Growing from mother to daughter and son-in-law too turned McLean Quinlan into a family firm that is expanding its practice, combining vernacular and modern in a detailed, personal-touch approach
You can tell Fiona McLean is at home in Chelsea. As McLean Quinlan is without a formal studio in London, the owner of the practice’s latest project, Chelsea Townhouse, has kindly offered her house to do the portrait shoot and interview. The other directors, Kate Quinlan and Alastair Bowden, have joined from Winchester where the drawing studio is; McLean from Clapham. The client is milling around, but it’s McLean’s project; she is noticeably the more relaxed being photographed, chatting to us – a looser posture, more confident and surer demeanour. The client, an agent for behind-the-scenes people working in the film industry, is still effervescing about her redesigned home, even though she’s been living between there on and off for 18 months. It was completed in time for lockdown one. She repeats how she genuinely ‘would do anything for Fiona’. The portrait photoshoot takes longer than expected because the complex interplay of directional light that helps create the great architecture of the house causes shadows across the face as soon as you put a body in it.
As Bowden tells me on a video call later, McLean is usually the first point of contact for project enquiries. It comes naturally to her evidently, but it is no doubt also because McLean Quinlan is a different kind of practice. It was set up by McLean, her partner/husband Stephen Quinlan and their friend Peter Ditlef-Nielsen in the late 1970s. McLean continued under the name McLean Quinlan after Ditlef-Nielsen and Stephen left – he is currently a partner at Denton Corker Marshall. It ran like this on residential work and a few other projects like the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (1982) until 2008 when Bowden joined and then Quinlan. Kate Quinlan is McLean and Stephen Quinlan’s daughter, Bowden is Kate’s husband. Architecture often runs in families, but it’s rare that generations work in practice together and is even more unusual to be mother, daughter and son-in-law.
Between them McLean, Kate Quinlan and Bowden have worked at Basil Spence Partnership, RMJM, Buckley Gray Yeoman, Harper Mackey and InsideOut. They evolved into a family firm partly to have families themselves, working from home until the Winchester studio was set up in 2011. Now there are 12 staff. McLean is the odd one out, the ‘mothership’ as she calls it, in London. That’s what has changed over the past decade. Quinlan and Bowden have enabled the practice to expand and do more of the considered work that had developed the practice’s reputation when McLean did it alone, and in far wider locations.
‘I had always had to limit what we could take on,’ explains McLean. ‘Once we got bigger, we could take on more work, although we are still careful not to take on too much because we would lose what people like about us, the sense of dealing directly with us.’
It makes sense then that families are also McLean Quinlan’s main clientele – after all, they are experienced in making family life work. But it must be nice, as Bowden says, ‘if you are coming to have your house done for your family, to speak to another family’. There is a family of people, but also a tree of clients and projects. In the early days, there was a project called Edwardian House in Ealing in which all except the facade was demolished and a modern house built behind it; the practice recently revisited it with a light refurbishment. It is currently designing a retirement house in northern Spain for a client it had previously worked for on a house in west London.
One project, however, stands out; Devon Valley House completed in 2004. This newbuild intertwined vernacular and modern, and has become a milestone of when and how the McLean Quinlan approach truly emerged. The buildings are crafted and careful, with a warmth that is about getting the scale, materials and light right – ‘often missing in modern architecture’. This is the art honed over years that Bowden and Quinlan have almost mass marketed. Now the whole studio designs to these principles with an evolving toolbox of details that are spun between projects. The studio came in 2011; a particularly smart initiative then was to push its Aloof-designed website. The directors attribute part of the practice’s success to it.
‘It was really different to other people’s, with big images that appealed and made a difference,’ explains Bowden. ‘Now it’s Instagram as well as the website’ – its 2009 Cotswold Barn is still a Pinterest sensation.
This globalised dissemination of work has led to a growing overseas portfolio. There are two projects in Jackson’s Hole in the USA – one for a product designer for Apple, the other for a French family in the recycling business who emigrated there. A two-house project in Portugal is for friends returning from Silicon Valley. All use materials to integrate them into their settings with that modern twist, and executive architects that can more accurately steer the construction process, recruiting the right local skills. Like its UK projects, the team still designs everything to the level of internal wall elevations that detail each finish.
There is another thread, Scottishness, that runs through the practice, detectable in the McLean surname, although the studio doesn’t particularly have projects in Scotland. McLean met Stephen at university in Edinburgh; Quinlan met Bowden studying at the Glasgow School of Art. Bowden’s father is Scottish but grew up in Winchester so when they moved out of London that’s where they headed – it just so happens to have its own hub of architectural practices. McLean is Scottish, but light-heartedly dubs herself originally ‘a Chelsea Highlander’, which possibly explains the feeling at home on the photoshoot.
Perhaps this also defines the practice. There is a taste for the well-refined in the work. Everything is exquisitely detailed, bespoke made. These are not projects for light budgets. The practice says the level of work required means it can’t make projects work for less than £500,000. A lot of enquiries don’t go anywhere because the budgets aren’t suitable – the team is fortunate to be offered the bigger ones. Many projects illustrated here are circa £2 million. Often they would be second homes in the West Country like Harbour House in West Sussex for a family that loves sailing, but with Covid such commissions are becoming primary homes, requiring more storage.
Is that satisfying professionally? Yes, says Bowden, because you get to be involved in interiors to the level of a door handle, although the practice is keen to work in other areas where the fees would still be realistic because the budget is scaled up, like visitor centres or even mass housing. For now it is doing a Scout hut voluntarily for the club Quinlan and Bowden’s children attend, made from shipping containers. It will be interesting to see how the McLean Quinlan finesse carries through. The same goes for a farmhouse with a smaller budget where the firm is reusing materials found on site to contain costs and be sustainable.
Indeed, sustainability is the area that is most driving change in McLean Quinlan’s well-adapted aesthetic, yet to be really seen in its recent completed projects. Precipitated partly by the planning process for a Paragraph 131 home, the directors are rethinking many of the details developed over the past few decades with an ambition to reduce embodied carbon by looking at how bricks can be lower carbon, or avoiding concrete slabs by changing the relationship with the ground and expectations between inside and outside. Devon Villa, 2018 (RIBAJ Sept 2020), was built to Passivhaus standard, but it sounds like more radical changes are to come and the directors are starting to tell clients that it is part of what they do.
Does the family set-up work?
‘Amazingly well,’ answers Bowden. ‘People always suspect there must be fighting in the background but there’s really not, Fiona’s been great in letting us come to work with her.’ He adds that as a family they are living and building architecture all the time.
So will there be a possible next generation in the family to take it forward?
‘Ivy,’ Bowden says of his daughter, ‘would be a good interior designer, she could be that missing link.’
‘Only the other day’ says McLean. ‘I heard her say: “Who would do a cill like that?” She’s only 14.’