Profile: Serie Architects

A theoretical approach based on the cumulative intelligence of structures underpins the award-winning output of this multinational architectural studio. Anna Richardson talks to one of its co-founders about ceilings and the notion of grids

Straddling architecture, urbanism and design, Serie Architects is a relatively young practice with a very mature head on its shoulders. Two weeks ago, the consultancy won best in show in the bar category at the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards in London, but it works in diverse fields combining research and practice – ’We see no difference between the two’, says principal Christopher Lee.

Lee and Kapil Gupta (pictured, right and left) were room mates and co-students while studying at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in the late 1990s and set up the studio two-and-a-half years ago. Some of its latest commissions include the renovation of disused factories in Hangzhou, China, working alongside Nicholas Grimshaw and Pysall Ruge.

Lee and Gupta resolutely pursue the theory of typology, identifying precedents to inform their contemporary designs. ’We’re interested in thinking in series, or typologically,’ says Lee. ’To work through analysis of precedents and draw out the cumulative intelligence from those and then project that into architectural solutions.’

Traditionally – and mistakenly, says Lee – this approach is seen as a very conservative practice. ’The misunderstanding is that working typologically inevitably ends up with a replication of historical types or being very reductive in keeping with the surrounds,’ says Lee. ’For us, it needn’t be. A type only arises when there is a detectable series, and if there is a detectable series, there’s a certain cumulative intelligence or characteristic – so why can’t we exploit that intelligence?’

Those precedents can manifest in different ways, he adds. Three buildings may not necessarily be linked by functions, but they could be linked
Three principal models or types – revolving around the plan, the ceiling (one of the least developed surfaces in architecture) and the notion of grids in a building – run through Serie’s approach, and different projects can nonetheless have the same underlying type. The designs for the interior of Blue Frog Acoustic Lounge in Mumbai, India, for example, shares the same deep structure as the design for a new urban centre in Guiyang Huaxi, China.

The RBDA accolade was awarded for Serie’s design of the Tote banqueting hall, restaurant and bar in Mumbai. The restoration project was driven by the concept of the ceiling as a structure to organise space, with the deep structure creating potential for organisation. The roof was inspired by the mature rain trees around the building. ’Even for interiors we are interested in the notion of the deep structure – the structure that gives rise to organisation,’ says Lee.

The Blue Frog is another example. The brief was ’insane’, says Lee, as it merged a dancefloor, lounge, theatre and restaurant. ’It collapsed three types into one, so the cellular plan worked like a restaurant plan that merged with a horseshoe plan for the theatre,’ he says.

A public housing project in Bratislava, Slovakia, with more than 440 units, meanwhile, demonstrates Serie’s interest in the grid, and specifically using grids to create difference. The grid design in this case allowed a uniform facade with differentiated units behind it.

’Almost all forms of design production are geared to the production of difference,’ says Lee. ’For the past 15 years, [there] has been a conspicuous demonstration of difference to the point that it almost becomes pointless.’ The consultancy therefore strives to identify the organisational framework that enables true difference to exist.

With offices in London as well as Mumbai, and two in China, Serie has evolved in an unconventional way. It is quite an unusual set-up, admits Lee, who claims that its contemporaries tend to consolidate in one place, while Serie works ’modestly and small in different locations’.

’Our investigation into the city and type has a lot to do with this situation,’ reckons Lee. ’We realise that we are in different parts of the world and come from different cultures (Gupta is Indian, while Lee is Chinese-born British), but our way of thinking enables us to do that.’ There is an instinctive connection between the two, and their theoretical framework ’is clear enough to create a well that everyone can drink from’.

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