The young ones

Hugh Pearman and a few of this issue’s guest editors – Je Ahn, Maria Smith, Fran Edgerley and Pernilla Ohrstedt – talked over a pint about architecture, pop-ups, fashion and crazy schemes.

It’s not easy getting going in practice these days. Architects increasingly have to think laterally and work in other areas while tracking down commissions. Maybe that tells us something. Maybe the days of the conventional buildings-only practice are numbered. So I invited people from three of the young enterprises represented in this issue to discuss what they are, and what they want to be. We went to the pub, naturally, a proper old London boozer with a coal fire, the William IV in north Shoreditch. William IV, entirely coincidentally, was the reigning monarch when the RIBA was founded in 1834, and granted its Royal Charter in 1837, the year he died. None of us made the connection when we met: in the photos his portrait stares down at us from over the fireplace. There’s psychogeography for you.

Taking part were Je Ahn and Maria Smith of Studio Weave (Littlehampton’s seaside ‘Longest bench’, Aldgate’s ‘Paleys upon Pilers’); Fran Edgerley of Assemble, the collaborative practice of young artists, designers and architects, many still students (Cineroleum, Folly for a Flyover, Lina Bo Bardi exhibition for the British Council); and Pernilla Ohrstedt, who with Asif Khan designed the Coca-Cola Beatbox Pavilion at the 2012 Olympics. 

Their work varies widely. Six-strong Studio Weave’s work ranges from art installations and strategies to urban high street refurbishment and office design, plus it has developed new street furniture for the Barbican. Assemble, known for its temporary self-funded projects and still broadly a fluid student collective of up to 25 people (including bar staff) with a core of around 11, is designing a dance rehearsal space in Harrow-on-the-Hill, developing artists’ studios near its Hackney base and refurbishing its own studio and restaurant along with advising on an east London community project. Pernilla Ohrstedt, a sole practitioner who brings people in as needed – her collaboration with Khan involved an office of six – is working in the world of housing and fashion and was recently shortlisted in the competition to design a new cafe for Duke of York’s Square near London’s Saatchi Gallery.

 

Je Ahn (left) and Maria Smith of Studio Weave
Je Ahn (left) and Maria Smith of Studio Weave

As Edgerley puts it, apropos of getting the Assemble office organised: ‘We have a kind of buddy system in our management structure, we spend a lot of time attempting to manage ourselves but it’s all incredibly new so we’re just seeing what works and what doesn’t.’ Nor are the members of Assemble, who mostly met at Cambridge, necessarily all architecture students – Edgerley herself isn’t, having studied philosophy, psychology and physiology. ‘I was interested in fabrication,’ she says by way of explanation, and she put in a summer stint at America’s Rural Studio.

Studio Weave operates in a more conventional partners-in-architectural-practice manner while for Ohrstedt, it’s all to do with getting the right team together for each job. ‘I can bring in a team that’s skilled and right for the project , as opposed to having big overheads. It’s flexible and means I can be very project-specific.’

The discussion turns to the pros and cons of temporary structures. Ohrstedt is broadly in favour – after, all, she points out, last summer’s wildly successful Olympics in London were mostly all about the temporary – but she concedes the temporary/permanent approach needs some scrutiny, not least from a sustainability angle. ‘And let’s not forget the Eiffel Tower, which was meant to be temporary,’ says Smith. With the design life of some ‘permanent’ City of London buildings now coming down to 20 or even 15 years according to Je Ahn, it’s not as if the boundaries aren’t blurred anyway. 

It’s more a simple matter of typecasting, says Smith. ‘Whatever your first project happens to have been, that’s what you’ve proved you can deliver, so that brings in the next client.’ So if that’s a pop-up, you’ll do more pop-ups. But that can be fine if your client is yourself, as it often is with Assemble. The genesis of their first project – the Cineroleum, a temporary cinema made from a disused petrol station – was just boredom, says Edgerley – students bored after sitting at screens during their years out, and wanting to get physical with a live self-built project. With sponsorship and ticket sales, it covered its costs with just enough over for a nice dinner for everyone who had made it happen. 

So what next for them all? What do they want to be? This gets them pondering – by this stage in the discussion we move on from tea to beer, the group preference being for pints of Timothy Taylor. Je Ahn of Studio Weave has a confession to make: ‘I secretly really, really, love office design. I love its efficiencies, it’s a lot harder than people give credit for. It’s one of the most difficult things to do. There’s something about it.’ To which his partner Smith – who says she is more attuned to public projects and housing – adds: ‘I hope we’ll still do tiny crazy projects, but also big crazy projects.’ 

Pernilla Ohrstedt (left) with Fran Edgerley  of Assemble
Pernilla Ohrstedt (left) with Fran Edgerley of Assemble

‘­Working between disciplines is a way of generating projects that don’t come from the same limited pool. Works normally done by set designers, for instance, are interesting when architects do them’

Ohrstedt says: ‘I work quite a lot between disciplines – art, fashion, design – and I want to keep doing that – to get jobs that are not normally done by architects but by other disciplines. It’s a way of generating projects that don’t come from the same limited pool. Works normally done by set designers, for instance, are interesting when architects do them.’

Assemble’s Edgerley already has a business head on despite her laid-back image. ‘Property and selling alcohol are the only two ways to make money,’ she declares, not wholly seriously. ‘We’re going to move into that.’ Well, they’ve done the selling alcohol with their own restaurant. They self-generate projects. It’s a natural evolution to start being a developer. Because, as Smith says, in the words of architects down the ages: ‘The amount of time we spend on our work is about double what we can charge for it.’