Ben Addy, co-founder of Moxon Architects, has opened an office in the Scottish Highlands, and with abundant work, has proved that you don’t have to be in London to succeed
Words by Ellen Peirson
There’s a tendency among British architects to assume that to succeed as a practice you must be in London; to assume that the so-called ‘design capital of the world’ is at the forefront of the built environment industries; that it ceaselessly attracts the best in architects, engineers and planners. There is an understanding that in the UK, high-quality design cannot and will not exist outside of the capital.
While this London-centric agenda has been perpetuating itself, certain practices have been quietly establishing their own design capitals.
There are few better examples of this than Moxon Architects. Incorporated in 2004, on the day Ben Addy passed his RIBA Part 3 exams, Moxon Architects was grown by Addy into a successful and busy London studio. Having forged a successful name for the practice in London, Addy decided to break away from the ‘London bubble’ and moved half of the practice to Braemar, Aberdeenshire.
An ambitious move, Addy originally expected that the Scottish office would be supported by, and dependent on the London office. Speaking to Addy at the end of 2018, he explained: ‘The expectation was that London being London – that’s where all the work was. But as it transpired very quickly, we have as much work in Scotland as we have in London.’ Although the office culture and ethos remains the same, it is only the really large projects that span both studios.
Now so successful that the Scottish office space cannot accommodate the growing practice, Moxon is completing its new studio on the site of a disused quarry in Braemar. Comprisng three distinct blocks, the new studio affords opportunities rarely possible in London.
‘There’s the main studio which is big enough for about 25 designers... and there’s a cafe building, which we’re considering making open to the public, and then there’s a third building which is a workshop,’ Addy says. ‘A lot of what we do involves the prototype of product design items, in particular for railways. We do a lot of one-to-one making and testing of steel components and so on.’
Primarily an architecture practice, Moxon’s experience ranges from industrial product design to large-scale urban design. This interest in design for industry and infrastructure originates from Addy’s time at Chris Wilkinson Architects (now WilkinsonEyre), where he worked almost exclusively on bridge design. Addy was able to collaborate with some of the best engineers in the industry, notably Arup and COWI.
The new railway gantry in front, with the previous, cluttered design seen behind
Being able to traverse these scales made Moxon an ideal candidate to design a new overhead line structure (OLS) for HS2. Together with Mott McDonald, Moxon identified an opportunity for a design that blends much more harmoniously with the landscape. ‘When you look at an electrified railway, you see there is endless masts and they’re covered in ceramic pots and there’s wires and bits and stuff bolted on to them, and there’s a kind of general kind of chaos of Meccano up in the air,’ he says.
The new gantry system replaces the chaotic catenary system with a single wedge structure, the geometry of which is determined by the locations of existing wires, ensuring it is compatible with the current infrastructure. The result is a 25 per cent shorter product with 70 per cent fewer components. Constructed of just densified wood laminate, with a corten steel vertical, the new OLS promises to reduce the visual impact of the planned railway lines. Addy says: ‘When you position [it] in the landscape it will disappear.’ It is this subtle, yet rigorous design approach that pervades all of Moxon’s work; a preoccupation with contextual solutions that need not always be bold.
It is perhaps this that best places the practice to revive the Fife Arms hotel, for Swiss art dealer Hauser and Wirth. Although it may seem in stark contrast to Moxon’s work on HS2, the fundamentals and the way each project is approached is the same. Both present an existing condition that must be updated – functionally and aesthetically.
The Fife Arms Hotel was already a notable piece of architecture in the area. Built in the 19th century, the building was iconic in Braemar. Aberdeen-bonded stonework encases distinctive arts and crafts sash windows, framed by characteristic timber bargeboards. However, much of this beauty had been lost to poor- quality 20th-century interventions and the building was beginning to crumble. Together with interior designer Russell Sage, Moxon took on the 85-bedroom hotel and reversed its fate.
‘Really our role in this project was to prevent the building from falling down. So we needed to restore the Victorian building, and then rework it, remodel it such that it functions as a 21stcentury hotel needs to function,’ says Addy.
Hotel cum art gallery, at the Fife Arms, Aberdeenshire for Hauser and Wirth
Much like the OLS project, this involved a complete reimagination of what had gone before, but within strict constraints; this time not an infrastructural system, but a much-loved, historic building. Moxon has worked with the client to create a public route through the building, enabling the hotel to function as a public platform for art and a private hotel. The new configuration allows a three-storey Richard Jackson chandelier to hang down the central stairwell, next to priceless Pictish carved stones, loaned from Aberdeenshire Council’s collection. ‘The idea is that any person who happened to be walking through Braemar any time of year can happen upon the building, walk into it, see all these things, have a drink, and hang out in the courtyard, and then you have someone who has flown in from Zurich or Los Angeles for the weekend, specially to spend a weekend in that hotel,’ he says.
This coherence between projects displays the strong design ethos at Moxon. One that Addy tells us is much less concerned with the end product, but more the process of getting to it. Hoping to take on its own quantity surveyor and after establishing its own construction company, Moxon seems to be returning to the original meaning of the title ‘architect’ – ‘master builder’. Addy laments the move towards the role being little more than an ‘aesthetic guardian’. Moxon’s technically impeccable projects, spanning scales and sectors prove architects are much more than this.