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Countryside commission

Hugh Pearman

Theis and Khan have left their uber-urban Shoreditch development for the calmer rurbanian comforts of Tunbridge Wells. In this age of computerised comms, it’s not made a scrap of difference to their clients in the capital

Latest in a line  of churches is this ‘paper  scroll’ design with cloister, and  an associated community centre and housing, in the home counties
Latest in a line of churches is this ‘paper scroll’ design with cloister, and an associated community centre and housing, in the home counties

The last time I met Patrick Theis and Soraya Khan at work, it was in their Stirling Prize-shortlisted home in Shoreditch, London – more than a home, in fact, a complete development which also included their office, flats for rent, and an art gallery (RIBAJ, October 2010). These were entrepreneurial urban architects, plainly, but even then there was the sense that the development on Bateman’s Row – which when conceived in 2000 was in a very run-down postindustrial area – had been overtaken by the meteoric rise of Shoreditch as a hipster hangout.  Bateman’s Row had been an outlier of this change, a decade in the making. It was quite some achievement. But for a family rapidly growing up (their children are now 24, 21, 16 and 10), this location was becoming noisily problematic. 

This is why I am now walking up stone-cobbled Frog Lane in Kent’s  Tunbridge Wells, which runs up a steep hill from the bottom of the High Street and which, on a hot sunny day, looks almost Mediterranean. This is where you will find the office of Theis and Khan these days – six people including them, with another about to join, in one rented studio space tucked away up this alley. Nearby are the venerable and picturesque pedestrian enclaves of Chapel Place and the Pantiles. The family home is now way out in the Sussex Wealden countryside, a 1920s timber-built farmhouse on a promontory into a flooded valley, Bewl Water, which acts as a reservoir. The contrast with their previous life is extreme. 

By coincidence this was once my home town, so I know how the place has developed. The now-thriving High Street, full of high-end fashion stores and cafes, was not so long ago commercially half dead, as was the Pantiles precinct with its rust-flavoured supposedly healthful mineral spring which brought the town into existence. (The Pantiles was arguably the world’s first pedestrianised shopping precinct, dating from the 17th century: the name has nothing whatever to do with roofing pantiles, referring instead to their original square paviours). Shopping had migrated to the northern end of the town. Now the specialist chains (including Cath Kidston, inevitably) and the independents have put right that imbalance. But for the prominent blight of a long-abandoned cinema complex right in the heart of the town, its redevelopment endlessly delayed since a 2009 competition won by Panter Hudspith and a change of owner, there is a general air of prosperity. Tunbridge Wells has broadly changed from being a fading off-pitch former spa town famous for outraged retired military types into a busy M25 corridor town, an hour by train from London. It’s a part of the world that drew artist Grayson Perry for one of his TV explorations of taste last year. Even so, as Theis and Khan say, the overheads here are tiny compared to London – and their staff are divided between those from the locality and those who reverse-commute from the capital.  

‘We moved the family down in September 2011 – we’d found an interesting house, on an extraordinary site, and that’s what triggered it, really,’ says Theis. ‘As with Bateman’s Row in London, the office followed the family.’ Khan adds: ‘It’s a – shed. Like a wooden cabin on a peninsula.’ I think it’s rather grander than that; it’s two houses knocked together. But being way out in the sticks had work implications. For a year they kept their office in London, then moved it briefly to the Sussex house before finding the studio in more accessible Tunbridge Wells – to make things easier for their staff but also, as Khan admits, ‘It’s just great to get away from the house.’ They are now considering getting to grips with retro-fitting that house while simultaneously pondering a mixed-use development in Tunbridge Wells which sounds a bit like Bateman’s Row. Theis and Khan, it would appear, do like a project. And the move from London proved less problematic than they expected. ‘The year we kept the office in London, unless we had a meeting, we just worked from home,’ says Theis. ‘We had email, remote access to our server, Skype calls: we realised our profession is incredibly flexible, really.’

‘We asked the client of the West London house if he minded us being so far out, and it turned out that the QS is from Brighton, and the M&E guy comes from somewhere in Bedfordshire. So no, he didn’t mind’

We did canvas our clients about the move, and whether it would affect their perception of us,’ says Khan. ‘They weren’t bothered, which made the adjustment easier.’ Now, when going to meetings in London, they inevitably find themselves designing on the train. ‘We don’t make any issue of it,’ explains Theis. ‘We turn up to meetings on time. We don’t say, sorry, the trains were late. We asked the client of the West London house if he minded, and it turned out that the QS is from Brighton, and the M&E guy comes from somewhere in Bedfordshire. So no, he didn’t mind. Perhaps the clever clients choose people where they’re not funding their expensive central London office.’

Two artists’ studios and a house in an enclosed Holloway yard.
Two artists’ studios and a house in an enclosed Holloway yard.

Readers based in the UK’s regional cities, or the remoter rural fastnesses of the UK, might regard this little move from London to Kent/Sussex as a small affair. So it is in distance terms – just 40 miles to the office, 50 to the house. And yet, as many south-eastern based architects have discovered, in a way it’s harder being close to London – but not in it – than it is being hundreds of miles away, such is the gravitational pull of the capital and its sheer density of rival architects. So they have their own regional market. Theis and Khan, then, are in interesting territory here. They have their projects in London and the M25 corridor – but might they develop a parallel rural practice?

The work at the moment includes a pair of big new houses – one in Surrey’s Green Belt (addition to a refurbished listed barn), one a huge conversion and extension in Notting Hill, completely new behind the front and side facades. Both have the basement swimming pool/spa that now seems de rigueur for the wealthy. There are two new churches (a continuing strand in their work) for the United Reform Church in the home counties, with associated housing. Back in London they are working up a compact studio/house arrangement in a landlocked yard off the Holloway Road for a pair of well-known local artists, and they are doing a Chinese community centre in Bloomsbury.

Top of the heap in West London – house with a basement pod.
Top of the heap in West London – house with a basement pod.

The Tunbridge Wells architectural community immediately embraced them, they say – no sense of resentment at the high-profile Londoners. ‘The week we moved down, we had a knock on the door from the local RIBA and one of the larger practices here, to welcome us, which was rather nice. They were getting all the architects and designers together to look at various sites around town.’

‘They called them grotspots’, says Khan – adding with the voice of Shoreditch experience, ‘It’s all relative.’ This was a ‘Forgotten Spaces’-style exercise in blue-sky proposals for awkward corners of town which then got displayed in an empty shop unit. Theis and Khan presented an idea for a small university on the site of a particularly lacklustre 1960s office site adjoining the Pantiles. The area is full of excellent schools, but then students leave to study elsewhere. 

Theis and Khan are also, in a way, as other architects such as Paxton Locher used to be, property developers. That’s how Bateman’s Row came to be – and though they have sold their remarkable house there, they remain freeholders and have kept control of another rented flat and the two commercial units. It’s not a bad way to operate, and it’s going to continue. ‘We’re starting to think about doing it again down here. This office is a stopgap. We’ll probably be here for three years and we’ll see what crops up.’

Happenstance, it seems, guides what Theis and Khan do but they keep their eyes open for opportunities. You just know something will crop up for them to self-develop again.  And that when it happens, it is going to be more than a little interesting.