A space to create

22 December 2018

Architects’ own studios and offices – ‘the spaces where people design spaces’ – must serve multiple purposes, at once defining a practice’s style and approach, impressing prospective clients and peers, and providing a creative environment for staff. Tim Gunn talks to Make founder Ken Shuttleworth; Gregory Nijs, principal at Belgian company Klaarchitectuur; and Invisible Studio ‘instigator’ Piers Taylor about how they designed their own bases.

Waiting in the entrance to Make’s London office is the welcome you might expect from a five-star hotel. There’s a concierge stationed in the boxy, painted brick space, the floor of which slopes away behind him – and he knows you’re coming.

“We make sure of that,” says founder Ken Shuttleworth. “Some architects’ studios are more like going to the local post office, but I think if you’re going to come here and spend millions on fees we should at least be able to welcome you properly.”

It’s a change for the Fitzrovia site. Before Make’s redesign, this was a car park. That explains the (now stepped) ramp behind the concierge, if not the television screens you can see at the end of it.

“It helps having a crazy space that not many people would have wanted to go into,” Shuttleworth continues. “We’ve shown you can make something out of nothing without spending a lot of money. That’s what we do.”

Visitors to Klaarchitectuur’s Waterhond studio – a converted chapel in Limburg, Belgium – meanwhile, will find a space designed to inspire. “Even if people don’t choose to work with us,” says Gregory Nijs, the company’s principal, “I hope that the building will stay in their minds.”

He’s being modest. The old nave is dominated by a huge, eccentric stack of four white boxes, wound round with glass terraces and black stairways. It’s a sculptural installation offset against the worn church’s peeling plaster walls, a set of offices and meeting rooms, and an invitation up.

“It would have been easy to buy a piece of land and set up a brandnew office with apartments to bring in money,” says Nijs, who was fascinated by the old church long before he bought it. “But for me it’s very important to be an architect first, to see what we can do.”

Home truths

Though an aversion to office work stopped Marc Goodwin from entering the same profession as Shuttleworth and Nijs, the photographer knows as well as anyone the peculiar ways architects think about their studios. For the past three years, he’s travelled the world to create an atlas of architecture studios, shooting and studying the atmospheres of major practices from Beijing to Mexico City, Make included.

In the process, he’s dealt with every degree of pride and self-consciousness the industry can muster. PRs in Los Angeles want to squeeze the smiling faces of all the partners into every shot and small London practices fret that their pokey digs can’t compare to the biggest and best Nordic studios. Then again, those same Scandis squirm at the idea of being seen with the lights off, which isn’t so different from the London company that wouldn’t let Goodwin publish a picture of someone asleep on one of their sofas. And while every city comes with a few major rejections, some architects actually prefer to leave him to his work. In fact, many in China were so unconcerned by the whole thing that it was “like operating in a vacuum”.

There’s obviously something unique about what the photographer calls “the spaces where people design spaces”. Working on one is as much a philosophical quandary as it is a practical task. Not only must an architect create a cost-effective place that defines their style and approach, attracts customers, pleases staff, impresses peers and anticipates the practice’s future needs, they also have to do it all for a demanding expert client with whom they’ll spend the rest of their life.

With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that some practices task a staff member with standing next to Goodwin as he snaps away; there’s a strong temptation to try and shape “what the vision of the studio will be”.

That’s a good part of what Make’s concierge is doing as he welcomes high-value customers like Facebook, Schroeders and UBS. It’s also why the top-lit former car ramp that he leads clients down is so important. It’s an elevator pitch in place of an elevator.

“We have all our models and 3D-printers there, with meeting areas as well, so it’s quite a lively entrance,” Shuttleworth explains.

“By the time you get to the bottom, when you’re welcomed by the receptionist and the concierge goes back, I think you already feel your visit was worthwhile.” By that time, you’re also underground, where the rent tends to be cheaper. Make is an employee-owned company, so all of its savings translate to increased profit share. It might be full of bicycles, but the concrete space is still very clearly a former car park – bay numbers and all.

“The strength of the scheme is that it has all these references back without feeling like a car park,” says Shuttleworth. “Our philosophy is actually to keep the place quite raw. I don’t think clients really want to see a very plush architects’ office. It probably means they’re charging too much.” Perhaps images of sleeping staff and empty studios suggest the same thing.

Indeed, the models on Make’s ramp may show prospective clients what the company’s capable of, but the building that houses them gives a far more tangible account of who the architects are and how they approach projects. It’s one thing to say you’re committed to designing zero-carbon buildings, for instance; it’s another to work in a car park. More than that, the company has gone from renting office space in Arup’s nearby building to having a front door and a signature location.

“It’s actually shaped the way we think about ourselves as being independent and global,” admits Shuttleworth. “Before we moved here there was always this sense that we were part of Arup.”

Tailored specifically for the designers’ client-colleagues, the studio is part of Make’s identity, its ramp tilting between advert and manifesto.

Or, as Shuttleworth himself puts it, “The democracy of Make is a feature of the building. There are no partitions or barriers: we’ve got the same ranking in all respects, and it’s easy to move people around for different projects. At the end of the day, we have to be dynamic.”

Contrasting approaches

In other words, Make’s office is part of the “mechanism” for its work. The term is Piers Taylor’s, and his practice, Invisible Studio, which has almost 20 members and no permanent employees, takes the concept even further. A response to the effects of the 2008 financial crash, Invisible Studio’s ‘Visible Studio’ base cost as much to build as Taylor’s previous company spent on rent every year. It has minimal overheads, and was built from trees felled in the surrounding forest as part of the woodland management plan. It’s a way to survive as an architect without constantly being – or seeming – busy designing buildings.

“I wanted a mechanism for having different amounts of work at different times,” Taylor, who also teaches and presents TV programmes, explains. “It’s how a lot of creative industries function, so why not architects? A band is still a band when it’s not touring, but do we just have to hope for stable work?”

The building itself is an answer to that second question. “It’s loose-fit,” Taylor says, “not a conclusive or a finite thing. It’s changed already, and it’s a better, more mature building because it can adapt.”

Back in Belgium, there’s a steelframed tower wrapped in a protected building that doesn’t quite meet this definition of loose-fit. Looking up at it, it’s clear Klaarchitectuur’s studio is also a counterpoint to Make’s, stacking employees in an intricate set of semi-closed rooms rather than leading them down into a flexible open space.

“But it’s not one stairway at one side,” stresses Nijs. “As you climb, you see the church from every side; you always have another point of view. The church is our office’s garden.”

Fittingly, the office seems to have grown out of it. Look out of the window in the fourth floor meeting room and you are treated to a view once limited to those dangling from the old building’s rain gutters – the studio pokes through the chapel’s roof. The whole structure is designed to make staff and visitors look more closely at the past and the present of architectural practice. It exemplifies Nijs’ belief that “there is nothing between inside and outside”.

The lack of flexibility doesn’t trouble him, either. Klaarchitectuur is a team of only five architects, and its principal doesn’t want any more.

“Having more people would mean I couldn’t do everything myself,” he says. “I want to be a part of each building from the beginning until the end. I always change things.”

Creative freedom

Nijs’ studio has been the one exception to that dictum. Given the nature of the steel-framed construction, there was no way he could make changes on-site. Oddly, out of all of his buildings, the place where he will spend the most time was the one most determined by virtual images.

In a slightly ironic contrast, the only images produced for the Visible Studio were a couple of sketches on a piece of blackboard. Proposed and completed in less than three months, it was set out by eye by a team of Taylor’s friends and neighbours, none of whom had any professional building or carpentry experience. It’s a sort of guerrilla architecture.

“We just wanted to construct a building with the stuff we had around us, material and skills,” he explains. “As a result, it’s almost like the people here don’t really know that this is capital ‘A’ architecture, or in any way distinct from rural infrastructure.”

Our philosophy is actually to keep the place quite raw. I don’t think clients really want to see a very plush architects’ office. It probably means they’re charging too much.”
– Ken Shuttleworth

Nijs, however, believes his duty in designing an office for his practice was to “play with everything and let people know that an architect has been working in the space” of the former chapel. To do so, Klaarchitectuur spent months arguing and negotiating with contractors over designs.

It’s a process many architects will know well, but spending such a protracted period poring over images troubles Goodwin, his profession notwithstanding. As he observes, “It has to create a kind of obsession – and it’s understandable – that the building should be seen ‘correctly’.”

Beyond that, in committing so much time and attention to renders and technical drawings, architects risk mistakenly deciding that replicating the views they spent so long modelling is the same thing as making the best building possible.

Goodwin knows how sensitive architects can be about their studios. That’s why his concerns are particularly acute here. In fact, Nijs’ chapel conversion was planned with the express goal of making particular views possible, although his decision to arrange the cooking appliances in a wooden cross and to situate the gold kitchen worktop as if it were an altar would suggest that he has some interest in reinterpretations. Either way, one wonders whether the architects who do their utmost to direct Goodwin around the offices they designed really do believe in them as distillations of their practice and successful mechanisms for their work.

For his part, Shuttleworth is proud that Make’s democratic structure enables it to make the best buildings in a variety of styles. Taylor, meanwhile, designed his studio to ensure he could continue to work on things other than buildings, and would never have to accept an uninteresting commission simply so he could continue to list his profession as “architect”. Aware of the risks of enshrining the practitioners they used to be, both chose to design freeing spaces over exercising their own creative freedom.

Nijs’ goal for Klaarchitectuur, however, is harder to distinguish from the building he designed to act as its base. Although the Waterhond has helped introduce the practice to a global audience, its owner laments the fact that it hasn’t had the impact he expected locally.

“You do it for the community,” he explains, “and I was hoping for a little respect and recognition after 20 years as an architect. That’s everything for me.”

Whether or not it’s noticed by the commuters traipsing past, the Waterhond now plays host to a regular evening ritual. Before he closes up, Nijs likes to take one last trip up and back down the two entangled buildings, savouring every view his design made possible. Rightly or wrongly, that’s when he reckons with what it means.

Klaarchitectuur studio, Limburg, Belgium: a sculptural installation designed to inspire.
Make, London, UK: in place of an elevator, the entrance leads to a top-lit former car ramp.
Klaarchitectuur studio, Limburg: the office appears to grow out of the converted chapel.
Invisible Studios’ Visible Studio, Bath, UK: built with trees from the surrounding forest.

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