Practice Note Number 11: Practice into Theory

— 3 minute read

For an architect who spends most of his working and thinking time on a wide variety of usually quite small one-off and very specific problems it is interesting to think about how general practice might evolve into an overall approach to architecture.

There are two basic scenarios for the sole practitioner – working with existing buildings and working with end-user residential clients. Normally, this city based sole practitioner is working with the combined effect of both.

When working with existing buildings, the architect inherits a series of historical and technical (building related) constraints that need to be respected.

Working with end-user residential clients the sole practitioner will usually also be working with another set of constraints such as Building Use, Budget and Program which must be equally respected.

When adapting existing buildings, it is easy to end up with a design that is in effect a collection of almost surgical interventions to update and alter the way a building can be used. The difficulty with this approach is that one intervention can look a bit out of place compared with the others and so a language of interventions needs to be formed – but can the architect use this language in every project or does a new language need to be developed for each project? Is this language something that evolves from project to project – and if so, how relevant is it to the end-users’ expectations for their individual, site-specific project.

The traditional way of dealing with this type of problem is to develop a project concept or strategy that works to pull all of the design decisions together and unifies the many facets of the finished article. But maybe the word concept is too big and too strong for residential house conversions in North London. Maybe we should use the word story or narrative here instead? What story can the project tell us? Something about the original building, something about the technology used in the renovation work and something about the way the clients want to use their space?

Is it possible to create a story that knits together ideas about materials, colour and light? Or a story about the journey that the light makes across a surface to hit a particular cup of coffee or beloved item of furniture – intertwined, maybe with messages about how the clients sit together around the dining table. Or perhaps we can think of a series of spaces designed around a domestic drama – scene setting for a dramatic lifestyle.