Spying the universe with architect legend Mike Davies
Long Reads 19.11.2017
Words Johnny Sharp
Photographs Chris Brooks
He may have helped build some of the world’s iconic buildings, but what architect Mike Davies really likes doing is making telescopes and staring into space.
When we meet Mike Davies at the bottom of a residential cul-de-sac in London’s Finsbury Park where he rents a small room in an artists’ studio, a single word immediately strikes us: Red.
His shirt is red. His trousers are red. His belt, his tie, his watch, his shoes, his socks, his glasses, and, we can confirm (we did have to ask) his underpants are red. Even the hairband tying up his ponytail is red.
In fact, combined with his lived-in features and his white beard, he resembles an off-duty wizard heading up some benevolent stargazing, sun-worshipping cult.
And as it turns out, that’s not so far off the mark. Because when he’s not doing his day job as partner in Rogers Stirk Harbour (formerly Richard Rogers) Architects, Davies is an amateur astronomer and ‘eclipse chaser’ – one of a small, dedicated band of obsessives who travels the world trying to catch as many solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena as possible.
The souvenirs of his travels adorn the walls here – spectacular mounted prints of some of the incredible sights he has captured through a collection of self-built telescopes he has been making since his teens.
‘It’s a hobby I’ve had since I was 14,’ explains the slim, well-spoken 71-year-old. ‘My physics teacher was talking about optics one day and he said, ‘If you want to borrow some lenses to take home, feel free.’ So I borrowed a couple and made an eyepiece with an old binocular lens. I got the old cardboard tubes and toilet rolls out and did the classic stuff to put it together.’
And from there, as Davies puts it, ‘the disease grew’. But not before he’d shown some early DIY ingenuity to get his prototype telescope operational.
‘Trouble was, the telescope didn’t have a mount,’ he says, and you’ve got to have a mount to keep the scope still or it won’t hold the view, so I made a gadget to clip it to the garage door with a G-clamp; the swing of the garage door meant the angle could be adjusted very gradually and my gadget could adjust it the other way.
‘It worked OK, and I could see the moon pretty well, so I was pretty impressed. But I couldn’t get the stars in focus for some reason and I couldn’t understand why. I kept struggling with this thing and then I finally realised it was in focus, and I was actually looking at the rings of Saturn, from my garage in Muswell Hill…
‘I rushed out and got my dad and we spent the evening in the garage on our knees with this scope.’
Davies still makes telescopes now (can you guess what colour they’re painted?), and if you were under the impression that astronomy must be a rich man’s hobby, he’s here to tell you otherwise.
‘It’s dirt cheap,’ he says. ‘The basic machinery is a plastic tube off a building site and the bolts are from B&Q. Other parts are just MDF or hardwood and a drill, nothing more than that. Everything on this telescope apart from the fanciest bits are basically from a DIY store. It costs virtually nothing to build a scope, apart from buying the optics – I used to do my own optics, but I built two, they took me nine months and they were no good, so you might as well let them do it. The rest takes a weekend to make and you’ve got a telescope. And you can see the rings of Saturn with that.