Firm foundations

In anticipation of the Architecture Foundation’s launch of a directory listing emerging British architects, Jessica Cargill-Thompson tracks down five fledgling practices that look set to conquer the architectural scene in the near future

For the past 15 years the world of interior design has been dominated by the same names: Fitch, Din and Ben Kelly from the interiors crowd; Eva Jiricna, John Pawson and Harper Mackay to name but a few of the architects. Couple this with a heavy recession and you are left with few opportunities for new talent to break through.

It took a lot of guts or desperation for young architects to set up in practice on their own in the midst of all this. Those who took the plunge in the early Nineties have kept their heads above water by finding niches for themselves in particular building types or exploiting the opportunities of their geographical location.

At last it is paying off. Once again there is money around. In the big cities, new restaurants are opening every week. The IT revolution is changing working patterns and by association the requirements for office space.

With this increase in fresh opportunities for our young creative talent, a new generation is beginning to emerge on the scene. Their existence is being recognised by the Architecture Foundation which is setting up a Directory of Emerging British Architectural Practices.

Parr Shearer

Glasgow-based husband and wife team Lucy Parr and Graeme Shearer look set to dominate the Scottish architectural scene. They already play an instrumental part in Glasgow’s forthcoming City of Architecture celebrations in 1999. Not only have they just completed offices for the organising body, Glasgow 1999, but they also allowed their own flat – refurbished as part recreated Victorian drawing room and part modern working and living space – to be used to entertain the judges before the bid was won.

“Terence Conran nearly burst out laughing when he came up the stairs to our scrappy front door,” recalls Lucy Parr. “It was a bit of a contrast to Edinburgh’s efforts at Holyrood Palace.”

When they invited the public in on Doors Open day last year, there were queues of people down the street eager to get in.

Parr Shearer’s designs for the offices of Glasgow 1999 are an exercise in space-management, squeezing 12 people, a meeting room, reception and storage into 110m2. To do this, six workstations were put on a mezzanine platform with a tunnel running underneath for long-term storage. The structure was built on a minimal budget from rough timber.

Parr Shearer has also become expert in the work of Glasgow’s most famous architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Although both partners are graduates of the Mackintosh School, Parr confesses that she knew relatively little about the man before starting her studies. Designing last year’s Mackintosh exhibition, now touring the US, turned her into a dedicated fan.

Among the practice’s tasks was the painstaking recreation of Mackintosh’s Ladies Luncheon Room, drawing up plans calculated from the original built interior. “We learnt a hell of a lot about him, working on drawing every single detail as built,” says Parr. “I have a tremendous respect for him. I think if he were alive today he’d be pretty chuffed with himself.”

Other recent work includes the People’s Palace travelling exhibition for the West of Scotland Housing Association: a bold use of clean graphics and strong images. Layering of planes keeps the information easy to follow, but introduces enough texture to the space to prevent it being just a box full of pictures.

With work now coming in at a steady rate, Parr Shearer is looking to expand out of its home office into city centre premises, possibly recruiting extra help. “The practice is at a bit of a crossroads at the moment,” says Parr. “We do want to get more substantial jobs, but with just the two of us it’s a bit much at the moment.”

Kulbir Chadha

An apartment above London’s King’s Road couldn’t be a better location for a young architect branching out on her own. Since setting up as a sole practitioner in 1993, Kulbir Chadha has enjoyed a steady stream of commissions from the multitude of bijou restaurants and boutiques on her doorstep.

Chadha, who trained in Kenya and Edinburgh, says she left her previous employer Powell Moya because she was bored of designing huge hospitals and wanted to get back in touch with the rudiments of design. Since then her work has mainly been interiors for private or commercial clients, but budgets can vary from as little as 4000 up to 110 000. All exhibit a delicate painterly approach and a thoughtful use of planes and colour to add depth to the spaces.

Her biggest project to date has been the creation of interiors and branding for shoe chain Size, retailer of chunky shoes for the 16-25 crowd. Rather than the sleek, sophisticated look more appropriate for older shoppers, Chadha went for an industrial look for the first store in a shopping mall in Reading. Raw steel shelves, concrete paving slabs (a cheap alternative to natural stone), an exposed concrete ceiling slab and a 12m-long wall of rusted steel are a reaction against the twee look of the rest of the mall.

The layout is designed to make shopping fun. Formed from two shop units, the space retains its demarcation with ranks of shelving in one half and a generous space for fitting in the other. Its open stage and gentle slope puts the customer on display, the slope making them aware of their feet as they parade around.

A second branch in Hammersmith has white walls with the idea that the client could use them as a screen for projected images giving a club feel. Sadly, to date, this has not happened.

On a much smaller scale is Chadha’s photographic shop, Seen, on London’s Regent Street. Given just a 2m-wide space to work with, she gutted the interior, removed the suspended ceiling and inserted a small mezzanine workstation. Niches cut into the false wall provide discreet spaces for display and a light box is used as the shop counter.

For another shoe shop, just completed, Chadha went for a more Baroque feel, working with a friend who specialises in paint finishes to create a wrap-over sky, and dousing the shelving in rich reds.

“A lot of architects are doing things that are quite minimalist but, on the whole shopkeepers don’t respond well to minimalism. It doesn’t create the right mood. They like a bit of clutter.”

Despite Chadha’s experience with larger practices and having designed a shopping mall and an art gallery in her native Nairobi, she still finds it hard to to be taken seriously as a woman architect in the UK.

“Clients are much more ready to accept me as an interiors person,” she says. “The problem is that most clients are men and so are contractors. It is a struggle to get them to take me seriously when it comes to paying out big sums of money. They just see me as a little girl.”

Harrison ince

Manchester practice Harrison Ince is quite literally at the heart of the architecture scene in Manchester. As well as customised office space in the architectural enclave of Castlefield, it is also responsible for some of the city’s most fashionable new bars and restaurants: Barça, Mash and Air, Prague 5, Joop and the city’s first noodle bar which opened in April.

But the practice has a guilty secret. Aside from glamorous clients such as Oliver Peyton and members of Simply Red, it also enjoys substantial revenue from traditional pub fit-outs for some of the big breweries.

“The more traditional jobs pay for us to spend more time than we should on the other jobs,” explains Andy Ince.

Although the partners Paul Harrison and Andy Ince want the practice to be design-led, such creative opportunities tend to be less lucrative than commercial interiors. Fortunately, Manchester’s thriving bar scene and sizable student population have provided plenty of outlets for Harrison Ince’s talents over the past two years.

Its success culminated last year in Barça, a canal-side Tapas bar for Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall in Castlefield, which was voted 1996 building of the year by the Manchester Society of Architects.

The starting point was two disused railway arches facing on to Catalan Square, and a brief from Hucknall’s people to “get noticed”.

Bored with the multitude of bars in similar locations that chose to dramatise the space by simply glazing over the opening, Harrison Ince instead combined modern elements with remnants from the arches’ history to create a much busier look. A brick wall at the back of the arches has been part demolished then back-lit for a post-apocalypse feel, while at the front a reinstated dividing floor spills out into Catalan Square as a balcony connecting the two vaulted spaces. The overall effect is one of an elaborate stage set occupied most nights by a cast of thousands.

More recently, the practice was responsible for the city’s first noodle bar, designs for a floating bar and restaurant to be moored in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, and offices for public relations company Communique in Manchester. The latter is a reworking of the top three floors of a four-storey building. Where access to the upper floors was previously only possible via a circuitous route across the first floor, the space has been consolidated by the insertion of a single stair through all the floors. This has become the main feature of the space with a curved black wall and angled side wall running the full height of the space which create curious views up the building from the entrance.

On each office floor, private and public space are clearly demarcated by a long rendered wall cutting at an angle across the plan. A new conference room set back from the facade opens on to a recessed balcony space which can be used for meetings when the weather permits.

Harrison Ince has come a long way since it was founded in 1989 “a week before the recession started”, as Ince likes to think of it. “We had lots of enthusiasm and ideas but not a great deal of knowledge about how to get work and run a business.” It has been a steep learning curve with early work coming mainly from nursing homes. “We had the chance to go down that route, but we always wanted to be design-led,” says Ince. “It’s only in the past two years that we’ve been able to produce the type of designs we’ve wanted to.”

Since the success of Barça, Harrison Ince has received similar offers that have allowed it to expand to ten staff, though Ince is reluctant to be pigeon-holed as a bar and restaurant designer. Future ambitions are to follow in the footsteps of other Manchester practices such as Stephenson Bell and Hodder Associates. “If we can emulate what Hodder’s done in the past couple of years, we’ll be happy,” says Ince.

Buschow Henley

Simon Henley describes Buschow Henley’s style as “a humane approach to doing commercial work”. This means that rather than starting with set ideas of what an office or a nursery should be, each design solution starts from first principles looking at how the client works and what the individuals in the organisation want.

For one client the practice has developed a questionnaire to gauge opinions of the 360 employees. “We apply the principle that we’re dealing with a group of people not a single organisation,” says Henley.

The result is some innovative office interiors that challenge received working patterns. For example, an office design for media strategist Michaelides & Bednash in 1995 is based around a long communal table which is used for basic workspace.

For advertising agency HHCL, the practice went a step further and developed a nomadic way of working, that they call “ROMPing”, allowing staff to move between different work spaces suited to different activities. All staff are given one “residential space”, where they can start and finish the day, field messages and leave belongings.

This has not stopped Buschow Henley creating some eye-catching interiors. Offices for Prospect Pictures, completed at the end of last year, use translucent glass fibre to enclose a meeting room. Fluorescent bands with coloured gels make this glow in white, blue, red and green – the colours that make up a television picture. Seen from the street, this has a secondary function of acting as a beacon for passers-by.

For cable TV station Eurosport, BH has used slatted timber enclosures for the meeting rooms, and lined the corridor walls with galvanised steel.

Henley sees invitations to design exhibition stands as an opportunity to experiment with ideas. A stand for the RAC uses little more than a series of planes/walls of glass etched with layers of text, the effect is to create a sanctuary of purity and calm amid an atmosphere of chaos.

Run by partners Simon Henley, Ralph Buschow and Ken Rorrison, the practice has worked to date mainly on projects below the 1m mark, but is starting to land bigger commissions with a 3.5m residential project on the horizon. This will not mean abandoning the personal approach to each project. A nursery project on the drawing board is based not in current educational policy, but in what the possibilities for a nursery might be.

“We want to transcend people’s perception of what something should be. The brief will always change, but human nature won’t,” says Henley. “If you base the premise of the design on little boxes and then classrooms go out of fashion, you will have to start again.”

gollifer associates

Gollifer Associates first really hit the headlines in 1994 when it won the competition to design the 7m National Glass Centre at Sunderland, which has now just gone on site.

However, Andy Gollifer and his associate Mark Langston have not let this go to their heads. “What we’ve found is that it is not necessarily the size of the project or the building value which makes a difference,” says Gollifer.

“It doesn’t get any more attention than the smaller scale work,” adds Langston. “We don’t take the view that just because it’s bigger and costs more it must be more important.

“There is a difference in scale, but both involve the same level of work, it’s just that one desk refurb has as much work in it as a whole block in the Glass Centre.”

Indeed, the practice’s core work consists of creating offices for film and post production companies around London’s Soho. The fact that this was also the one industry not to be hit by the recession has allowed Gollifer Associates to grow to five full-time staff and a regular pool of consultants since it was set up in 1993.

Purpose-built facilities for 3D imaging company Soho 601 brings together three separate buildings to provide a range of post production facilities for film and television. Each department within the 601 group has been given its own character and the different areas have been linked together by a 20m-long glass ramp which spans the three buildings. On the ground floor a succession of translucent screens and a mirror on the back wall blur perceptions of depth.

“People would come up to the window and think they could see a street at the other side. It was quite tantalising,” says Gollifer. “I think that is much more interesting than a space where you can see exactly how it is defined.”

For the Atelier restaurant, in Soho’s Beak Street, a series of canvas screens has been used to bring a light airy feel into a long, deep space. During the day the screens are used to reflect natural light; in the evening they glow from low-level lighting behind.

A shop and showroom in London’s Sloane Avenue for clothes designer Ally Capellino has just been completed and concessions for the designer in Manchester and Glasgow are planned.

Despite their own success, Gollifer and Langston feel strongly that smaller practices do not get their fair share of commissions, with many clients preferring to go to the big-name architects.

“Once you get beyond the facade of the name, the actual project could, in fact, be handled by anyone,” says Gollifer. “Smaller practices have to have a much higher concentration of multi-skilled people. In larger practices they can carry a lot of dead weight whereas I like to think that we are much leaner and fitter.”

Winning such a prestigious scheme as the National Glass Centre has not, says Gollifer, affected the practice’s workload. “I think it probably won’t do until it’s built. [It is due for completion at the end of the year.] We do get all sorts of enquiries now, but my feeling is that it will be a long time before this leads to something more.”

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