Generation game: the influence of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Profile: Feilden Fowles

Offspring following their parents down the same professional tracks isn’t unusual, but it may not come as a surprise that Fergus Feilden thought twice before committing to an architecture degree given the reputation of his father, Richard Feilden. Even when at Cambridge University the younger Feilden didn’t immediately take to the architecture course. ‘I was conflicted, but, I grew into it,’ he says. It was here that he met Edmund Fowles, the co-founder of Feilden Fowles. They graduated in 2005 — the year of his father’s untimely death — ‘officially’ opening their practice in 2010.

Those initial frustrations partially originated from his early introduction to building culture, within the bohemian and semi-hippy family set up. ‘It was integrated into my whole childhood.’ His childhood included living in a shared household with the Cleggs and two other families in a tiny village north of Bath. Feilden junior remembers a childhood of ‘moving around, building all the time, going into the woods with bands of boys to make stuff there.’ Along with tracing his love of making and building back to a free-range childhood, Feilden unsurprisingly also underlines FCBS as wholly formative. Feilden says: ‘At the social level, seeing the culture was definitely inspiring. Being around that culture was really important.’

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s Ralph Allen School Environmental Building in Bath (2014)Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s Ralph Allen School Environmental Building in Bath (2014)

Feilden and Fowles were already working on what would become their first project — the Ty Pren farmhouse within the mid-Wales PenPont estate — while still in their last year at Cambridge, where a critical influence was 6a architects’ co-founder Tom Emerson. Final-year research focused on tests on the cladding system the two had developed for the farmhouse, including a slate roof that prefigures fellow Cambridge-ites Assemble’s experiments in cladding, both illustrations of the hold of materiality and making on young architects at the time. The finished building — at least from website pictures — conveys the stripped-down, clean-lined and austere simplicity that has become de rigour over the past decade, with Feilden also acknowledging the influence of the Scottish practice Dualchas Architects.

FeildenFowles Ty Pren house in wales (2012)Feilden Fowles Ty Pren house in wales (2012)

Feilden Fowles’ next project — Bude Barn, north Devon (2013) — drew ‘on the vernacular in a good, simple way and we got to work with cob,’ the natural building material made from subsoil, water, some kind of fibrous organic material (typically straw), and sometimes lime. Larger, more recent projects find them experimenting with CLT. The earth theme was developed further with the Lee Centre (2013), at his old school, the Ralph Allen Comprehensive, in Bath, with an internal rammed earth wall on the north face. And, waiting to go on site this year, there’s the rammed-earth new gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park ‘to connect in with earth art’, says Feilden excitedly while acknowledging the material is proving more complicated than originally anticipated.

Feilden Fowles planned rammed earth gallery for the Yorkshire Sculpture ParkFeilden Fowles planned rammed earth gallery for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

While growth and larger projects have pulled the now 12-person practice away from the hands-on approach in the past few years, Feilden says there’s been a resurgence of building at the practice since completing its own studio at a city farm in Waterloo. It’s a partial self-build, with fellow ex-Cambridge architect turned oak framer and carpenter, Alex Thomas, running the project. Feilden sounds as if he hopes that they’ll be able to keep things small enough to continue working directly on building, as when he was a child.

Profile: Stonewood Design

Stonewood Design’s small office is at the edge of the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe. Such a rural setting seems fitting for a studio that has focused on traditional restoration, conversions and restrained interventions of older buildings amid the rolling Cotswold’s countryside, villages and small towns that pepper a region that once you leave the M4 corridor, can seem quite far from the modern world.

Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)
Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)

Of course it is not as simple as that. Matt Vaudin, one half of Stonewood Design — South African Nicola du Pisanie is the other half,in both senses of the phrase — explains that the studio is an offshoot of Stonewood Builders, a local conservation and traditional building company. It was set up by two ‘scholar-builders’, Vaudin’s phrase, including Neil Aitkenhead, a contemporary of Peter Clegg. Stonewood Builders was well established, when after working on a project in 2010, du Pisanie got into a conversation about starting a sister architecture and design company. ‘She saw the opportunity, and said in effect, “let’s go and take on the world,”’ says Vaudin. He joined two years later.

Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)
Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)

Prior to the move the couple had been at FCBS for a decade where Vaudin worked with Studio 1 leader, Jo Wright, on a series of passive solar projects that turned office design-thinking upside down: the National Trust’s Heelis and Woodland Trusts headquarters (2010), and the Hive, Worcester Library (2012). It’s a change from FCBS, says Vaudin, adding ‘it’s been a steep learning curve, to work on timber trusses, when we don’t know anything about the structures. We’ve had to learn a different language.’

The practice has gone from strength to strength, not that it chased this, he says: ‘It’s been a series of accidents; we’ve not been consciously ambitious.’ He acknowledges how nearly a decade at FCBS helped considerably: ‘We know lots of people,’ but adds, ‘We’ve had to earn our stripes.’ The practice knew it had arrived, when FCBS asked it to do the refit of the Bath Brewery studios.

Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)
Stonewood Design’s Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio (2014)

Stonewood Design’s national emergence has been on the back of two projects that received a good deal of attention: the Pod Gallery in Chippenham (2015) and a small if visually dramatic domestic intervention at Myrtle Cottage (2014), which won a regional RIBA South West regional award and national award. Vaudin describes the Pod Gallery, as ‘a timber pod in a stone barn’. It feels, he adds, almost like a ship in such a setting.

With an undulating roof, ‘this building within a building is more connected to the outside’. It was also ‘very hard to draw’ and a ‘reversible intervention’, playing with the conventions of barn conversions. In terms of moving on from large, deep-plan offices into small projects and from FCB to Stonewood, it ‘was a step back — doing something we wanted to do’.

Vaudin admits to initially wondering if stepping into this new direction would consign him to a life of designing garden sheds, but further ex-FCBS staff joining and a string of awards have helped, and two larger projects are in their early stages: a museum in Somerset and Kingswood School in Bath, completely decked out in timber shingles cladding.

Profile: Millar Howard Workshop

The distance between Bath and Stroud is 30 miles, less than an hour’s drive cross-country. When FeildenClegg was starting out in the early Eighties, some of its first work came from in and around the Stroud neighbourhood, an town with an alternative and green reputation.

That’s a partial reason to see the young Millar Howard Workshop, working out of Stroud’s nearby neighbour, the industrial valley town of Chalford, as part of this story of younger generation FeildenClegg related and inspired practices.

With its directors in their mid-thirties, Tomas Millar and Tom Howard are very much caught up in the same maker conversation as the other practices, as well as citing FeildenClegg as a key inspiration. Add to this that both Millar and his father, part-time architect and software designer, Dave Wilson, have crossed paths with FCBS: Millar spent a week as a teenage intern in the Bath office, playing with the new-fangled computers, his father having taught him programming from an early age. His father, Wilson was in the same year at Cambridge as Feilden and Clegg, before heading for post-graduate studies at the AA.

Yet it’s the way Millar talks about the FeildenClegg ‘mythology’ that really illustrates the affinity: ‘My dad told me that Richard Feilden put up adverts in the local post office. That’s part of the FeildenClegg myth, just going ahead and doing it,’ says Millar.

Treehouse and home in Dursley by Millar Howard WorkshopTreehouse and home in Dursley by Millar Howard Workshop

The myth cut across his student days at Edinburgh, not a completely happy time, where he questioned the way architecture was taught and whether the hoops he was required to jump through — RIBA exams and other accreditation — were what the experience of architecture should be about. He left the city for the British Columbia archipelago in Canada, where he had spent time as a child. The reason was to discover whether his memories of the freewheeling, hippy building culture he’d witnessed was as utopian — ‘a place where there weren’t any rules’ — and practical as he recalled. The visit didn’t let him down. The buildings he came across were inspiring but they also told him something else: ‘You could go out and just start building. Nothing was stopping you. People were just doing it.’ It was a lesson that Edinburgh hadn’t engaged with, let alone taught him.

‘I was really interested in going back to BC, to the islands specifically. There were no police on Hornby Island or the others in the Seventies, with land shared by the community. And just one shop,’ Millar says. Nor, at least in the Seventies, were there building regulations on Hornby Island. ‘People did what they wanted. There were three key tools: a JCB, a nail gun and a chainsaw.’ Both Hornby Island and the FeildenClegg were huge confidence builders, giving permission in the way Edinburgh hadn’t. ‘Before that I didn’t see a way into doing this, and then I began to develop a language and a style.

FeildenClegg, like BC, helped me think “we can do this”.’ Millar — and Howard’s — early wild years included further adventures, Howard working as an intern for Geoffrey Bouwa in Sri Lanka, part 2s at The Bartlett, and Helsinki’s Wood Studio; for Millar after two years of the fast life came an eventual part 3 in a commercial practice working for stars such as Stella McCartney, YBAs and Ruby Wax, followed by a return to Stroud. Howard made the journey back soon after.

Paulmead Treehouse in the Cotswoldsby Miller Howard WorkshopPaulmead Treehouse in the Cotswoldsby Miller Howard Workshop

These days some of MillarHoward Workshop work fuses both the Cotswolds and BC island culture vernacular. Its projects range across high-end residential to some smaller educational and public buildings. You get some sense of the wild times spent in BC in two rather different tree houses: its recent Dursley Tree House (2016) and the older, warmly eccentric Paulmead Tree House (2013), sitting alongside much more conventional houses, tastefully built down to the Cotswolds’ stone finishes.

Still, there’s an unsurprising restlessness and ambition to Millar to move up several notches. It comes through in the 2012 Olympics Car Park and, much more recently, a wooden stadium for Stroud’s football team, Forest Green Rovers, won by Zaha Hadid. It is the practice’s first adventure into timber. Millar’s tech side is hardly sated, with a VR research project that, he believes, could be a game changer. That ambition is equally present in his fretting about the latest generation, the Assembles, the Public Works, and We Did Thises, that have presided over ‘the rebirth of the leftover and of forgotten spaces’, he says. They are ‘constantly trying to find the crack’, in the marginal edges of places, which, he claims, expresses a lack of ambition. ‘A whole generation has been given over to occupying those left-over spaces. Who’s told them that those are the only places to occupy?’

And then he’s off again talking of the power of building. ‘It’s empowering — especially for architects where you’re so distant from the final product.’ Building as work experience is part if it; the focus isn’t as important as the act. ‘It’s almost connected to computer start-up thinking. I keep on saying to young students and interns, “While you’re young and enthusiastic, do it. Don’t wait. Don’t wait to be invited. Seven years is a long time. to wait”.’

Project: The Observatory by FCBS

The Observatory differs from the others profiled here in that it is a craft-inflected project, rather than a maker-informed studio. The Observatory was a design competition project, which helped crystallise a young group of architects recently arrived at the London office of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio into a team that entered and then won the competition.

It’s also a vivid example of the support and encouragement, as well as the heavyweight back-up, that FCBS gives from time to time to help its younger staff along their way. Conceived as an educational project by cultural projects agency SPUD, the Observatory was launched outside Winchester in January 2015, and since then has been moving from one site to the next, and is at Bucklers Hard, Beaulieu until June.

Nomadic building - The Observatory, in early morning sunlight. Image Credit: Feilden Clegg Bradley StudiosNomadic building - The Observatory, in early morning sunlight. Image Credit: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The competition called for a small, easily movable, sculptural installation, able to be used by artists producing projects in and from the installation, engaging children and the general public, with a particular focus on visiting school groups. The young team of new FCBS staff comprises Charlotte Knight, Mina Gospavic, Ross Galtress and Lauren Shevills, all in their mid-20s, although it is the friendship between Knight and artist Edward Crumpton (they both were at school together in Devon) that made the idea of submitting an entry to the competition possible.

It was Crumpton who spotted the SPUD commission, leading him to contact Knight, who brought in her colleagues and together began to fashion a proposal. In an indication of how thorough maker culture has spilled into the current generation’s imagination, Crumpton had become immersed in the local fishing industry’s rope-making traditions, which soon became a key design element. The team proposed two small cabins, one for artists to work in, the other to be used for workshops.

They were also to be placed on rotating rails, to turn 360 degrees, the better to experience the landscapes and weather. ‘It’s a very contemporary architecture and organic in form,’ says Knight of the design, which received a further maker/material treatment: charring the cabin’s external timber using the Japanese Shou Sugi Ban technique at Knight’s parents’ farm in Devon. The technique, popularised by Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori, has since been doing the rounds of architecture schools and young practices. After a Crumpton-led class in rope making, strands of tarred marlin rope and knots were woven across the structure’s openings and window spaces. Caught in the right light the rope textiles make for an atmospheric and even elemental counterpoint to the charred black rain-screen walls.

Knight and her team are a decade younger than the others whose practices are gaining traction and visibility at present, as well as evidence of the continuing resilience in maker culture among a younger generation. Likewise Knight’s enthusiasm for working at FCBS offers an insight into the enduring appeal of the practice to young students. ‘My three main interests are craft and making, sustainability and architecture. These all tied into my work, and my interests fitted perfectly with FCBS.’

Nomadic building - The Observatory, in early morning sunlight. Image Credit: Feilden Clegg Bradley StudiosNomadic building - The Observatory, in early morning sunlight. Image Credit: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The Observatory is an example of how FCBS has continued to engage in contemporary forms of making as it has grown. It can also be found in the humanitarian work of the Richard Feilden Foundation, in hands-on, school-build projects in Uganda and Kenya. Or similarly supporting the testing of pre-Stonewood Design Nicola Du Pisanie’s Namib desert sandbag development research, literally in a field a short distance from the studio.

Likewise, the ex-senior partner, Jo Wright, who left to become practice leader at Arup Associates in 2015, told me two years earlier how she did ‘regret the disappearance of arts & crafts’ but that she and others managed to continue its integration in various artworks and specific features of some of projects, citing the National Trust’s Heelis HQ, which includes beautiful hanging textiles by the weaver Eleanor Pritchard, and Herdwick sheep wool fleeces turned for the first-ever time, into commercially graded carpet tiles.

The Pea Soup House by FCBS — part of 2016’s London Festival of ArchitectureThe Pea Soup House by FCBS - part of 2016’s London Festival of Architecture

In similar fashion, although at much smaller scale, The Observatory marries craft and art with architecture. It has likely been more successful than Knight and her colleagues ever imagined. To a certain extent they have been helped by being inside and supported by a major studio, with the team going on to another project, the Pea Soup House, which focused on air quality in 2016’s London Festival of Architecture. For Knight, the experience has only added to her enthusiasm, lapping up different crafts, including a session whittling at Glastonbury Festival, knitting, and macramé as well as textiles and furniture. This is where the current generation intersects with early-era FeildenClegg. Who in that early Eighties’ office would have thought it would lead to this?

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