Thinking big has proved to be a winning approach for a practice that refuses to be constrained by being small
Gayle Appleyard and Steve Gittner of Gagarin Studio see no reason why a small practice should think small just because it is regionally-based. A glance at the jobs recently completed or under way at the firm shows an impressive variation both in scale and type. This ranges from excellent domestic work – including a ‘Paragraph 79’ one-off moorland house – via a £4 million youth cultural centre and a complete mill conversion – to a sculptural 55m long Corten footbridge across the River Aire in Leeds, fabricated in Albania.
Everyone asks – why the name? I’m no exception, wondering what the eponymous Soviet cosmonaut, first man into space, has got to do with the mill town of Halifax where (among much else) they make Quality Street sweets. In case you think they inhabit some kind of retro-tech capsule equipped with flashing push-buttons, they don’t: the studio is in a wing of a lofty stone-built listed Victorian schoolhouse-turned-workspace, Causey Hall, in the town’s central conservation area. No, the name turns out to be to do with launching yourself boldly into the unknown. ‘Gagarin has always been a hero,’ says Gittner. ‘It felt like a brave thing to do, setting up a small practice in a Northern town during a recession.’ That was six years ago, and they were pondering it around the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s first spaceflight in 1961. The world was still fighting its way out of the consequences of the financial crash. There is also a complicated bolted-on acronym in there – Gittner, Appleyard-Gittner, ARchitecture and INteriors – but let’s stick with Yuri, shall we?
Appleyard, RCA-trained and specialising in interiors, conversions and project management, cut her teeth working in London for a number of practices including Eva Jiricna, and set up her first firm, Red Apple, there. Later she turned more to teaching, and was senior lecturer at Leeds Met for a number of years. Now she’s firmly back in practice. Gittner’s London experience was with Powell Tuck Associates in London – lots of cultural, workplace and high-end residential work there – and then as an associate with StudioBaad in Hebden Bridge. Both of them have loads of experience in working with existing buildings which is, let’s face it, the way forward at a time when we need to marshall our use of resources very carefully and make the most of existing embodied energy.
I’m looking forward to a chance to check out their Thorney Barn, completed late last autumn overlooking the Luddenden Valley in West Yorkshire. It started out as a derelict barn and is now a muscular home designed down to every last detail. Some radical alterations and additions were required but the strength of the old building comes through. So far it has picked up a local award but I’d expect more. In contrast another house on the moors in a rural hamlet six miles from Halifax, this time all-new, is seeking planning permission under Para 79 for exceptional cases. Designed in detail, it is based on the precedent in the area of wealthy medieval 'yeoman clothier' houses ‘The idea is that building a farmhouse in this setting isn’t unusual – and the client is a farmer,’ says Appleyard.
Old Town Mills, on the other hand, is a classic conversion-and-newbuild job of a former mid 19th century textile mill overlooking Hebden Bridge, achieved by working with a small-developer client under the eye of Historic England. The project will see 25 homes, five of them new-build, with other uses. It’s an atmospherically derelict place and so – with an eye to the backdrop possibilities of their projects – the practice chose it as the location for its latest studio photoshoot in which the dog Shep takes a starring role.
The bridge over the Aire, with its concertina-like slats of facetted Corten, designed in collaboration with engineer DP2, is a very different kind of object which may well send the practice off in a new direction. Meanwhile its IOU arts venue in Halifax’s Dean Clough mills complex attracted the attention of the British Construction Industry Award judges and it got to the finals of the cultural category. The Civic Trust Awards recognised its Orange Box Young People’s Centre in Halifax – a very civic-minded urban move which Gittner started off as a StudioBaad project and completed as Gagarin. Summary: for a six-year old practice with five people, Gagarin Studio is already winning.