30 June 2013
AA Soft Room, London
How To Build An Office was conceived within our larger idea for the ‘professional practice’ element to Night School, to act as everything you didn’t learn in Part 3 and the realities of working in practice. The idea was to have six practices of different shapes and sizes discuss, over two sessions, how the nature of their practice has opened up, limited or defined their architecture.
Paul Finch chaired both discussions and noted that it was a rare opportunity to discuss the structures, formations and nature of practice in school but in fact its not actually discussed that much in practice either. However, the current model of architectural education is more based on structures of practice than we imagine. Finch elaborated on this theory by explaining schools employ people, they have programmes and have to produce a product – end of year shows, which are designs produced by people within the institution: ‘that fluidity between what we think of as exclusively education and exclusively practice on examination, there are tendrils of both extending into one another.’
Simon Allford of AHMM began the presentations by addressing the way in which AHMM, Architect’s Journal Practice of the Year 2013, has reached its size of 200 people, not through the projects themselves but the practice’s attitude towards making architecture. Structurally AHMM is set up as two studios that are run by a pair of partners each, one designs the way the practice works and the other partner runs the design studio. This is to deliberately challenge each other, raising the bar by competing with your peers. Allford aptly compared this model with the organization of the British cycling team, underlining the importance of looking outside the world of architecture for inspiration and guidance. Spatially, how you set up the way you make architecture may have an impact on the architecture you produce. Allford noted that if your office is spread over a number of locations, you make a concerted effort to make the connections to feel whole, on the other hand if you’re all on one floor there is a risk of being complacent about making the connections. Being aware of these intricacies is vital.
The next presentation was by Studio Weave who opted for an interview-style discussion between founding partner Maria Smith and one of the practices’ more recent employees Nina Shen-Poblete. They gave us an insight to a more alternative mode of practice. Studio Weave was set up by Smith and Je Ahn during their Part 1, and aims to work as a collective that shuns hierarchy. The social structure of how they work is important; every member of the 7-person practice brings a different skill to the table where they operate a buddy system so no-one works alone.
The final presentation of the night was made by Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects, who took us through the story of his practice. Coffey began as a sole practitioner but now has 8 people working with him, which he largely attributes to the relationships he’s made with clients and developers along the way. We were told anecdotes of oligarchs, deception and court proceedings that actually resulted in getting a job with a QC who was very impressed with his work. After which Coffey worked on a number of lawyers and barristers houses, one of which won a Grand Designs award and another is shortlisted for an RIBA award.
In the discussion that followed the presentations the question of name was raised. Joe Morris of Duggan Morris who presented the following week asked, ‘What’s in a name?’, how does it define your practice? And then how does it become brand? The practices who presented that evening could be defined as: AHMM, a collective abbreviated as a singular; Phil Coffey is a singular residing under a collective; and Studio Weave which is a singular act or method hidden within a collective. Maria Smith and Je Ahn felt using their names wasn’t really an option (Ahn Smith?) but also thought that ‘Studio Weave’ was a reflection of the age in architecture we’re currently in and who they’re reacting against. Coffey felt it was important to have his name above the door as people feel they can trust you more as its your name, your reputation on the line.