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Stephen Lawrence Award winners: Duggan Morris Architects

AWARD-WINNING: The facade of the house

THE STEPHEN Lawrence Award (SLA) was set up as a memorial to Stephen Lawrence’s unfulfilled ambition (due to his tragic and untimely death in 1993) of becoming an architect and is directed towards rewarding the best construction project valued at less than £1m.

Due to the level of construction value the SLA tends to identify up and coming architectural talent. The Marco Goldschmied Foundation funds the SLA and the winning project is based on a selection from a shortlist of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) regional and national prizewinners.

In 2012 the winner of the SLA was Duggan Morris Architects (DMA) with Kings Grove in Peckham, southeast London. The winning design is the family home of the partners in the practice Mary Duggan and Joe Morris.

The selection panel for the award was comprised of Stephen's mother Doreen Lawrence, Marco Goldschmied (previously a partner at the Richard Rogers Partnership, the authors of the Millennium Dome and the Lloyds buildings) and the 2011 SLA winner Phil Coffey of Phil Coffey Architects.

I met Mary and Joe at Granary Square, a new development within London’s Kings Cross region, where DMA have been in discussions with Argent, one of the main developers in the area, to speculate about briefs for projects they can collaborate on. This gives an indication of the level that DMA is now able to operate at, having steadily grown from just Mary and Joe to a size of more than 20 persons over the last 10 years.

FINANCE

I start the conversation by asking how they managed to find the site for their home.

"Completely by chance through a friend who was looking for a quick sale to finance an alternative larger development… we bought it with consents (agreement with the local authority for building a family house on that site) in place," says Mary.

"We felt strongly that a landmark building response was not appropriate for this site."

The site used to contain a plaster-mouldings workshop and storage yard.

They describe the house as "a brick shoebox" slung transversely across the back of a series of Victorian terrace house gardens, which is reached by a narrow lane. The modesty of this description of their home is deceptive, as the house is a simple and elegant design.

Through talking to Mary and Joe, you realise that this "shoebox" is the outcome of a sophisticated and rigorous design process, and DMA are keen to stress that process is what they focus on.

"We don’t have a specialist sector, we specialise in process," says Joe, "you go to site, have a response, you try something… then you iterate, filtering through a pool of ideas until something bubbles up from the bottom."

One of their first responses to the site was to use brick as a key element of the building.

Brick was the answer to the question, "how do we make the house robust, durable and an essence of something that already existed?"

The brick references existing building stock in Peckham and is used to clad the outside and the inside of the building. It gives the house a feel and scale that fits its context naturally.

"Almost a form of camouflage,’ says Mary, "reading the brick of the house against a Victorian brick backdrop does make sense."

Brick and glass meet where large, seamless windows form the front and rear faces of the house and allow light into the core of the home through a central light well.

"We worked really hard to create windows without any external site lines," continues Mary, "so that the glass meets the brick (without framed edges)… then you read just the brick and the superstructure and proportions of the house."

The interior of the house is arranged as a series of continuous living spaces from the ground floor connecting upwards through to two bedrooms. The house is essentially one single volume that DMA call a "mono-space".

This approach of "a simple brick box exterior which contains a fully connected, free-flowing space… where function is expressed volumetrically" has, according to Joe, planted a seed for ideas that are now being explored within other projects in the practice such as the Maudsley Learning Centre in Richmond (a mental healthcare building).

The conversation moves on to discuss the impact that architectural awards and competitions had on the development of their practice. With some competition systems there is always the potential for exploitation by clients. This is not just in the case of younger inexperienced practices but also for older more established ones. In fact Rem Koolhaus (an international prizewinning architect) has frequently gone on record complaining that it is the only situation where clients can have "a beauty parade of architectural talent and ideas" to select from and then sack everybody in the room.

COMPETITION

DMA are now in a position where they are selected for competition but this was not always the case. In most instances they now see competitions with challenging briefs as a positive thing.

"[It is] a way of trying to win projects they have allowed us to broaden our horizons, bring in new consultants and artists to collaborate with and to work in different sectors and also to develop processes and ideas that we have used in real commissions," says Mary.

However, Joe adds: "To give you a measured, balanced argument there are an incredible number of competitions that aren’t run with professionalism, don’t have comprehensive guidelines, aren’t thorough enough… and take advantage of young and developing practices who are vulnerable and lots of clients know that."

Their thoughts on the awards programme are another matter. "It can give potential recognition to projects and architects that would not be recognised otherwise. It can also create an opportunity or a starting point for you to critically engage with your own work through other people, that for a small practice you might not otherwise get," Joe explains.

After having been through the SLA selection process last year, Mary has now replaced Phil Coffey on the SLA judging panel this year.

What would Mary be looking for in an SLA winner?

She says: "After we won the SLA last year I asked Doreen how old Stephen would now be and she said he would be 39, and I thought how brave is this woman to just carry on this legacy knowing that her son had this aspiration to work as an architect, to set up this award that is sort of tracking her son’s ambition.

"So for me it is going to be about recognising emerging talent, that there is a younger generation out there that is trying really hard… about meeting the architects and assessing their ambition, understanding what that means for them in the context of their practice to produce successful buildings… the projects are all incredible this year, but the SLA has got an extra layer, it is very much tied into people’s emotions through Stephen Lawrence… beyond architecture."

Through DMA, Mary and Joe have created a practice with a design process that allows them to question, at a deeper level than most, what a project could be and to achieve an integrity in their architectural response which sets them apart.

It seems likely that as a practice they will continue to live up to the benchmark of excellence and ambition that the Kings Grove project has set for them - fulfilling the essence of what Stephen Lawrence’s legacy is about.

Antony Davis is an associate at Hawkins Brown

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