Wright and Wright have carved a distinctive niche for themselves with their meticulous work in historic settings
Carefully crafted libraries run like a golden thread through the 22-year history of Wright and Wright Architects. Clare and Sandy Wright, both Glasgow-born products of the Mackintosh School, started their London practice in 1994, getting established with the brick box of their Women’s Library in Whitechapel and for the lead-sheathed, steel-framed library at the Royal College of Art. Since then they have done libraries and other buildings for wealthy Oxbridge colleges – Corpus Christi in Cambridge, Magdalen and St John’s in Oxford – and now they have landed their most prestigious yet: the new library for Lambeth Palace, effectively the complete and invaluable historic archive of the Church of England, second only to the collections of the Vatican.
The Lambeth Palace commission – a free-standing textured brick building that will emerge from the Palace’s perimeter wall at the eastern end of the Archbishops’ garden, rising to an eight-storey tower – is a particular feather in the firm’s cap because it was up against some of the biggest names in European architecture in the competition. But to those who know the meticulous work of Wright and Wright in historic contexts, it is no surprise it won. You just know that they will fit the Lambeth milieu like a glove.
Libraries are not their only line of work by any means, mind. There’s tight-budget jobs such as the tough engineering-brick box of their Hull Truck Theatre, Oakfield School in Hull and Newlands Academy in London. They renewed the Renaissance Galleries at the National Gallery. They have received planning permission for an adroit reorganisation and extension of the Geffrye Museum in Hackney, that court of former almshouses which has long been a jealously guarded museum of domestic design. Nor is their university work exclusively Oxbridge: the law department at London Metropolitan University’s Whitechapel campus (linked to their Women’s Library building) is theirs, as is the intricate ongoing phased masterplan for the beating heart of British architecture, the Architectural Association on Bedford Square.
I went to see their latest completion at Magdalen just as the autumn term was about to begin. The project exemplifies their approach. A library previously stuffed into the 19th century former Magdalen School by Giles Gilbert Scott has been stripped right back to the masonry and a freestanding three-storey library box in steel and warm timber inserted into the space. Added to this, a single-storey stone-clad extension ranges around the reorganised garden quad, set against the ancient Longwall. Wall-buildings are another Wright and Wright speciality, as Sandy says when I later meet the pair in their Camden Town office. ‘We are definitely believers in the perimeter theory, of enclosing the landscape. Look at the way the Magdalen building holds the new quad.’
Sandy is the self-confessed introvert of the two, Clare the more out-and-about and voluble face of the 18-strong practice. Clare talks of Sandy’s skills in the art of making, of the fine art of joining elements together; Sandy says: ‘The catalyst is Clare’s strategic thinking.’ Both are fully signed up to fine craftsmanship. During our conversation, they pop out of the room from time to time to bring in samples: a slice of oak desk-edge, bevelled just so; cruciform stainless steel castings used for light fittings at Corpus Christi; a Hull Truck blue brick; a sheet of fine veneer Sandy has just tracked down at an East London supplier.
The origin of all this is clear: Mackintosh’s School of Art, and especially its library – that extraordinary piece of cabinet-work, furniture as much as architecture, which was lost in the fire of May 2014 but is now on track to being completely restored. After the Mack Sandy worked for a while at the great practice of Gillespie Kidd and Coia and both became huge friends of the architectural double-act of Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein. Even old Jack Coia himself dropped by from time to time, remembers Sandy – usually brought in to telephone a bishop to get more ecclesiastical work, and leaving his cigarette burning on Sandy’s drawing board as he did so.
That was the time of Robinson College Cambridge, and a bastion-like library at Wadham College Oxford. But then the practice folded, there was a recession. Clare had done her year out at RMJM but nothing else beckoned: ‘There was no work in Glasgow’. So they went south to London, first working for Rock Townsend (‘an alien culture for us,’ she recalls). Sandy joined Richard MacCormac’s practice, soon rising to partner level, while Clare moved to vertebral-modernist HKPA, with John Partridge as a generous mentor. Oxbridge was calling again. But also children: when Clare returned to work, by which time Sandy had struck out on his own, it was at the Circle 33 housing association, acting both as client – commissioning the likes of Penoyre & Prasad – and as in-house design team leader. ‘I was there for four years and learned a huge amount – I began to understand how a client works,’ she says.
Eventually, she joined Sandy in practice, the competition wins started to flow, and all that experience began to pay off. It wasn’t long before the small practice sat down to have a discussion: how to find clients who understood and would commission good and enduring architecture? They made a conscious decision to work in historic settings, on the principle that people would take more care there. This proved to be very astute, and over the next two decades Wright and Wright became – that most valuable attribute – trusted. Which means they do not have to be shy. As one of the two younger partners in the practice, Stephen Smith, puts it: ‘We are quietly radical.’ Smith and fellow partner James Taylor, along with four associates, represent the rising generation. Wright, Smith and Taylor: as Clare says, ‘We all have the names of people who make things.’
The firm operates a profit-sharing system, shares all its financial information with its staff, and has built up a capital reserve to carry it through the peaks and troughs of construction. Yes, they say, they would like to tackle larger-scale projects, but this does not seem a priority. Clare has a hankering to get more into housing – special-needs and for the elderly, subjects she and Smith have researched in some depth. And Sandy? He ponders. ‘A crematorium,’ he says. ‘It’s a growth industry. Or the Post Office. It’s lost its way. MacDonald’s is upstaging it in terms of style.’
Strange choices? Not at all. Clare explains. ‘There is something about doing a building that gives human dignity.’ They have above all a sense of the properly civic. And buildings made to last.