Ben Kelly

«Keep going, don’t stop»

One of the UK’s most influential designers Ben Kelly is perhaps best known for designing the interior of the famous Manchester nightclub, the Haçienda which was infamous in Manchester’s post-punk house and rave scene. Of course, this is only a tiny part of his extensive and varied career. Kelly has worked with big names such as The Sex Pistols, Virgil Abloh, Factory Records, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. However, speaking to him one is reminded of their favourite university lecturer, sternly indulgent and ultimately kind to anyone who falls under the umbrella of the ‘young creative’.  He has the interview questions before him, he’s made notes and he asks questions. “What does NR stand for?” “How did you research me?” “What university did you go to and what did you study?”. It’s certainly a novel experience for the interviewer to find themselves becoming the interviewed, and that is only the start as NR Magazines joins Ben Kelly in conversation.

You originally wanted to be an artist before you went into design. If you had stuck to that initial career path what do you think your art practice would look like today? 

Well, that’s a simple yet complex question. Who knows what the answer is without having a crystal ball. But when I was applying for my postgraduate at the Royal College I was asked why did I want three more years of further education in the interior design department. My answer was I wanted to discover whether it was possible to mix together art and interior design to produce what I called art interiors. I had equal interests in those two subjects. When you’re a student doing interior design it’s frustrating because you never get to see an end product, it only ever exists as drawings and models. But I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with another student to redesign the student bar at the Royal College. I named the student bar the Art Bar and we had a neon sign made saying art bar which is still there today. That’s one of my proudest things that’s been left behind. We went about that project as designers and artists because we had carte blanche because we didn’t really have a client.

Fast forward, I ultimately felt that some years back I had achieved my goal of this combination of references to the art world within the discipline of interior design. Ultimately in the last three or four years, I have produced a number of art installations in 180 The Strand. So I have kind of achieved my goal in a roundabout way. Along that way maybe I was using clients to experiment with this notion of producing what I called art interiors. When we had a looser brief I took that opportunity to investigate those possibilities. I also now operate as an artist in the art world, all be it slightly obliquely, and produce interiors so that’s my answer.

You stated that you are inspired by Marcel Duchamp and that he has «pretty much inspired everyone in the creative world, some way or another.” How exactly do you think he has inspired everyone? 

Well, I scribbled down by default. That’s a complicated question but I guess my answer would be that it is an accepted fact, stated by Duchamp himself, that he either intended to or did change the way we look and think about art. If you move that on into the world of design and the broader world it’s unquestionably influenced by the thoughts, approach and activities of Duchamp. I think it’s bled into design and architecture sometimes in subtle, sometimes in obvious ways. It can be almost subliminal. So it’s there under the surface, not necessarily clear or obvious but I believe life had changed generally thanks that one man being on the planet and doing what he did. Without Duchamp, our lives would be different in a quieter way. It would be a poorer world. The thinking behind everything would be different and it would look different. It would lack subtlety and humour.

«Duchamp opened a new toolbox of thought processes and an application of ideas, a new language.»

So historically you go from Duchamp to Richard Hamilton, the artist who reproduced The Large Glass of Duchamp. Hamilton taught at Newcastle School of Art in the late 60s where Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music was a student. Ferry was under the spell of Hamilton who was under the spell of Duchamp. Ferry was equally influenced by Duchamp and the lyrics of his songs related back to him. When I designed the Haçienda I struggled to find a background colour for it because there were acres and acres of walls. I had an idea of that colour but I couldn’t grasp what it was. I eventually found it on an album cover by Bryan Ferry called The Bride Stripped Bare which is a title from a Duchamp artwork. So I enjoyed that connection. I told Ferry about that anecdote and his answer was “I’m glad I could be of help,” and off he trotted.

How has he inspired everyone? By default. By a subtle undertone of influences that other people, other designers, other artists, other thinkers who have drawn inspiration from Duchamp, and that seeps through the cracks.

How would you describe your identity in design? 

I don’t and I won’t and I can’t. I like to have an independent identity and not be associated directly with a given description, but I’m interested in the broader description of popular culture. I operate under that umbrella to a degree, but not all the time.

There are two quotes by journalists, which doesn’t answer your question but it sort of does. One is certainly my all-time favourite. In 1982, the same year I did the Haçienda, I did a hairdressing salon on the King’s Road called Smile. Smile was a really fashionable hairdressing salon they started in Knightsbridge and lots of fashion and music people went there. They took this property on the King’s Road one door away from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop. My brief to myself was to design a hairdressing salon that looked the least like a hairdressing salon as possible.  In other words,  it wasn’t a typical hairdressing salon. So each styling position was different to the next one, they were all different and I used the colour orange. This journalist said, “Ben Kelly rescued the colour orange from the scrapheap of style”. It doesn’t get any better than that as far as I’m concerned.

The other one was about the Haçienda. A journalist referred to it as “the motorway aesthetic”, simply because I used cats eyes and roadside bollards in the scheme. So I leave what my identity in design is for other people to decide. That the job for other people it’s not mine. I just like to be independent and keep pushing boundaries. Going back to Duchamp, I like taking one thing from one world and another thing from another world and putting those two things together that have never coexisted before and suddenly something new happens.

You have stated before that you have been quite angry with people ‘sampling’ your work, but do you think that anyone can create anything truly original in this day and age? 

Well, your research has lead you to quotes where I’ve said I’ve been angry or pissed off or whatever and quite a lot of those things I’ve said tongue in cheek. I think I know what specific example is being referred to here. It’s very flattering if people copy your work. However, going back to the Haçienda, (or it might have been the Dry Bar, I can’t remember which one), but within weeks, not that far away, another place opened and it was almost identical to the piece of work we’d done and that pissed me off! It was incredibly opportunist of whoever that was.

Fast forward. I painted stripes on the columns in the Haçienda, merely as a method of making them clear as hazards as they were on the dance floor. So I took the language of factories and workplaces where hazards are marked as per British standard. But that simple gesture I made somehow found its way into popular culture and it’s kinda gone global, you see it everywhere. One person in particular had seen it, someone who became a friend and a collaborator.

«A man called Virgil Abloh put stripes onto garments for a label called Off-White.»

I didn’t know anything about Virgil or Off-White when it was brought to my attention. It seemed pretty obvious where the inspiration for that had come from. It took me by surprise at the time and I was kind of shocked.

It must have been quite frustrating to see that after spending so much time and effort coming up with the ideas.

Well it was just work, and I never thought it would go further than that. Yeah maybe I got pissed off but it took me a while to think about it and understand that it was absolutely no different to what happens with music and the whole idea of sampling. As I’ve said I don’t own copyright on stripes, that would be ridiculous to even think about, but ideas and copyright are so difficult to define. You end up being philosophical because,

«Virgil sampling something I did has paid dividends beyond what I could even imagine.»

It lead on to him and I collaborating, and becoming friends, and opening doors, and making other things possible. Now he’s probably one of the most famous men in the world and that’s not a bad thing to be associated with. It’s a funny old world.

Do you think the idea of copyright and people copying work has gotten more complex with the rise of the internet? 

This might sound contradictory I think it had become both more complex and more simple. Because I think we all now understand the idea of sampling. However, copying is a different thing and I will give you a couple of examples. There is a film called 24 Hour Party People which was all about Factory Records, the Haçienda and the whole factory scene in Manchester. It was directed by a man called Michael Winterbottom who I mostly think is a great filmmaker, a man with integrity, but they copied my design of the Haçienda. They had to rebuild it for the film and they approached me for help but as soon as I suggested a fee might be charged they disappeared. The film came out and they did an amazing job but they copied me. That design is my copyright and that’s all designers have. You only have copyright to protect your work so if it’s copied to the millimetre without your permission there’s something wrong there. I spent several years fighting it legally. I wanted to make a big thing about that and take it to the press to make a noise about how important the issue of copyright is but I was so exhausted by the time the distributors of the film settled out of court, I just wanted to let it go.

More recently Manchester City football club have done their version of Haçienda strips on their T-shirts and that really made me very angry. Nobody spoke to me about it and I thought they did a very poor job, I didn’t enjoy what they had done. Of course, they are one of the richest football clubs that there is, so how could I do battle with them? I have to be philosophical and say a bit of a poor show on their part.

So that’s the way it goes with copyright and sometimes it’s relevant and sometimes it isn’t. You have to be careful and young designers do get their work copied, particularly in the fashion industry. I don’t think that young people are sufficiently aware of how to protect their work. I always wanted to make a noise about it but I was exhausted and wanted to move on. However, I make reference to it where I can, like now, to bring awareness.

How has designing the Haçienda influenced your design journey and ethos? 

That’s a huge question for me. The Haçienda opened in 1982. Next year it will be the 40th anniversary of the opening.

«My quote is the ‘Haçienda never dies’, and it doesn’t.»

Its influence and story, it’s embedded in popular culture. It’s been acknowledged as one of the most important nightclubs for a whole host of different reasons. However, for me at first, it became the monkey on my back. It wouldn’t go away and people would only talk to me about having designed the Haçienda. Of course, I’ve designed many things, many different types of interiors, and many other things outside of interior design, and that kind of annoyed me. Then I stopped being annoyed and realised that it was a massive asset to me.

My interpretation of your question is, having designed the Haçienda, the slipstream that followed on from it has massively influenced, and lead on to, the majority of work  I’ve done ever since. I could say possibly 99% of what I’ve done since, in one way or another, there have been references to the Haçienda, or it happened as a result of Haçienda, or some intersection of those. Something to do with the  Haçienda has been a part of nearly every project I’ve done since. That might not be visible or legible or understandable but I know it’s embedded in there somewhere. So that’s fed into work I’ve done in many other disciplines, it’s been a big part of what I’ve done.

You worked on the set design for the PTB19 runway show. How do you see interior design and fashion working together in the future? 

Again with that project they came to me because the collection they showed had been partly inspired by the design of the Haçienda. For the set, there are subtle references to the design of the Haçienda which are
mostly some black and yellow stripes. I’d like to think it was done in a poetic and subtle way. It was great I really enjoyed doing that show.

But to answer your question, I have no idea, I can’t predict the future. Well, going back to Virgil, his last Off-White show was done virtually because of the pandemic. My observation was that he’d taken his inspiration for the set from a combination of two interiors. One was was The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. The other was a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. So obviously you get this really heavy mix of references which is a kind of Duchampian. I know that Virgil, is as obsessed with Duchamp as I am, it’s something we share. So fashion and interiors, there’s no limit to that collaboration. I expect to see really rich pieces of work coming out of that combination of design disciplines and industries. People like Virgil are in the luxurious position of leading the way because they have big budgets and can work with the best people in the world.

But if you put all that to one side and bring it back to young people, who’ve left college and are trying to find a way of being creative, that’s where my interest lies. The future belongs to them and it’s the hardest environment to be operating in right now, my sympathies lie hugely with young people. But finding a space, finding backers, finding a budget, being able to just go to a nightclub, is almost unaffordable.

«To buy a drink in a bar is almost unaffordable so new ways have to be found. They have to be super creative, and sidestep the mainstream and find another way.»

That’s why punk was so great, it was two fingers to authority and invent your own ways of doing things. It didn’t last that long but the spirit and the ethos of it is still there. I’m looking forward to the revolution.

Has Covid affected how you approach your art practice, and if so how? 

Well yeah, that was interesting when covid hit and the lockdowns and the poor handling of it by our government. I’m very lucky because I’m sat here talking to you from my studio in London, but I have another, bigger, studio on the south coast. So I went and isolated down there and the phone stopped ringing, well it’s emails and texts these days, but that all stopped and went quiet.

I had been asked to design a piece of artwork as a print, but the pandemic put a stop to the exhibition happening. So I’m sat there in my studio and I thought “I won’t make it as a print, I’ll make it as a painting”. It was to do with the language of the Haçienda, and I thought “Oh I could do another one” so then I did another one and another one, and I did maybe fifteen or sixteen of these paintings over the first and the second lockdown period. It was fantastic, it was like therapy, it was another form of expression. I’m hoping that some paintings I’ll be able to show in an exhibition. So the pandemic physically affected my art practice in that it made me sit down and make some paintings which I enjoyed. It will lead on to me doing more of that kind of work. Something that I independently drive forward, there isn’t a client or a brief, it’s just me. So I have the pandemic to thank for that.

What advice do you have for young creatives looking to work in design? 

Be independent, is my advice. Keep going, don’t stop. Mistakes will be made but you learn from those mistakes. You will fail at things, but failure teaches you an awful lot. When I started it was so much easier, because my first projects were done for people who were friends or like-minded people. Now it’s much more complicated because everything costs more money, there’s less money around and the internet changed everything. We need to find a way for young people to operate. For young creative people in the art world to find space to do what they do and add richness to our lives.

«Richness is being removed, the oxygen is being sucked out, and we need to fix that.»

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what plans do you have for the future? 

Well, two things. I have done a collaborative project with a photographer called Eugene Schlumberger. Using Kickstarter we have funded a book called Haçienda Landscapes. The story there is I stumbled upon his work on Instagram. I kept seeing these photographs that I thought were really beautiful and really just compositionally well thought out and I realised that they were referencing the Haçienda. This guy was finding the language of the design of the Haçienda out in the post-industrial landscape in the North-East of England, with all the ruined factories and machinery with hazard stripes. I messaged him, we started talking to each other and eventually met up in London. I said we need to do a project together and it should be a book called Haçienda Landscapes. I’ve also been taking photographs over the years of things that kind of reference the language of the Haçienda but mine were more snapshots. His are quite thought out, carefully composed and it makes a really nice kind of contrast with these two different sets of photographs. We’ve been very successful so I hope we are going to produce a thing of great beauty. The other is an exhibition at 180 The Strand which has turned into the most amazing alternative art space. The owner of the building is someone I’ve known for a very long time and they’ve commissioned me to do a couple of installations there. It’s going to be called ‘Columns, Revolving Mirrors and International Orange’.


Images · BEN KELLY

The Ranch Mine

«Our identity is the fuel behind the best design and architecture»

Architectural studio The Ranch Mine draw inspiration from the rich history of the pioneers who settled in their local state of Arizona in search of a better life. “We chose our name to honour those that have come before us, the humble ranchers and miners, who have paved the way for our opportunities for prosperity today, and to serve as inspiration to design spaces that afford us the opportunity to imagine what’s beyond what we see in the present so we can strive for new experiences.”

In 2018 The Ranch Mine was approached by a family who owned a large plot of land in Phoenix, Arizona to create a home “in which their family could grow and create.” One member of the family is a ceramic artist and The Ranch Mine drew inspiration from the ancient art of pottery when designing the property. The name Foo House is derived from the Chinese character ‘Fu’, which means good fortune and luck, as a nod to the client’s Chinese heritage.

Phoenix is located in the northeastern reaches of the Sonoran desert and is known as The Valley of the Sun. With dusty-grey board marked concrete, orange weathering steel, and shades of olive and cream Foo House embodies the spirit of the desert with a sprawling and airy design. NR Magazine joins The Ranch Mine in conversation.

How do you think identity informs design and architecture?

We believe that identity is both the reason for design and architecture and the result of design and architecture. Our identity is the fuel behind the best design and architecture. Architecture is a reflection of who we are, our time, our place, and our culture. Who we are and how we live shapes the form and function of the spaces we create. What is really fascinating to us is that who we are is inextricable from where we have been and where we are. We shape the built environment, and it, in turn, shapes us. This is why it is critical to continue to infuse the identity of people into spaces, and design for opportunities to grow beyond who we are and what we see today.

Foo House is influenced by the ancient art of pottery. How did this factor into the design specifically?

We are fascinated with history and love how pottery has played a critical role in most societies in human history as well as our modern-day understanding of those societies. So we broke down what makes pottery interesting to us, and how could we take those principles to inform a new piece of architecture. The design emerged as a home that is rigid in structure while malleable in use, precise in form while imperfect in texture, and varied in volume while limited in materials.

Are there any new technologies in architecture that you are particularly excited about?

One of the most exciting things about architecture is the development of building science, and how we can use new materials to improve tried and true ancient ways of living. The newest technology that we are excited about is a company based here in Phoenix called Source that has created a hydropanel that is the first renewable drinking water system. It creates drinking water from the air through the use of solar energy. Living in a desert where water is a precious resource, this is very exciting to us.

Given the issues of rising temperatures around the globe and the location of Foo House was this something you had to consider when conceptualising the architectural design of the property?

Phoenix is definitely at the forefront of dealing with extremely high temperatures and has been for a while. Studying the sun, the most powerful element here is where all our designs begin. Foo was designed as a large courtyard house that follows the sun’s day arc, shielding the interior from times of extreme heat. Courtyard houses have been effective ways of living in the desert dating back 5000 years to Kahun in Egypt and possibly earlier. They are self-shading, providing a space to either embrace or escape the sun at all times of day throughout the year.

Other than the ancient art of pottery were there was there any other influences or inspirations that you drew on when working on this project?

We always draw inspiration from our clients, who in this case were a very “hands-on” family, starting with their professions but leading to their kids playing musical instruments, gardening and raising chickens, and making robots. We wanted to go beyond just making a pottery studio and maker space to satisfy the “what” of the scope. We wanted to build on the essence of these items and make an entire home that reflected their family values. So the design uses a combination of the hand made and materials meant to patina and change over time, in an aesthetic some might consider wabi-sabi, that embraces the journey, the imperfections of hand made, and the transitory nature of our world. The other major inspiration in every project is the site, and its location in this world. We are fortunate to have incredible weather for the majority of the year in Phoenix. While the headlines talk about the high heat which can be intense, about 7-8 months a year you can basically live outside.

We wanted to create a home that everywhere you are in the house has a direct relationship with the exterior, and we wanted to create a lot of different types of connections, not just one big opening. The main living space has double-height glazing that faces north towards the courtyard. It has sliding glass doors that open it out onto the covered patio towards the outdoor kitchen, fire pit, and pool beyond. It also has a lofted area that provides skyline views to the south and views of the Phoenix mountain preserve to the north. It provides a different perspective of the landscape. We also created glass connectors between the volumes of the house, so the landscape sort of tucks in around the house, and you are constantly aware of it as you walk from one area of the house to the next. The bedroom wing has smaller openings that frame the olive grove or high windows that look towards the sky. Using exposed aggregate concrete blurred the transition as you step outside and areas where the glass is fixed, the new desert landscape comes right up to it.

What were some of the challenges you faced when working on Foo House and how did you overcome them?

The first challenge is that the house is located in a pretty busy urban area, less than a half-mile from 10+ story towers. To create an oasis-like refuge, we shaped the building to create a large central courtyard, using the building to shield the areas that faced the busy part of the city. The second challenge was overcoming the fact that buildings are generally by their nature static. We wanted to find a way to activate the house to meet the dynamism of the family and their passions. Our approach to doing this was two-pronged. The first was to design the building to be noticeably affected by time. We did this by using materials that would patina like the rusting siding or soften the board-formed concrete joints as well as using vertical floor to ceiling windows that face due south that act like sundials throughout the day. This is most noticeable where we shifted the hallway around the stairwell and added a steel brise soleil to highlight the solar pattern in the hallway. The second way we did this was by creating a campus-like plan, where you walk through communal spaces, outside and inside to get to more specific places. This creates casual exchanges.

When creating a family home like Foo House what are some important aspects to bear in mind?

When creating a family home, the first thing people often think of designing for is durability. While this is of course important, it is not the main driving factor for us. When designing family homes we focus on flexibility over time, spaces that inspire creativity, and a variety of spaces in which you can connect with each other, with extended family and with friends, as well as opportunities to disconnect.

The site contains a chicken coop, a citrus grove, a stone fruit grove, and raised planting beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Are there any other methods of sustainability used on the property?

The house is designed to primarily use stack ventilation in the bedrooms and main living area to use the diurnal temperature swings to help passively cool the house. The house opens up primarily to the north for indirect natural light and uses the height of the volumes to shade exterior spaces for outdoor living. The U-shaped form of the house creates a large courtyard, creating a bit of a microclimate. The roofing is a combination of white-coloured foam or corrugated metal to reflect the radiant heat from the sun. The property used to be almost entirely grass and we changed it to primarily desert and native vegetation on drip irrigation, heavily reducing the water consumption on the property in combination with low flow water fixtures throughout.

What advice do you have for young creatives looking to work in architecture?

Find out who you are first. Then put that out into the world. Once you do it will attract people you want to work with. You are uniquely you. Your identity is your gift to the world, it is the one thing you do better than everyone else. Share it.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what are your plans for the future?

We have about 30 residential projects in the works currently. We are excited that about 1/3 of those projects have taken us into new climates, new states, and outside of the country. Each new location continues to hone our research practices and understanding of place.

Our plans for the future are focused on continuing to grow our residential practice, designing homes that expand people’s creative potential and liberate them from the confines of convention. We look forward to more projects locally as well as projects that take us to new places, new people, and introduce new challenges.

Ludwig Godefroy

«the relationship with the emotions you will feel in a space is the very essence of a project»

Raw concrete, old brick and pale gravel glow under the golden light of the sun in Mérida, the capital city of Mexico’s Yucatán state, which is considered as the centre of indigenous Mayan civilisation. When designing Casa Mérida, architect Ludwig Godefroy asked the question «How is it possible to build architecture that reflects and considers the Yucatán identity, to make this house belong to its territory? In other words, how could this house be Mayan?” Inside the decor is as simple as the outside, with wood, stone, and pops of blue which mirrors the turquoise swimming pool at the back of the property.

The site itself has rather odd proportions for a house, it’s only eight meters wide and eighty meters long, resembling a road or pathway more than a traditional plot of land than a home. However, Godefroy has turned this to his advantage, inserting open patios between the buildings to create traditional airflow cooling concepts in a city which is known for its extreme climate and high temperatures. He also references a Sacbé, which is the name for the ancient Mayan road system which would connect the indigenous people’s of the land. “Those straight lines used to connect all together the different elements, temples, plazas, pyramids and cenotes of a Mayan city; sacred ways which could even go from one site to another along a few hundred kilometres.” NR Magazine joins the artist in conversation.

How do you think cultural identity influences design and architecture?

Definitely, it does according to my way of thinking. I always look around me and since I arrived in Mexico, it’s been now 14 years, my architecture changed, became heavier, made out of concrete, stone and tropical wood. Mexico changed my way of designing, I started to look at prehispanic architecture and mixed it with my personal taste, the bunkers from Normandy (where I was born), my European education and background working with OMA and Enric Miralles / Benedetta Tagliabue.

But now, I definitely consider myself a Mexican architect and not a French or European architect anymore. Mexico is the country where I live, it’s my inspiration, and it’s made out of Mexican references and Mexican moments of life. The way I’m building right now is also Mexican, more handcrafted and less industrialised, always integrating locals knowledge and details coming from Mexican vernacular architecture and ways of building it.

My architecture became a bunker from Normandy on the outside, protecting my personal Mexican pyramid on the inside, both connected by the use of vernacular simplicity; vernacular simplicity from my fisherman village in Normandy being, in a way very, close to the vernacular simplicity of the Mexican countryside where I build.

Do you think there is much to learn about sustainability from indigenous’s cultures like the Mayans and which of these methods were used when building Casa Mérida?

It’s a very complicated question, the context of our lives radically changed, and the globalisation as well. But definitely, our relation with nature is the one that suffered the most. I don’t think we have to feel ashamed of building, I mean I’m an architect and it’s my job, but probably what I’ve learned from indigenous cultures and, in my case, more specifically from pre-hispanic civilisation legacy is: what do we want to feel inside of our buildings, how can the atmosphere of my architecture can remain sacred and sensitive?

According to my thinking, the relationship with the emotions you will feel in a space is the very essence of a project, which means once you created emotions in architecture, you don’t need much more. You can naturally step back to more simple architectural elements, made out of simple but massive materials, with the ability to get old instead of getting damaged by time. I want to run away from the “everything throwaway mentality” of our modern society, getting rid of the unnecessary, creating timeless spaces which will slowly change under the action of time, ageing being part of the architecture, an architecture which will get covered by a new coat of materiality: “the patina of time”.

Are there any new technologies in architecture that you are particularly excited about?

Not at all. I really love technology, I need the internet non-stop, computers and smartphones but I still remain a peasant. I was born in Normandy, in a fisherman’s village and I still like what’s most simple in life. I still like to push and pull a switch to turn on and off the light, I don’t need my fridge to tell me what to buy, and I still like to open the curtains myself in the morning. I like the wind, I like the light, I like the heat, I don’t need much technology around me, only music. I enjoy waking up in the morning to prepare a nice black expresso coffee and go to my garden to observe the plants, the trees, the birds and the lizards; it’s my process to start working on my projects every day, contemplation.

Rising temperatures are becoming an increasingly huge issue and you designed Casa Mérida specifically to combat high temperatures without having to use AC. Do you think housing around the world will begin to implement techniques like these in the future or will the majority continue to rely on AC?

No, I don’t think so!  I also understand there are parts of the world where it’s almost impossible to survive without AC, and Mérida, Yucatán is one of those. Casa Mérida is a house designed for pleasure, it’s a vacation house, it’s easier than a main residence, or an office space. I made a project based on natural crossed ventilation to avoid the use of AC, thinking if you offer the option to live in a well-ventilated space, maybe you’ll help people change their minds.

My vision of architecture focuses on changing people habits, rather than looking for technological improvements, towards a more simple way of living with fewer necessities, to minimise our impact on the ecology of our planet. It’s basically what vernacular architecture does and always has done, I’m not inventing anything, but just trying to go back to basics.

You kept elements of the old house including the front facade and the old buildings ‘bones’. Do you think this kind of perseveration is vital when modernising homes like this one?

Yes, I love it. I always think you belong to a permanent work in progress. There were people before you on the construction site you’re working on, and there will be people after you. I see architecture as a palimpsest, when you clean up the lamb parchment, the previous story will never vanish 100%. There is always something remaining from the past story in the back of the new story you are writing on top of your palimpsest.

You have stated that Casa Mérida reflects Yucatán identity, in what specific ways does it do so?

I always design my architecture as a peasant would. I always draw short structures, using short beams, between 4 to 5 meters long; dimensions I know any mason in the world is able to build without any specialised skills. I know this way everything will be local, starting with the workers. A house in Yucatán has to be built by people from Yucatán, It´s for me the first step to start belonging. I want my architecture to respond to local techniques, the stone, the wood I use will always change according to the region where I am building. As I said before, my architecture is always playing with temples and pyramids references. In the case of Casa Mérida, the house is organised along a Sacbé ”white way”, the Mayan roads that used to connect temples and pyramids together, ending in the swimming pool which looks like a concrete cenote.

Blue textiles have been used to mirror the house’s swimming pool which is inspired by cenotes. This reminded me of David Hockey’s swimming pool series, is there any connection or inspiration there?

To be honest no, but I really like the idea! Hockney’s work is beautiful, and I like the way it’s simple, almost naive sometimes, it matches with my architecture I guess.

What challenges did you face whilst working on this project and how did you overcome them?

I would say the concrete. Mérida is not a place where people are used to rough concrete. Rough concrete is something more common in Oaxaca state or Mexico City. So we had to learn together with the constructor in charge, explaining to the workers what we wanted to reach. For a mason rough concrete is unfinished, they don’t catch the beauty of it at the beginning. We had to explain it to them.

But definitely, our concrete is not perfect, This is part of something I totally accept, having un-perfect concrete, trying to get better and better during the process of building. Accident is part of my aesthetic, I always tell my clients to stop looking at Tadao Ando, we won’t make a Japanese concrete, we will make a Mexican concrete, rougher than the Japanese one, A perfectly un-perfect concrete.

What advice would you give to young creatives who are interested in architecture?

Don’t buy books and magazines on contemporary architecture. Only buy books and magazines that were published up until the 80s. This way, with those references, you won’t be tempted to literally copy them, you will have to reinterpret them, so this way you will make them yours.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and do you have any plans for the future?

Yes, right now I’m finishing three houses, one outside Mexico City, one in Puerto Escondido Oaxaca and another one in Mérida Yucatán. I have also one hotel under construction in Puerto Escondido Oaxaca. I’m about to break ground for a new house in Mérida Yucatán, a house/Airbnb hotel close to Huatulco Oaxaca, and another house/Airbnb hotel in Roca Blanca Oaxaca. Meanwhile, we are working on three new projects in the conceptual phase in the office.

Practice Architecture

«It’s this kind of interdisciplinary weaving together that is going to make change happen»

Founded in 2009, Practice Architecture is a London based firm adept at delivering various acclaimed cultural, community and residential projects. The firm has established itself as one that creates exceptional structures with a strong sense of place, and has a hands-on approach, getting involved from a design’s inception through to a structure’s completion, and help to curate both space and the activity it houses.

For their innovative Flat House project, the firm worked alongside hemp farmers and with sustainable methods of construction to construct a zero-carbon home in Cambridgeshire from prefabricated panels, all in just two days.

Their smaller scale Polyvalent Studio project was created within the parameters of the caravan act, meaning in most contexts it does not require planning permission. It was designed by students from London Metropolitan University and constructed within just 12 days, exemplifying the possibilities of low embodied energy design and the benefits of a collaborative working process in the industry.

Practice Architecture is currently working with food growing workers cooperative OrganicLea in developing a 10-year plan for the expansion of the infrastructure at their main site Hawkwood. The project will deliver substantial new educational buildings and volunteer spaces alongside a large community hall and kitchen, and the project will be built from natural materials as a self-build, working with the volunteers on site.

NR Magazine speaks with Practice Architecture to learn more about these projects, how they incorporate sustainable methods into their practice, and their ethos as a firm.

What inspired you to start working with cultural and community projects?

We started making things in London in a very informal way. We worked a lot with our peers and what we were doing was really part of a broader DIY culture within our community. In the absence of institutions that spoke to us, we made our own spaces in which to explore our own culture. This kind of work was only possible under the provision of it being temporary, but serendipitously, almost all the places we built in this era are still here.

We made our buildings in a very hands-on way, going on site ourselves, with friends and volunteers to build a project and used very basic tools and equipment to do so. This experience continues to feed into the work we do now, our understanding of materials and the way we design with others.

More designers are using hempcrete at the moment, and I’m familiar with artists using it on a small scale with pottery and sculpture, but nothing like on your Flat House project. What was the process like when building with this material on a larger scale?

The process began with the drilling of the seeds in the 30 acres of field that surround the house.  This was overseen by Joe Meghan, a hemp farmer who had supported Steve Baron the client and founder of Margent Farm in getting a licence and specifying the appropriate subspecies of plant.

Hemp is a very resilient crop, with long tap roots that help to rehabilitate and condition soils that have been degraded through industrial farming practices. It has a short growing season of 3-4 months, after which we were able to harvest the seed and stem and process it into usable oil, fibre and shiv (the woody core of the stem).

The project makes use of each element of the plant, with the oil being used by Margent Farm in health and body treatments, the fibre being made into a cladding and the shiv into the hempcrete insulation. Each element of the plant went through a different process, with the fibre being felted and blended with a sugar resin and the shiv being chopped and mixed with a lime binder.

We designed a cassette-based construction system using structural timber with hempcrete to form an insulated panel, refining the construction details with Oscar Cooper from Lignin Builds. The panels were constructed in a factory and dried before being brought to site and lifted into place over two days. The cladding was made a few miles down the road with the impregnated hemp fibre matt pressed to form corrugations. The cladding is very easy to work with as it’s light and can be cut using a simple hand saw. We were lucky that with so many elements of experimentation, everything went very smoothly, and the building came together as anticipated.

Aside from sustainability, what were the other aims and inspirations behind your Flat House project?

We wanted to demonstrate how, what are often thought of as traditional materials, can be applied in a very contemporary way using the latest construction technology. The project celebrates the simplicity of its construction and how few materials went into making it. The key thing with Flat House was not just to develop a building, but to develop a whole system that could be replicated at scale across the country.

The project has led to the establishment of Material Cultures, a research organisation that explores natural materials in the context of offsite construction. Could you talk a bit more about that?

Yes, Material Cultures is now doing the work of scaling up these ideas and applying them to large scale housing and commercial projects. We are working with a variety of clients and housing developers – people who are interested in doing things differently. Alongside this, we carry out research projects with a number of universities, developing full scale mock-ups and looking at the broader cultural context of the work we do.

Material Cultures is exploring how regional specificity and a relationship to regenerative agriculture might shape the evolution of new housing typologies. The low carbon construction industry is still relatively embryonic, which means working across many fields and disciplines simultaneously to make things happen. That’s why we are really excited to be working with Yorkshire and the North East and ARUP to develop a regional strategy for a transition to a bio-based construction economy.

It’s this kind of interdisciplinary weaving together that is going to make change happen.

What does collaboration mean to you as an architecture firm?

For us architecture has always been as much about process as it is about built form. The design is material and construction led, which means really understanding how something is put together. 

«Each project is an opportunity to connect with different disciplines and expertise, to learn and test something.»

We have been really lucky to have amazing long-term collaborators such as Henry Stringer – one of the most inventive makers of things – and Will Stanwix who has over 20 years’ experience of working intuitively with natural materials.

We generally make places directly with the people that use them, whether that be through getting everyone on site during the build or developing genuinely engaged co-design processes.

How do you go about balancing space and intimacy with a project?

We are really interested in spatial qualities and the different ways in which we are acted upon or made to feel by a building. We look to create balance, often pairing close and intimate spaces with more open ones. Material plays a large role in this. Arriving at the Straw Auditorium project in Bold Tendencies you move from the harsh open floor plates of the concrete carpark into an intimate womb like space, enveloped by the tactile warmth and smell of an organic material.

What inspired you to work with cellulose-based materials for the Polyvalent Studio project?

The Polyvalent Studio project was developed with David Grandorge and students at the London Metropolitan School of Architecture. The project was a continuation of Practice Architecture’s work exploring natural construction at Margent Farm and shares a lot of the material technology developed with Flat House.

The building is designed within the caravan act meaning it can be moved in two independent modules and that it could be built without planning permission. It touches very lightly on the ground with timber footings that penetrate the soil line. These are made from Accoya, an acetylated timber product that can far outperform other timbers and represents exciting opportunities for the substitution of traditionally high carbon materials in exposed areas.

The studio was designed and built by students at London Metropolitan School of Architecture. What was it like working with students and completing the project in such a short space of time?

Building the studio together with the students was a really amazing experience. They brought so much energy, passion, and commitment. It is mournfully rare for architecture students to get an opportunity to use their hands and build things at scale.

«Building things is one of the most direct ways to learn how to design things, and the lack of genuine understanding of construction by architects is what leads to many tensions between professions.»

This project was established within the context of your research into natural materials and low carbon construction techniques like with Flat House. What other kinds of innovative solutions to sustainable construction are you hoping to work with?

We are always looking to learn about new materials. Currently this means exploring innovative straw and mycelium construction and looking at the role of chalk within structural and civil engineering projects.

With the theme of this issue being Identity, I’d love to know how you feel the firm incorporates sustainability and education into its identity.

For a long time, sustainability was something we did by default, but we didn’t really talk about it or have a way of articulating what we were doing. We saw our work as predominantly socially driven and about process – and the architecture and materiality as a means to an end.

It’s been interesting over the last few years to begin redressing and articulating an underlying intentionality behind our approach to how things are made. Underlying the design is a deep concern for how the things we make fit within a broader cycle and ecology of things. Where do the components come from and where do they end up? How can we be resourceful and responsible? It’s been great to begin to articulate these things and situate what we have been doing within other conversations around things like regenerative agriculture and the logic of global supply chains.

How important is adaptability to you?

We want to make buildings that can respond to their users. This means they need to be able to adapt and evolve. You can design in a way that either makes this very difficult or enables it. By keeping structure exposed and close to the surface and making the construction legible, it empowers residents and users to add, change and adapt.

Working with a food growing cooperative, your Hawkwood Plant Nursery project also champions natural materials and community collaboration. Could you talk a bit more about the aims for this ten-year plan?

It’s really exciting to be working on a number of large-scale food growing projects in London. These kinds of spaces are so important and so different from other types of green spaces such as parks.  They offer the opportunity for a genuine connection to soil and to land – one that is mutually nourishing and that brings you into contact with most important natural processes that we all depend on like the water cycle, photosynthesis, composting and soil formation.

Hawkwood and the other Market Garden City project Wolves Lane are leading the way in setting a precedent for socially and community focussed food spaces. We are looking to embed genuinely circular principles in the project, working with the resources available on site and integrating locally sourced natural materials wherever possible. The principal being that anything we are bringing onto the site can ultimately return to those natural cycles itself, in the form of mulch and compost.



Studio Hagen Hall

«identity is subtle and evident in the design more than anything else»

North London townhouse Canyon House has been transformed from a bedsit into a stunningly vibrant 70’s Californian-inspired home by Studio Hagen Hall, “a multidisciplinary architectural and interior design studio that focuses on crafting exceptional spaces.” The clients, Ben Garrett and Rae Morris are both recording artists and while they fell in love with the essence of the house, including the well-established garden and good location, much work was needed to enliven the place.

Originally the property had been divided into three separate bedsits with the use of awkward partitioning that split the house. The entire interior needed to be gutted and Studio Hagen Hall used digital modelling to reimagine how the space would be used allowing the clients to use a VR headset to experience the design ideas. A recording studio was also incorporated into the new design of the interior. Drawing on 70s influences the intro design is a mix of warm wood, lush mustard velvets and vibrant peaches. NR Magazine joins Louis Hagen Hall, founder of Studio Hagen Hall, in conversation.

What key elements would you say create the 70s atmosphere and design of Canyon House?

I’d say it’s the combination of design features and materiality. We made a conscious decision to try and evoke a 70s atmosphere by means of reinterpretation rather than creating a pastiche of that era. To that end, there are nods to popular features of that era (such as the “conversation pit”, the “kitchen/dining serving hatch” and «open stair”), which we adapted to suit the house. Materially, we used typical materials from that period, such as Elm, velvet, and fluted glass, and chose colours with a particular 70s feel to them. Even the live/work form of the house pays homage to Ray & Charles Eames (the clients are musicians who collaborate and work together).

Are there any new technologies in architecture and design that you are particularly excited about? 

We’re particularly interested in new materials – both re-cycled (for example “Smile Plastics”) and organic (particularly mycelium & hemp, which are starting to become more prevalent in the construction industry).

The re-emergence of old technologies as “new technologies” is also fascinating – such as the use of clay and lime renders and natural insulation (eg paper & wool).

From a design-process point of view – easier and cheaper access to Virtual Reality has made it a very powerful tool. We can now walk clients through a space to better explain it, and even test out designs ourselves and leave annotations in the model in real-time.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project? 

Boiling it down to one sentence – the biggest challenge was trying to make what is essentially a relatively small British terraced property feel like a large free-standing Californian canyon house!

Ultimately we achieved this by spending a lot of time working out how to best reconfigure the house as a whole. We spent a great deal of time working on creating a natural flow throughout the spaces (both visual and circulatory), while also improving the relationship between the interiors and exterior spaces. When it came to the decor itself, we were all very much on the same page – so once we had cracked the layout of the house, the rest came relatively easily.

You stated that people who spend time at Canyon House don’t want to leave, why do you think that is? 

It’s a particularly comfortable, relaxing and sociable space to spend time in, and there are often people coming and going either for work (musicians coming to work with the client in the studio) or friends and family dropping by for a cup of tea. I think it also has something to do with how the light is always changing. Just when you feel like it’s time to leave, the sunlight will shift onto a different surface, changing the mood, or evening will fall and the lights will come on, completely transforming the house again.

What does identity mean to you as an architect?

Obviously, there is a visual identity – which can be hard to maintain across a wide range of projects and clients – although we try to maintain some consistency through the use of details and materials (which in turn relates to our stance on sustainability).

But I think there is a practical identity as well – creating usable, functional spaces, which isn’t always obvious through images. I will often try and show new clients around past projects (luckily I have very supportive clients) to experience this for themselves.

There is also identity in methodology and process, which I think can be apparent through displaying work in progress, drawings, models, etc.

«For us, identity is subtle and evident in the design more than anything else, rather than a case of branding or deliberate market positioning.»

Canyon house was originally separated by awkward partitions into self-contained bedsits and the house had to be stripped back to its shell. Do you think this is a common issue in London and if so does it affect the quality of living?

It is a common issue in London, especially as people try to exploit high rental charges here. And it absolutely affects the quality of living in a negative way – houses are divided up into spaces they were not designed for, resulting in cramped conditions, and quite often bedsits will pose serious fire risks (often due to kitchens being squeezed into bedrooms and hallways).

The ONE positive thing you could say about bedsits is that they do (in an unintentional, ad hoc way) form a sort of cohabitation/communal living typology – something that is being explored more and more these days. But this needs to be designed deliberately to be successful.

How does sustainability fit into your work with Canyon House?

We try to adhere to two main sustainability principles:

1. The principle of ‘embodied energy’ (which is the energy consumed to manufacture, transport, and assemble building materials to construct a building) – so we try to use as few processed materials as possible (eg clay render onto plywood rather than plaster onto plasterboard), as many renewable materials as possible (eg timber – always FSC certified – instead of steel and concrete), and we try to have any off-site items (joinery, fittings etc) produced as locally as possible to cut down on transport and shipping. We are also trying to integrate more and more natural and recycled materials into our projects, which cuts down on overall energy and resource consumption.

2. Re-use or ‘retrofit’ rather than demolish + re-build – renovating an existing building is almost always more environmentally beneficial than demolishing an existing structure and building a more energy-efficient one. So we try to encourage re-use by upgrading and extending structures rather than demolishing and building anew. And where this is not possible, we encourage our clients to work with as much of the existing building fabric as possible. For example, we are working on a new-build house in Dungeness, and while we are having to remove the existing building (because it is completely unsalvageable), we are designing the new building to match the footprint of the existing foundations, which is far more sustainable (and also cost-saving).

 How has the pandemic affected your work practice? 

On the practical side of things, we had to give up our studio as it was part of a large co-working space and it was closed for long periods of time. We eventually got into the swing of working from home, which has had the long term benefit of making everyone (including clients) more comfortable with communicating via video call. This can be very beneficial to a small design practice as it can be hugely time (and therefore cost) saving.

In terms of surviving during the downturn in work – we lost a few new commercial jobs, but we used the downtime to re-brand, re-build websites and social networks, and even launch a new kitchen/joinery practice called “b y s s e” with our long time collaborator and friend, joiner Tim Gaudin.

When things began to open up again, we started working in a smaller co-working space called Benk & Bo (in East London) a few days a week, and now we are working together with them on their new venues! So where some doors closed, others have opened.

Do you have any advice for young creatives looking to work in architecture and design?

I can only speak from experience – but knowing what I know now, I would say don’t rush anything! Take your time to find your creative space and let things happen to you, or you might find yourself going in a direction you didn’t want to. When there are natural breaks (particularly in the case of the time between Undergrad and Masters Degrees for architecture students) take the time to work in, or with, other fields. Volunteer for charities and meet people from all different aspects of life. Travel if you can. Teach if you can. Oh, and make friends with people outside of your field of interest!

I never used to be one for networking, but it turns out interesting things can come out of it. This doesn’t have to mean typical “networking events” – I have met like-minded collaborators at all kinds of different talks and evenings (even things like wine tasting!) Good Architecture and Design comes from experience – not just practical, but cultural.

Also, I feel quite strongly that a lot of students and young creatives feel pressured into qualifying or breaking onto a scene as soon as possible, partly because it takes a long time to qualify and/or become established, but also because we tend to glorify “young achievers” with awards for “best young designer” and publications like the “40 under 40”. Age is irrelevant – take your time, find your own space, and try not to compare yourself to your contemporaries!


«when you need help and advice, don’t be afraid or shy to ask for it. And if someone asks you, don’t hesitate to give it!»

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what plans do you have for the future? 

We are just finishing off three residential refurbishments in East London, then we will be beginning a new cycle of very exciting and diverse projects…from a new-build coastal house in Dungeness, to a fashion house showroom and office, to the restoration of a mid-century masterpiece, to a Japanese inspired victorian townhouse, and a multi-purpose community-driven wood and craft workshop.

We have also just launched a kitchen & storage-specific studio & workshop together with our long-time collaborator and friend, Tim Gaudin – called “b y s s e” (

And we’re finally planning on adding to our team of architects and designers after a long wait, which is hugely exciting! Ultimately we would like to open a second studio in Europe.



Isamu Noguchi

«to be hybrid is to be the future»

The art world, unfortunately, has a certain reputation for snobbery. Everything that is deemed as ‘art’ must, of course, be well thought out, aesthetically intriguing and completely unaffordable for anyone who isn’t part of ‘the rich’. Anything that is actually affordable for people who aren’t part of that income bracket is deemed as ‘low art’. Low art is defined as “for the masses, accessible and easily consumable.”

Over the years this definition has often been criticised alongside the common phrase “art for art’s sake” which was born from definitions like these and “is so culturally pervasive that many people accept it as the “correct” way to classify art.” Thus, it is rather surprising to see such definitions being alluded to in reviews of Noguchi’s exhibition at the Barbican as the artist himself was not a proponent of “art for art’s sake” according to Barbican curator Florence Ostende.

Japanese American designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi was of “the most experimental and pioneering artists of the 20th century”. His exhibition at the Barbican displays over a hundred and fifty works from his career which spans over six decades and explores his life, work and creative method. The best way to describe him is a ‘creative polymath’ as his work straddled a multitude of disciplines.

The exhibition itself is on two levels and upon entering the space you are directed upstairs. This first section is divided into spacious alcoves and display different periods of the artists work. There is a slight feeling of disconnect here and one finds oneself peering over the railing to the floor below, which appears from above far more engaging. However, this part of the exhibition provides an important overview for those who are not so familiar with Noguchi’s work. It maps the artist’s collaborations with the likes of Brâncuși, Martha Graham and R. Buckminster Fuller, in addition to charting Noguchi’s activist work, protesting racist lynchings, America’s internment of its Japanese American citizens during World War II, and fascism.

However, it is on the first level that the exhibition becomes a real delight, a rambling hodgepodge of stone and metal sculptures and his world-famous Akari lamps that makes one itch to play amongst this minimalist wonderland. Noguchi was committed to creating accessible public art and playgrounds, or playscapes, were a fascination for him. He designed these playgrounds as a way to “encourage creative interaction as a way of learning.” Indeed this interest in play and playfulness is echoed in the exhibition’s main space.

The star of the show is certainly the Akira lamps handing like softly glowing space ships, seemingly emerging from the floor like some strange luminous creature and arranged in clumps like brightly coloured mushrooms. Noguchi designed them after visiting struggling post-war Japan as a way to revitalise the economy. He took the Japanese bamboo and rice paper lanterns and modernised them as a way to bring industry back to the war-torn country.

These lamps became popular in Britain in the sixties and are still available, albeit in a slightly changed form, in IKEA. Because of this they are instantly recognisable and have led to some likening the Barbican exhibition to a ‘high-end lighting showroom.’ However, this brings us back to the discussion of ‘art for art’s sake.’  As I wandered around the exhibition I was drawn back to childhood memories of visiting B&Q with my parents, (they were the only shop in my hometown that had escalators and thus was an infinitely entertaining playground). Playground is the keyword here, I was allowed to roam the aisle alone in delicious freedom and explore this wonderland of light, metal, wood and a multitude of other textures, shapes and materials. To my childlike understanding, all of this was art. Interestingly Noguchi’s philosophy was rather similar. In creating the Akari lamps he aimed to “bring sculpture to everyday households”.

In our current environment of late-stage capitalism, Noguchi’s quiet and thoughtful philosophy’s on purpose, sustainability and environment are perhaps exactly what the art world needs. He saw commercial forms of design “as a way of escaping the art market and working with more freedom and fewer constraints.” While we might criticise the society we live in unfortunately we must still exist within it, however Noguchi “believed in the idea that even in mass-production, individuality is still possible.”  We must adapt and innovate within the framework we have because after all, to quote the artist, “to be hybrid is to be the future.”


Images · Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi at the Barbican is open from Thu 30 Sep 2021 —Sun 9 Jan 2022. For more information visit


  1. Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, American sculptor, the latter’s special assistant planner, July 4, 1947 in New York City. (Photo by Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images)
  2. Bronze plate
  3. Noguchi, Isamu (1904-1988): Humpty Dumpty. 1946. Ribbon slate. Overall: 59 ◊ 20 3\4 ◊ 17 1\2in. (149.9 ◊ 52.7 ◊ 44.5 cm). Purchase. Inv. N.: 47.7a-e New York Whitney Museum of American Art *** Permission for usage must be provided in writing from Scala.
  4. Terracotta and plaster

Nanometer Architecture

«It is important to have a feeling of love»

Architectural duo Yuki Mitani and Atsumi Nonaka are known for their minimalist architectural work under the moniker Nanometer Architecture. Taking inspiration from traditional Japanese design the pair focus on the smaller details when working on a project. “We believe that building an architecture is like a supplement for the ultimate goal, providing a place, proposing an event, and then inducing it to create an atmosphere.” NR Magazine joined them in conversation about their practice.

Nanometer is an interesting name, is there some kind of story or meaning behind it and how does it relate to your work?

The first letters of «n» (Nonaka) and «m» (Mitani) are connected to form «nm,» which is the symbol for nanometer. In the nano-world, the world is very different from the micro-world. Because it is so small and the specific surface area (volume/surface area) is so large, it becomes highly reactive, and the properties of the same substance can be changed if it is reduced to the nano level. The same material can change its properties if it is reduced to nano size. In other words, it is possible to manipulate a single electron.

Focusing on nanomaterials, we can move from top-down construction, where materials are scraped out of matter, to bottom-up construction, where atoms and molecules are assembled. They will be able to self-assemble like living organisms, without the waste materials that are scraped out. It will be a complete opposite approach to the way we have been producing things.

As I was researching this, I began to think that nanometers are close to our philosophy.

«We believe that the creation of buildings is like a supplement to the final goal and that the essence of providing a place, proposing an event, and inviting people to come afterwards is to create an atmosphere.»

With Nagoya flat, I imagine all the exposed concrete makes it quite a cool space to be in summer, but how did you tackle issues of insulation and heating for when it gets cold? 

I try to prevent cold air from entering through the gaps in the windows, I have gas heaters, and I put down carpets. We don’t have many cold days where it snows, so the heater is all we need.

The room was bare from the time we rented it in the first place. I didn’t want to spend that much money on a rental apartment, so I didn’t go as far as insulating the apartment for long-term living.

With Seaside Villa you had to take into account the effect of sea breezes on the property did you also have to consider issues of rising sea levels and how they might affect the property in years to come? 

We did not take into account the sea level rise. When the tide goes out, the beach will appear and the scenery will change, and people can play there. This site will not be rebuilt in the future because the ordinance has been changed to a place where new buildings cannot be built, so this architecture cannot be rebuilt either.

Where do you draw your inspiration from when working on a project? 

A lot of it comes from everyday experiences. It can be something you notice while casually walking around the city, an exhibition, a movie, a book, or a conversation with someone.

With PALETTE you particularly had to consider accessibility for those with disabilities is this something you also consider when working on other projects and has PALETTE changed how you approach issues like these in your work? 

In Japan, depending on the scale and use of the building, there are some things that are essential to consider. The degree of this depends on the project, but I think it is important to make it easy to use for all kinds of people.

House in Shima has a very open and welcoming design, considering how closely it’s located to a national park is this an intentional way to integrate its man-made structure with the surrounding nature.

It does not face a national park but is located in a national park. It is under the control of the Ministry of the Environment and had to be built with consideration for the landscape. For example, the colour of the exterior walls and roof, and the slope of the roof. In this way, the materials and colours naturally became closer to nature. The open design is more in accordance with the client’s request rather than in the park. The desire to live in nature with the windows open at all times and to have a barbecue all year round led to this open appearance.

What was the most challenging project you worked on and why? How did you overcome those challenges?

There are always difficulties in every project, so it is impossible to rank them.

Are there any new technologies within this industry that you are particularly excited about and how do you think they will change how to approach future projects?

3D scanning. If we can easily read the land and the inside of the building, the design will be more accurate.

What advice would you give young creatives looking to get started in this field?

Our efforts will always come back to us in some way. In any project, we face society and aim to improve the atmosphere of the world, even if only little by little. Many young people become frustrated because they think that they are not suited for this kind of work, but you cannot decide what you are not suited for.

«It is important to have a feeling of love and wanting to do something.»

Are you working on any projects currently and what plans do you have for the future? 

We are working on exchanges, housing complexes, detached houses, clinics, relaxation salons, etc. Since we moved our office to Sakae in the centre of Nagoya in February 2021, we would like to work on cafes, salons, apparel, bars, offices, etc. around the town where we work.


Images · Nanometer Architecture

DGN Studio

«Light is always the starting point for all our projects»

Founded in 2016 by Daniel Goodacre and Geraldine Ng, DGN Studio crafts customized objects and spaces informed by utility and the context of their surroundings – an approach to design that is instilled with a deep sense of care and attention to detail. The architecture studio aims to enhance the everyday living experience of their clients, and advocates for a carefully considered use of materials. 

The studio’s 2020 Concrete Plinth House project is located in the London borough of Hackney, where a dark Victorian semi-detached house has been transfigured into a sleek and leisurely brutalist-inspired home. The terrace is grounded on a dense concrete base, yet feels light and serene, featuring clean, minimalist surfaces. Commissioned by a young couple to transform the house into a modern family home, the project extended and opened the property to include lighter-touch renovations that show off the beauty of the materials used, such as concrete benches and wooden beams, all working in a simple aesthetic and functional harmony.

NR Magazine speaks with DGN Studio to get a deeper insight into their design values and to discuss the details of the project.

For this project you were tasked to create a versatile and leisurely space – what initially sprung to mind when you began to conceptualise the house? 

Making a space that could accommodate gatherings of different sizes seemed to require a degree of flexibility. We had conflicting thoughts at the outset. We wanted to make a space that could be used in different configurations, but also a desire to create something with weight and mass that felt very firmly grounded in the site. 

In the end the flexibility was achieved not by moving things around, but from being able to occupy the edges of the space – the steps, perimeter walls and benches which provide lots of options for how they might be used. This allowed us to really explore the feeling of permanence created by these various concrete surfaces and plinths. 

We also had an early idea about the timber frame as a kind of screen or filter between the interior and exterior spaces which in this instance seemed a more helpful concept than that of placing windows in a wall. 

What was your approach to working with the original features of the house? 

We wanted the new addition to resonate with the existing house in a subtle way, such that it could have a definite character of its own. 

The best rooms in the existing house had a tall proportion and we liked these spaces as distinct rooms that suggested specific purposes or activities. We wanted the new spaces and layout to maintain this feeling of a series of rooms while also opening up long views throughout the house, pulling light further in and creating a better flow through the spaces. The level changes in the floor and ceiling help distinguish the different ‘rooms’ of the new space. 

We paid attention to the details of the house such as door handles, window furniture, and curtain rails and commissioned Dean Edmonds to design bespoke pieces that sat comfortably in both the new and existing parts of the house. 

The sash windows running along the side elevation are a nod to the original glazing and add to the resonance between new and old. 

Were there any influences for the project? 

There is no overarching reference point – there are loads of influences that come in at different points of the project for specific reasons. Mostly it is about identifying a particular atmosphere that is right for the space. 

Developing the project is about navigating a course through the different parameters that emerge at each stage – starting from conversations with the client about their lives and desires, to their budget, planning restrictions, and then developing the details of how the building is put together with the skilled craftspeople who actually make it. All this time we are trying to hold onto that desired atmosphere and make sure that this still emerges at the end of a very long process.

You can really sense a harmony and a celebration of materials with the project- was this something that was particularly important for you? 

Absolutely – the material palette is really the stuff that the building is made from (predominantly oak and concrete). We were keen to keep the number of finishes relatively limited, and for the different materials to contribute to the serene atmosphere of the new space. 

We generally favour a relatively subtle material palette not because we don’t love colour, but because we tend to find that colour comes best from all the life that takes place inside the space rather than from what we have designed. The building is not the main event! 

How did you go about prioritising light and space with the project, especially in an older building and a tight urban site? 

Light is always the starting point for all our projects. How the sun moves around the site and how to choreograph spaces in relation to this. 

Extending a house can create problems with light due to the resulting depth of the plan so it’s really important to consider how the existing spaces will be affected. As a result, we have opened up views through the house so that you can see the garden from a number of locations and pull in as much light in as possible. There is also a considered contrast between light and dark spaces passing through the dark snug that sits between the living room at the front and the kitchen/dining room at the rear enhances.

We were also very conscious of not overexposing the interior, and the positioning of the glazed panels in the extension was carefully considered to get the balance of lighting right and to prevent the feeling of being in a goldfish bowl.

Were there any existing structures or materials that influenced the design? 

There’s a whole library of projects floating around in our heads – the ones that rise to the surface will depend on the client, the brief and the site. We also try to resist becoming diverted by all the things we’re looking at and trust our intuitions which are of course built on all the things we’ve seen and appreciated. 

How do you get inspired when starting a new project? 

There’s so much to draw from in any new project, no matter how small it may be – every site has its own history, and every client has their own unique story – trying to get under the surface of how the clients live (or would like to live) is really important and provides lots of starting points. 

We’re also really inspired by the city we live in and how it has developed over the centuries – just a bus ride through it is enough to generate a whole raft of ideas. Of course, inspiration often comes in more oblique ways through art objects, music, books, landscapes…

What’s your usual process in developing a design concept? 

It always starts with a plan and lots of sketching to try and explore the intuitions that we have about the project. From there we like to try and get as quickly into making models as we can – often digitally first, but we always like to make physical models as well. So much is discovered and can be tested in the making of them, and they always resonate well in describing ideas to clients. 

Throughout the process we also like to have workshops with clients – sitting together around a table and discussing the ideas – the project is always a collaboration, and this is fundamental to the way projects develop.

DGN Studio is currently working on a number of residential projects across London, as well as designing and making furniture and interiors.


Images · DGN STUDIO 

Joe Mortell

«When working on a new scene, I always aim to have at least one unique element in it»

Joe Mortell is a 3D designer based in London, whose work combines the efforts of creative direction, animation and illustration to construct elegantly rendered interiors and landscapes. Often merging into one another, Mortell’s interiors and exteriors integrate to form a unique and surreal aesthetic, crafted with a high level of detail.

Mortell’s 3D rendered environments have a comfortingly familiar, dreamlike quality to them. With their carefully stylised compositions and polished imagery, it is as though we’ve been given a glimpse into a digital utopia. With ambient lighting, inventive furnishings and alluring textures, Mortell’s work transfigures the digital realm into something almost tangible.

Initially moving to London to study graphic design before specialising in 3D work, Mortell has built a vibrant and impressive career, working internationally with the likes of The New York Times, Wallpaper*, Selfridges, Louis Vuitton, Moët Hennessy, Youth to the People and more. NR Magazine speaks with Joe to learn more about the details of his 3D designs, pop culture influences and creative process.

What attracted you to start working with 3D design?

I love the amount of freedom 3D can give you as a designer! There are so many different areas within it to explore, learn and experiment with. When I first started, I was trying out almost anything that came to mind. Animating things like wind moving through plants, light beams passing through windows and light refracting through rippling glass. You never know what new effect might come out when you experiment within 3D. Even today, around 5 years after I started, I have a huge list of things I want to learn and experiment with.

What do you enjoy most about working with digital and surreal landscapes?

I really enjoy merging the outside world with interior spaces. They have a really nice mix of feeling unusual and surreal but also inviting. You can imagine yourself walking into them, relaxing and even exploring past the edges of the frame.

I feel that up until now it’s been very difficult and expensive to imagine spaces like these without a large movie budget. Within 3D it’s not only really quick to create things like this but it also gives you the freedom to experiment quickly and stumble across happy accidents.

The past year has been such a struggle for the arts and for creatives – how have you managed to stay motivated?

As with a lot of other people, this past year gave me a lot of free time that I wasn’t expecting to have. Personally, this enabled me to spend a lot of time experimenting and refining my 3D work. I enjoy doing it so much that it feels like a hobby when I’m learning something new or trying out a new idea for a scene. I feel as if the last year has allowed me to see what I want to achieve in my work a lot more clearly. I realise this really isn’t the case for everyone. My advice to anyone that is struggling is to try and find a completely new creative area that interests them and experiment with it. If you can find a creative area that you really love, the motivation will come on its own.

When do you feel like a work is ‘complete’?

I tend to focus on the composition of a scene first so I can settle on a direction and will then have a good base to work from. After that’s in a good place I start to add natural elements and furniture until the pairings feel right together.

The last 50% of the work that I put into a scene will be all about the smaller details and that’s where I feel the scene starts to really feel complete. These will be details in the materials and textures to make them feel natural along with small objects to make the scene feel lived in. An ideal scene will have small areas that catch the eye and really hold your interest.

What are the most important things you consider when designing your 3D landscapes?

When working on a new scene, I always aim to have at least one unique element in it. This could be the shape of the architecture, the natural landscape, the lighting, the colour palette or maybe even something simple like a unique piece of furniture. Using this method has helped me to find entirely new approaches to making scenes. Some things that I’ve tried out as an experiment before have become the core foundations in what I create today.

What spaces and landscapes inspire you and your practice?

The spaces that inspire me the most are almost anything retro and futuristic. I love the unique shapes in the architecture and the super bold and stylish furniture within them. I’m always aiming to find the right balance between vintage and futurism in my work.

I’ve also started to become very inspired by renaissance landscape paintings. They manage to achieve a feeling of amazing depth within them by using clever areas of shadowing and lighting to break down the scenery into something more readable. The lighting and scenery in these paintings always have a brilliant powerful feeling to them that would be amazing to try and capture in a 3D scene.

What aspects of your own life influence your creative vision?

I’m a huge movie fan so this has played a big part in how I imagine new scenes. I especially enjoy anything surreal, or anything dream based. Studio Ghibli movies stand out as some of my favourites along with movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with its incredible surreal scenes. I’m also a fan of Nintendo, so the worlds in Zelda and Super Mario have always really inspired me.

What have been your favourite projects to work on?

I have so many favourites it’s difficult to pick! I find that working in 3D allows you to work on such a wide variety of different projects. I find that I either particularly like working on something I haven’t tried before that allows me to experiment a bit, or on the other end, a project that allows me to really focus on refining the realistic details.

A few projects that do come to mind are modelling and animating birds for AllBirds shoes and NYT that allowed me to try something new. I also recently worked on a project for Wallpaper* with Charlotte Taylor where we mixed furniture with outdoor spaces. Another would be creating six unique surreal animations for Youth to the People.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Right now I’m working on some really exciting projects. Some of which are collaborations with other 3D artists where we will be creating spaces together. Combining different skill areas that we have to make some really unique ideas. Also, as I’ve been solely focusing on still images the past few months, I’m working on bringing motion back into my work and creating a series of surreal animations.

Discover more here

Daab Design

«An interesting part of our work is extracting from the client what they think normality is»

London architecture studio Daab Design is known for using ‘collaboration, inclusivity and craftsmanship’ to create the best spaces for their clients. They work on a range of projects, from small scale restorations to larger community-based infrastructure designs. NR Magazine reached out to speak to co-founders Dennis Austin and Anaïs Bléhaut about their practice. Dennis was trained in NYC and has 30 years experience designing award-winning projects in Europe and North America. Anaïs was trained in Paris and Rome and has 20 years of experience designing award-winning projects in Europe and North America. 

You have said your work reflects the cities you have lived in and the cultures you love. How does people’s approach to living spaces and housing differ from city to city and culture to culture, and how is that then translated into your work practice? 

Anaïs: I don’t think I can generalise how people in different countries live. With residential work, everybody lives differently. An interesting part of our work is extracting from the client what they think normality is. Often they will tell you to do the kitchen the normal way, but there is no normal way. You practice architecture differently in France and the UK. In France, a small office can do very large buildings, because the contractors are responsible for large amounts of the technical design, whereas in the UK the architects deliver much more details. 

Dennis: In the UK the planning policies have a stifling influence whereas in France it’s very much that there’s a strong concept which is then measured against what the policy suggests. Those differences have changed us as practising architects for the better. 

Is it often the case with older buildings, such as Unearthed Vault and Guild, that they have all suffered from ‘unsympathetic alteration’ which hide their original charm and craftsmanship? If so why do you think that is a common occurrence? 

Anaïs: It is often the case, yes, and there are different reasons for that. The first is that conservation put into law is a relatively new thing. There was an aspiration for conservation since the end of the 19th century but it was some time before it became law. The other reason that now the London housing prices are so high, interesting buildings like the Georgians, are often used as offices. Offices owners tend to not embrace ownership the same way as family homeowners do. The change of use from residential to offices is quite detrimental because the offices just want the building to be compliant and it’s not done sympathetically. 

Dennis: And the love and the charm of the existing building is at odds with its use as an office. What’s interesting now post-pandemic, is that we are beginning to consider 1970’s office buildings in the centre of the city and look to turn them into housing. It’s a whole other challenge. How do we bring daylight into those buildings? How do we retrofit? What is the approach? We have to really dissect these spaces architecturally. 

Do you think this change from offices into housing is going to affect housing prices in bigger cities? 

Dennis: It will not be the panacea where all of a sudden we’ve got this great selection of housing at all different price ranges and everyone is going to be comfortable. It will begin to change the perception and the uses. A great example is downtown Manhattan where, twenty years ago, there was a shift from office spaces into housing. It was an economic driver back then because they weren’t getting the rent from these offices. They took this buildings stock and then appropriated a new use. 

Anaïs: I think it could be a good case study to see how Downtown and the Wall Street area have been converting these offices into very successful flats. The conversion is quite interesting. The system is close to our micro house community. I think it can give some help to solve the housing crisis in London. 

I imagine there’s a lot of technical challenges when it comes to converting offices into housing?

Dennis: Yes. The biggest challenge will be natural light, how do we bring as much natural light as we need and there are ways of doing that.

Anaïs: Office building floor plans can be quite deep, with no natural light.

Dennis: But structural and service issues are less of a key problem. As soon as you start taking the building stock and getting operable windows you’re going to change everything. You will change how people perceive the space. You’re going to improve peoples health and wellbeing. Those buildings then have a natural network of infrastructure at their doorstep, whether it’s public transport, museums, culture, historic sites. If you imagine central London and all of a sudden a third of say the Leadenhall Building becomes residential, it would be quite interesting. 

With Unearthed Vault you spoke of the importance of bringing light into the space. Do you think that lack of good light is a common issue in housing in cities like London? What changes, small or big, can people make to improve that in their own living spaces?

Anaïs: Yes in the case of these Georgian houses and central London houses. It’s a bit different when you go outside that area, I’m always actually quite impressed by the small estates in the suburbs of London and how they still have a lot of natural light. 

When I worked on Vault I was impressed by the original Georgian design for the lower ground floor. It was quite amazing how they have an almost fully glazed wall in the rear kitchen area where household staff were working hard and needed natural light. They also had light wells on the ceiling to get as much natural light as possible, so they don’t spend a lot of money on candles and make the most of the day. 

The problem again is the price of the property, because people tend to look for every opportunity of gaining more internal space. These light wells which are so precious for natural light are often covered to make more internal space. The first day we went to Vault I just couldn’t orientate myself in this basement, it was horrible. As soon as we demolished coverings on the light wells, suddenly you could read the building. I mean the pictures speak for themselves, it was made with zero lighting, just natural light, and it’s beautiful. People realised how much more you gain from the quality of space on the property, rather than trying to gain one square meter of prime location.

I noticed that both in Vault and Guild the use of rich, bold and often quite dark colours on the walls. Is that a trend in interior design at the moment and if so is it here to stay? 

Anaïs: With these two projects, when we peeled back and stripped down the paint on woodwork we found 260 years of paint in different layers. A trend for a group of people or a society is actually reflecting the society itself. You could almost date the paint by its colour by what was a trend at the time and the Georgian trend was very interesting. Today people seem to enjoy almost the similar tones as the original Georgians did. It makes the space very vibrant because you embrace the architecture by using these tones. What’s good is you don’t damage anything if you use the right paint, so there’s nothing wrong with making the home your home with the paint you like. We choose colours that we felt were very Georgian but we incorporated in the original colour 200 years of fading. The red we chose for Guild at the time would have been a much more primary colour. When you incorporate the ageing of the colour, subconsciously you read the years as well. 

What were the most interesting colours you saw?

Anaïs: I’m always fascinated by the original Georgian chocolate brown colour. I’m less impressed with the layers of off-white or cream which flatten everything. It makes everything so dull I think. We found some black on some of the woodwork, which I wasn’t expecting but it looked very strong. I think that’s part of the reason in Guild we made the railing colour close to black. We used the colour reference called «Railings» from Farrow and Ball

When you renovate places do you feel like an archaeologist, peeling back the layers of time? 

Anaïs: Absolutely you feel like an archaeologist, and you discover things. With Guild again the hallways were covered in vinyl tiles. We took them off quite quickly but we couldn’t tell if we had concrete below, or stone, or what, because the glue was so horrible. It was only after when we cleaned all the glue that we found the most beautiful Portland stone. That moment is amazing.

With Sunnyside Yards you talk about the importance of fostering community by providing public spaces and programs to encourage residents and locals to interact. However, considering how people have become even more used to isolation due to the current pandemic, do you think that simply providing these spaces and programs is enough to cultivate community in these kinds of housing hubs? 

Dennis: Just providing space and suggesting usage, no. You need the backing of the community and residents. You need the will to create spaces where people will get together and foster well being. On the other hand, if the architecture doesn’t permit that, then you haven’t permitted that ability for people to take ownership of their own spaces. For years we were talking about how spaces are too small. We design everything down to the square centimetre and it’s cost-driven. But that doesn’t work, we need to provide housing that has greater access to exterior spaces. Not just a single tack on balcony but also communal exterior spaces

I think some really successful projects now are making landings at floor level where not only can you store your baby buggy but there are benches where you can sit you can chat with your neighbour. So the idea of saying ‘in this space people will feel good, this will be a wellbeing space’ doesn’t work. I think people now, post-pandemic, are thinking about how we can collectively figure out what to do with these spaces. We are no longer waiting for the governments to tell us this. And with Sunnyside, that’s what we tried to do, by creating these second-level podiums with these collective spaces again at lift landings. As you leave the lift you have access to an outside terrace, before you get into the corridor leading to your flat. 

When you work, how you keep in mind the importance of providing these spaces for fostering community and include that in your design? 

Dennis: Understanding how we live. Also, going back to your first question, by living and working in different countries.

Anaïs: But also it needs to come earlier from the community itself and community engagement during the project. Because the community have different needs and different requirements

Dennis: Look at affordable housing in the UK. Up until sixteen months ago, the driver was bicycle storage and bin storage, and that’s not enough anymore. Of course, bins and bikes are important but it has to be about how can a community of thirty-five units build in the ability to work from home. So everyone working in their flat can also have a space where people can get together and have access to independent spaces to work in. 

I’ve noticed a lot of roof space in London is often unused, do you feel like this is a waste of space? 

Dennis: Absolutely, we think it’s critical to promote exterior green space. The use of a roof should allow people to get up, get daylight and enhance views. It should allow you to meet, you should have access to a communal garden up there. There is low lying fruit in wellbeing and that is garden space, whether at ground level or roof. Talking to people, playing in the dirt, and seeing something grow is an amazing answer to feeling good. Plus roofs should also be used for renewable energy, grey-water collection, etc. 

Anaïs: Also a green roof is simply better for insulation, better air cleaning as well. I think also in London the pandemic revealed the underuse of the front garden. All these little front gardens that we used just put bins in, they are now becoming like a prime piece of land. Everybody wants a little chair and coffee place in them. It’s great to see how we can make these spaces work harder. 

With Micro/Macro you talk about rethinking communal spaces. Do you find that there is a big demand for micro-units/single person studios in cities like London where young workers are often forced to share their living spaces with strangers due to the cost of living? And how exactly will Micro/Macro tackle issues like these? 

Dennis: It’s interesting because neither of us is from the UK. There is such a rich culture of young professionals sharing flats here. In New York that isn’t the case as much and in Paris even less so. You would go to look for a chamber maid’s flat in Paris under the roofs. A tiny little nine square meters but you would be living alone. In the UK it is very much about coming together, with people you do or don’t know sharing a flat, and it becomes this greater network. I think for us Micro/Macro is about thinking architecturally, not just providing a cheap small flat. We took out in certain aspects like the full kitchen by bringing in a small kitchenette. You don’t need a dishwasher or a washing machine, those become communal uses and functions that you share on the ground floor. In Manhattan, the old laundry rooms were where you got to hear the gossip for the whole building.

Anaïs: That’s where you create bonds and friendships. 

Dennis: It’s about getting a small sleeping unit, I can have a friend over, I can read a book I can do what I need to do in my daily life. But when I’m participating in a communal event, doing my laundry, sharing thoughts, I want to do that with people, who are not necessarily my flatmates but are my community. For Micro/Macro we are very keen on making sure we can design these buildings where retirees are living on the same floor as the twenty-somethings. They can share life experiences and really create the essence of community. So it’s not about small, it’s about eliminating and reducing in your personal flat. What that does is it takes the pressure off your flat and you start organising your stuff a little differently. ‘I do have that quarter or half a cabinet in the laundry room, I will store it there.’ We have just been so used to consuming and consuming and thinking that we need this that and the other at our fingertips but we don’t. 

Are there any new technologies in the industry that you are particularly excited about, specifically in regards to providing sustainable and affordable housing? 

Dennis: I wouldn’t say it’s brand new but off-site prefabrication, often referred to as MMC. They aren’t incredibly modern I grew up in New York, next to a town which was part of a prefabricated housing scheme in 1957 and it was all flat-pack houses.  However, today we are at the cutting edge of prefabrication in housing. I think in terms of sustainability it does it in three broad efficient steps. One is it reduces waste as everything is built in a factory and it centralises deliveries. Secondly is those units built are incredibly well insulated and have amazing airtightness. Plus the quality is better because there’s less margin for error. Thirdly you are getting this incredibly shared benefit of the units together acting in unison, and all profiting from really efficient exterior insulation.

Anaïs: I think one interesting point is it has existed for some time. In Europe, they tried at the time to import these systems, because of all these benefits, but the cultural barriers against this kind of method of construction were so strong, In Europe, people wanted stone houses, and in the UK brick houses.

«It’s only now that we are on the verge of a sustainable and environmental collapse that people realise these tools and methods already exist.»

What was one of the most challenging projects you have worked on as a company and why? How did you overcome these challenges? 

Dennis: There’s a project we are working on now called Between the Lines. It’s a master plan of a neighbourhood here in Battersea and it’s an area that was formed by the rail companies of the mid 19th century. That infrastructure created huge barriers to connectivity between communities in Battersea and Lambeth. 

Anaïs: This railway company had a green light to take the land they wanted. So there is a lot of residual corners and no-mans-land amalgamated in an area that is quite close to where we work. 

Dennis: And the challenge is to communicate to people, the authorities, some of the landowners the chance of connectivity is there. We need to stop looking at these sites as giants and look at them at a pedestrian level. It’s all these series of brick arches and infrastructure that is very penetrable. So the challenge is communicating the worth and the value of this land.

Anaïs: It’s a complex site it’s quite hard to grasp. There’s a huge opportunity there. It’s an iceberg between Nine Elms and Battersea it’s fascinating.

Any other places that were interesting challenges? 

Dennis: Yes, we are working with Southwark council on affordable housing. There is a policy of looking at existing estates and trying to make them a bit more efficient at providing additional homes. So they are looking at taking out garages and filling in some missing teeth of spaces. Loads of great challenges, the scale though, unfortunately, is too small it needs to be bolstered up. 

Anaïs: For me, the great challenge that I enjoy very much at the moment is retrofitting services in listed buildings. There are so many options and people now are contemplating the fact that we have to be able to do something in these buildings. And there are different options, a mix between traditional design and really high tech elements. This is challenging, it’s case by case but it’s great.

What advice would you give to you creatives looking to get started in this field? 

Anaïs: We like working with students we have always an LSA student in the office and we enjoy mentoring very much.

Dennis: I think that the advice is to bolster your curiosity 

Anaïs: Travel, work in different cities. That brought us so much. 

Dennis: And if possible work in different languages and carry a sketchbook.

Anaïs: Draw draw draw. Meet people, talk to people, talk to architects. 

Dennis: The value of shared experiences and understanding what people have been through, is how major projects have been developed. It’s about piquing people’s curiosity. 

What projects are you working on currently and what do you have planned for the future? 

Dennis: Between the Lines is the real current project that’s quite interesting

Anaïs: Also some listed buildings and conservation areas. 

Dennis: And the Homegrown Plus initiative that we are working on with Neil Pinder. It’s a platform to provide access for architecture students and young architects who are from non-traditional and traditional backgrounds. People of all ethnicities and backgrounds working through university. How can we, as an office, begin to disseminate some of our knowledge and our experiences to this greater network? Homegrown Plus is about bolstering access to a whole population who have been historically denied access to the study of architecture 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Dennis: I think for us. we are very much a small-large practice. We opened our office after having worked for thirty years or so and it’s about bringing our experience to our own work. We are doing that because the joy of being in control of your own destiny is just amazing. We feel we can offer more and give back to society within our own practice than working with bigger names.

Anaïs: And we still feel that as a small office we are agile enough to integrate larger teams if needed on infrastructure projects. We are really happy to work on infrastructure projects with other architects.

Dennis: As a small practice we do collaborate with larger practices and it’s a cross-pollination of practice experience that is quite interesting 

Anaïs: It keeps you fresh in your thinking and your design. Nothing is taken for granted.  


Photography · JIM STEPHENSON

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