Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Young and refreshing, 6a has confidence beyond its years

6a’s MK Gallery, about to go on site.
6a’s MK Gallery, about to go on site.

It’s an unexpected mark of the confidence of an architectural office that it happily talks at length about another one; but then, with 6a architects we’re not talking about an ordinary office. We’re not even sitting in its current office but its former one; which, over time, accretion and the conscious revealing of its past layers, has morphed into both partners’ home. Within its 19th century boundary walls it’s light and warm, a Gehry-like timber extension here, a Dan Pearson courtyard space there. A stack of timber skirtings in the kitchen seems to be waiting for an as yet unbuilt wall and Tom Emerson, one half of the two-partner practice, has just disappeared up an aluminium scaffold stair to look for a book. Stephanie Macdonald tells me it had been ‘a temporary measure but it felt right so ended up staying.’ Unlike the highly conscious nature of 6a’s output, its own space seems, on the surface, delightfully contingent.

We were discussing the work of Flemish practice De Vylder Vinck Taillieu, whom Emerson befriended at Zurich University’s ETH before they ever worked together. ‘They joke that our home is like a doppelganger of theirs,’ Emerson says. ‘When Jan (de Vylder) came over he said, “Gosh, this is just like our place.” “What, the architecture?” I asked and he replied, “No – the mess!”’ 6a’s self-effacing nature is part of its indefatigable charm.

But there’s neither disorder or contingency in the firm’s upward trajectory – the result of recent awards and successes – not least its work with dVVT with whom its been shortlisted both for the Antwerp Maritime Museum and the 25,000m2, €125 million Citroën Cultural Centre in Brussels. It seems a far cry from the tiny, precious, grade I-listed Raven Row gallery in London’s Shoreditch, that brought it to prominence 10 years ago. Macdonald acknowledges that without the faith their initial institutional clients, like the South London Gallery and, more recently, Milton Keynes’ MK Gallery had shown them, they’d never have been considered for these serious commissions against big-hitters like Diller, Scofidio+ Renfro and OMA.

But then 6a seems unwilling to make any distinction between the nature or scale of its projects. MK Gallery, going on site this month, ‘is a big steel shed with a massive round window,’ says Emerson, and while it’s clearly not ‘as forensic’ as Raven Row, he sees them as very much of the same semantic stable; one wrought delicately from historical fragments, the other by the big grid thinking of the modern American city, though ‘ultimately they’re both products of a context and budget.’ Likewise, while noting how fortunate they’ve been to work with enlightened clients, even their singular natures seem to be unifying rather than divisive. Emerson recalls a time when ‘in the morning we’d be meeting a few quirky Cambridge dons for Cowan Court and in the afternoon have ideas bounced off us by Juergen Teller.’ But 6a saw no schism there, or any difference in values. ‘Oddly, if we’d put the lot in a room, I imagine they’d get on famously – they’re all on some kind of edge,’ remarks Macdonald wryly. You feel that a healthy client dynamic is key to how 6a generate work.

Courtyard in Juergen Teller’s studio.
Courtyard in Juergen Teller’s studio.

But the adulation that follows awards seems almost antithetical for the office – the Teller studio Stirling shortlisting was six years in the making and Cowan Court’s RIBA Award nearly 10; instead the pair are more absorbed with future work – their Hamburg Hafen City housing or a new contemporary art space in New York – though they acknowledge that ‘awards have seen us added to shortlists we have otherwise never managed to get on.’ But the value of awards in recognising the input of clients in the design process doesn’t pass them by either. Speaking of their arts clients, Emerson feels: ‘It brings attention and visibility to them as institutions, which is crucial now.’ What is noticeable, however, is the similar level of attention they allocate to everything they touch. A mixed-use social enterprise tower proposal in a regenerating area of Melbourne – ‘we got offered it precisely because we’d never done a tower’ – for an enlightened arts client gets the same time as an old gymnasium refurb they’re doing, almost as a favour. Macdonald talks excitedly of a collaboration here with artist Caragh Thuring for a ceramic wall entrance. Perhaps what keeps 6a thrilled by what might come out of experimentation and collaboration is that early and continued link with academia. ‘Like the Paul Smith shop we could have designed the facade,’ says Macdonald, ‘but we felt this little project was about stepping back, letting go and handing it over to Caragh ; it just seemed more appropriate.’ Confidence indeed.

30 - RIBA 2017 Stirling Prize shortlist: Studio for Juergen Teller

25 - RIBA National: Studio for Juergen Teller

20 - RIBA Regional:  Studio for Juergen Teller

20 - RIBA Regional: Cowan Court, Churchill College, Cambridge

20 - Wood Awards overall winner: Coastal house, Devon

15 - Wood Awards category winner: Coastal house, Devon

10 - Wood Awards commendation: Cowan Court, Churchill College, Cambridge