can’t dictate taste. He may approve of picturesque, green communities, but he cannot demand them. How much power does he really have? “Like in my previous job, I am relying on others.” As before, he sees himself as the ampersand — the “and” between planners, engineers and architects.
His political views are “left of centre”. Armed with a magic wand, he says he would fund local authorities. Most people have little say in how their cities change: “My magic wand is to give power back to people.”
Instead of identikit high streets all over England, we would see local shops — “the butcher, baker, candlestick maker”. After seeing both his parents “die in care homes in misery”, he would also build places “for people to die with dignity”. And he would abolish short-term planning: “To build a better world we have to think 30, 40, 50 years ahead.”
As well as his OBE, Tweedy is a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, “a personal gift of the Prince of Wales”. Would he accept a peerage? “Oh, of course!” he sighs, though he doubts he will be offered one, adding, “I would also vote for the abolition of the House of Lords — I’m gloriously inconsistent.”
In the garden, the cold light is dwindling. How does he unwind? “I love buying a pot or an Inuit sculpture.” He also listens to Wagner. The dining room resembles a small gallery: Venetian glass, pots by Nala, a pot by Chris Keenan, and one by a Kyoto potter whose name Tweedy has forgotten. “I love the juxtaposition of African art with Japanese and Venetian.”
On the landing upstairs, Tweedy points to some shelves. “Books everywhere,” he says. He opens one and reads briefly: “Tweedy stepped aside . . . ” Closing the book, he notes, “normally people quietly rubbish me in books about the arts”.
The bathroom has been renovated. It is pale blue, with painted blue tiles and more pots by Keenan. The master bedroom is warm and spruce with Ghanaian artwork over the bed and a small chair in the corner, clustered with antique teddy bears.
“I didn’t have a teddy [as a toddler] and I had flu or something and I put my jumbo [elephant] on the boiler because I was cold and I thought it would be cold. It burnt to a cinder. [So] my mother knitted this overnight.” Tweedy is holding a simple, charming bear.
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw
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