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Hugh Strange Architects — Buildings Don't Just Happen
Hidden in an old pub yard in South-East London is the secluded studio of Hugh Strange Architects. This intimate space, piled with models and material samples, says a lot about those who designed it an
Hugh Strange Architects — Buildings Don't Just Happen

Across a garden-like courtyard one can catch a glimpse of Strange House, the practice’s first completed project. Although the building seems to have come into existence almost effortlessly, it took great knowledge and careful consideration to achieve its tectonic simplicity and clarity, while simultaneously retaining a degree of ambiguity and experiential complexity. The result is a delightful sight of seamless coexistence between functionality and beauty.

Thisispaper: Would you agree that architecture equals the art of building?

Hugh Strange: Yes, I would. I believe, as architects, it’s our responsibility to build well, but also that we should see the act of constructing in a broader intellectual context. As an architect, you don’t just fix two things together; you understand the cultural, political and artistic significance of that act. Historically, that’s where architecture comes from as a discipline. People started to build and then, as a society, thought about the values that were embodied by the buildings they were making. Perhaps, “architecture as the art of building” describes very well what we do as a practice. We give consideration to the constructive act, the sequence of its elements and trades, what builders do on site. Those things are integral to the way we design. Our work is not about using abstract philosophical or cultural concepts as a starting point, but about asking the question “how do you construct this building?” and then bringing thought and sensitivity to bear on that.

The architecture archive was a very unusual commission. Do you think that a project as specific as this one could still have a significance beyond simply serving its purpose?

To answer that I’d like to step back a little and first talk about this project that we are in at the moment, the house and the studio. I think there’s something very interesting about how it combines the universal with the particular. It is in part very site specific and creates very particular intimate spaces, but in parallel with that it operates as a potential model for backland London plots. A house like this could be placed in a thousand similar sites through London, because there are many sites like this. This means it has a certain prototypical quality.

The archive, on the other hand, appears as a one off, it has a high-cultural function of housing a private drawing collection but it is situated within a working farmyard. It is a very particular brief that you wouldn’t normally get with that site and to a large extent the building is a response to this unusual combination. In relation to the site there is a simplicity to the construction and to the choices of materials, which are not dissimilar to other materials present in the farmyard: concrete base, timber middle, fibre cement top with galvanized steel substructure. At the same time, it is an archive for a collection of sensitive drawings and as such it has to create an appropriate, stable environment for its contents. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) was in this case a very good solution. The depth of the timber, which is used without insulation, external cladding or internal lining, provides a buffer to moderate temperature and moisture changes, but at the same time the monolithic quality of the construction has a resonance with the rural surroundings. It was a response to very particular conditions and requirements, and as such it doesn’t necessarily have the quality of being a widely applicable solution. However, the project does have broader lessons, I think. One of them is particular to structural timber. We are currently planning out a research project, where we are going to monitor the building for a year recording the internal and external moisture and temperatures. The research will tell us specifically how the material technically performs for this function and we hope to reveal that it is actually a replicable solution for small to medium scale archives, museums, galleries, and those types of buildings, where sensitive materials are kept but high-tech facilities can’t be afforded and a low-tech, naturally moderating environment provides a more appropriate solution.

Since you set up your own practice, you have been dealing with rather constrained budgets. Do you think a project with no budget would be a dream or a nightmare?

I think constrained budgets almost always create better architecture. They make you think harder about what is essential in a project. They strip away the indulgencies that don’t necessarily add to either the quality of the architecture or the client’s enjoyment of the building. Clarity often comes from tighter budgets. Obviously, I would like to move towards larger projects with larger budgets but I’m very comfortable working within financial constraints. I think you shouldn’t see these things as terrible inconveniences. Instead, you should enjoy thinking through the constraints and making an idea with what you’ve got.

We focus on making strategic decisions within the architectural concept about where savings are made, where things can be done simply, where cheap materials are appropriate and, as a counterpoint, where luxury can be enjoyed. In general, our approach to budgets is to take control of them and make them an integral part of our architectural decision-making. For instance in the House there were certain strategic moves we made, which had a very significant impact on the budget. It is a single storey timber house and that meant, we could use the existing site slab as a raft foundation and didn’t have to excavate to form new foundations. That saved an enormous amount of money and risk from the project. If it was a masonry building, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. Similarly, on the outside the building achieves and communicates a certain economy and it feels almost like a warehouse, while the internal material pallet is quite refined: traditional hardwood joinery, exposed structural softwood, polished concrete floors. With the Archive we wanted to achieve a similar play of economy and luxury between the inside and the outside. Consequently, the external elements such as the exposed concrete slabs, the fibre cement roof or the galvanized steel gutters have a visible simplicity and functionality to them. In turn, when you go inside, you see generous tall spaces with beautifully detailed hardwood floors. There is an element of surprise and delight to that.

Are there any architects that particularly influenced your approach?

I think the sense of strategic questioning of where money is spent and how that affects a project, that one finds in the work of Lacaton & Vassal, has influenced us a lot, as has the great generosity of social purpose you find in Lina Bo Bardi’s projects. In the future, we would certainly like to work on projects where we can explore this social aspect of architecture to a greater degree.

The early work of Herzog and de Meuron in the 80s has also played a significant part in the way that I think about architecture. There is a forward that Rafael Moneo wrote for one of their early monographs, where he talks about their search for a direct contact with the constructive essence of architecture. This rings true with my sense that, at its heart, architecture is about the significance of making a ground plane, fixing walls or columns, making a roof and that these constructive elements are what the art of architecture is born out of.  I think our buildings seek to elucidate that constructive essence. The Archive for instance has a very clearly expressed ground plane that the building is constructed off. It also has large overhanging eaves which communicate the protective quality of a roof. The individual architectural elements of that building are clearly legible in themselves; there is no blur. It has a simplicity to it, which is not to be confused with any search for minimalism or even simplicity for simplicity’s sake.

So for you simplicity is not a style?

Absolutely not. I think we try to create buildings that are simultaneously complex and simple. It is important that, as you live in, or use them, buildings maintain a sense of beauty and enjoyment thanks to a variety of experience, rich spatial sequences and complex relationships with their context. At the same time you need to combine these qualities with a simplicity of approach that allows the building to have a certain conceptual clarity. For me that combination of experiential richness and conceptual clarity is a measure of good architecture.

Both projects we’ve discussed are new buildings but respond to an existing building or the remains of one. Could you say something about that?

There is an “as found” element in both projects. They both understand the opportunity of the given conditions. The House engages with the irregular brick wall around it, but its own geometry is perfectly orthogonal. As a result, it is the leftover spaces in between that are asymmetrical or uneven and become charged and enjoyable. And likewise in the Archive there was an existing building that we partially demolished and then repaired the bit that was in the best condition. This allowed us to create a fundamentally new structure that nestles into the ruins of an old barn. On one side the new building is completely revealed and on the other the existing wall contains the neighbouring space.

Has CLT become your favourite material?

I do find it a fascinating material with a lot of potential and I think it’s going to become a very significant part of the construction industry over the next 50-100 years. To be practising in the early stages of the material’s usage is very exciting for us. But it’s also part of a wider interest in using wood in all its forms. Actually both the House and the Archive, apart from the structural softwood, have very developed uses of hardwood, which forms elements of inhabitation, like the finely detailed Ash, Beech and Cedar floors in the Archive.

But wood is not the only material I want to build with. To me it is interesting to think in terms of families of materials and the relationships between them. In both projects there are also families of cementitious materials. They both have cast concrete bases, which use in situ concrete to form the ground that the architecture is constructed upon, and then there are the light-weight fibre cement panels that cover the upper part in the house and the roof in the archive. It is also a cementitious material but very different from the base. It is an inexpensive, factory-made product that you simply bring to site and fix in place. I think now I’d like to explore the idea of a clay family of materials in a building as well.

More particularly, we have a concern with the production processes that form materials and how one might establish relationships between these processes in interesting ways. We want to create buildings which are tectonically well-considered not through reducing them to a single technique or process – pre-fabrication or hand-made for instance – but through the combination of different processes, in both a rational and a provocative manner, so that the prefabricated components, elements made on site, as well as those carefully hand-crafted, co-exist in the building and benefit from their affiliation.

Collaboration is an interesting way of pushing ourselves into a territory that we might not otherwise explore.

What are you currently working on?

Completing the Archive led in unexpected directions for us. The client recently added a large set of Alvaro Siza’s drawings to his collection, focusing on one big project of Siza’s from the 1970’s where he designed and implemented an extension called Malagueira to the historic town of Evora in Portugal. The Archive now houses about 1500 pieces including drawings, sketchbooks, technical drawings, details and models for this project. A few interesting things resulted from this. The first is that with our students we are spending a year studying the Malagueira project and they will make proposals in relation to it. We are soon going on a trip to Evora, where we’ll meet with the old communist town mayor, who implemented the scheme. It’s very exciting for both us, and the students.

The practice also has a follow-on project from the same client who has asked us to produce a design for the adjacent disused agricultural silos, so that the building we have already completed for him would house the drawings collection, while in the two silos he would keep the other part of his archive – such as books and models. We began by working on the insides of the silos and spent a long time testing lots of different options until we hit the right solution. The idea is that we use a completely standard metal shelving system and design layouts with it, that sit within the two silos and provide intensely architectural internal spaces. But there are also going to be some bespoke items that we put in, some hand crafted hardwood staircases and reading stands, so that it becomes materially engaging and tactile.

But we didn’t really have an idea for the exterior of the silos. At first we thought that we could just leave the outsides as they were, but we weren’t quite sure and neither was the client. Earlier in the year, possibly around June, Alvaro Siza had visited the Archive and expressed that he liked our design, so I suggested to the client to speak to him and see if he was interested in working with us on the external elements of the silos. And Siza agreed. I think it is interesting for him, because his drawings are kept in the adjacent building, and also because he has never built anything permanent in the UK before. Soon after, I went over to Porto to meet him. I took our proposals for the inside and explained to him what we were doing there. Then we had a design session at the end of which there was a scheme we are now working up: a snaking, ramped canopy connecting the two silos. We’ll progress it here in London and then we plan to have a follow-on meeting in Porto with Siza soon.

In terms of our own work, collaboration with someone of his professional stature is interesting at this stage in our own projects. It allows us to question how we work, but within the context of a great respect for Siza and his work. For instance, I think to date we’ve been reticent about form-making, preferring to concentrate on construction processes, material textures, spatial sequences and the articulation of scale. Perhaps this collaboration is an interesting way of pushing ourselves into a territory that we might not otherwise explore. —

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