Trevor Morriss of SPPARC: 'I didn't go in at any glamorous heights; I went in as a print boy'

Already wanting to be an architect, Trevor Morriss left school at 17 to work as a print boy in an architect’s office. His talent was soon spotted, and he was on his way

Words by Ellen Peirson

Trevor Morriss didn’t take the conventional route into architecture. He left school at 17, opting for an entry-level job in a small architecture practice, already aware that architecture was the only profession for him and wanting to get started straight away. ‘I didn’t go in at any glamorous heights; I went in as a print boy,’ he explains. ‘But these were the heady days of the late Eighties, so construction was going up everywhere and from 9 o’clock in the morning through to 6 o’clock at night I was doing dyeline prints.’

After hours, he would stay in the office sketching out ideas for the practice’s current projects. Having left the sketches out one evening, Morriss was called into the office the next day. He thought it didn’t bode well.

‘I thought I was in trouble. I think he’d said something like “Who’s done this?”. And then one of the other guys went “Trevor did that”. I got called in and they asked me what it was all about…I talked through it and he said that’s probably better than what we were doing, so come off of what you’re doing and do this. And then I built my first building when I was like, 17, which is ridiculous.’ Unfortunately, Morriss’ first practice, John Bronson Partnership, folded in the recession in the early Nineties. But his first building, a warehouse conversion in Shad Thames, still stands.

From there, Morriss went on to become a senior architect at Jones Laing (now JLL), at the age of 23, while still completing his architectural qualifications at the University of Greenwich. He tells me how formative this experience in real estate was to his development as an architect. He could see the industry from the financial side, no longer designing in abstract. Morriss says: ‘College is fantastic but it doesn’t teach you how to construct buildings. Not technically but in terms of the financial side. So I spent seven years there really understanding the commercial side of what we do, throughout my training. Which also meant when I started a practice, I would know how to get buildings constructed because I knew, in terms of viability, what was going to make them work.’

Views inside The Music Box, the new home of LCCMViews inside The Music Box

After seven years at JLL, Morriss became a partner at Stanley Peach and Partners at the age of 30. Brought in as the future of the firm, with the existing partners reaching retirement age, Morriss in fact left before they did. He explains: ‘They weren’t doing commercial work at all; they were doing a lot of government work. So in terms of bedfellows, it probably didn’t work out quite as well. There’s no animosity.’ Out of Stanley Peach and Partners grew SPPARC in 2007.

The new company, spearheaded by Morriss, had already begun within the office but embodied a fresh, creative culture, thriving off of constant challenges and evolving design principals. Refusing to subscribe to a ‘house style’, Morriss explains how the practice takes a fresh and innovative approach to each project, recognising that no one context is the same. In that sense it could be said that its house style is to create an innovative and contextual response to each site. Even in cases where it has two projects on the same street they never look the same.

SPPARC has embraced the use of technology in all aspects of its work, but not to the detriment of alternative design methods and outcomes. ‘While we’re a modern firm we actually still do processes in quite a traditional way. I’ve still a workshop up on the top floor, so I still whittle around with bits of balsa wood. We still craft things and we still make things.’

The new home of LCCM with residential accommodation belowThe new home of LCCM with residential accommodation

Morris explains that all of the practice’s work involves an element of challenge. Whether it interrogates a brief to get the maximum out of it, or it is working within particularly complex site constraints, Morriss says: ‘We like to have these jigsaw puzzles, which we can unlock with the right challenges.’

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Music Box. Recently opening to become the new home for the London College of Creative Media (LCCM) in Southwark, The Music Box involved an infinitely complicated brief, with a residential development above a music college.

The structure consists of ‘floating rooms within rooms’, using freestanding steel installations to avoid sound transfer between the units. This differentiation is expressed in the materiality, defining the border between residential and college with a horizontal line modelled on Phi’s Golden Section. The music college forms a rigid brick base, and the residential block ethereally rests on top.

Morriss is positive on the future of small architecture firms such as SPPARC. He concludes: ‘I think that the spirit of a collaborative practice our kind of size is more relevant now than it’s ever been… people have never been more tuned in to really good quality design than they are now. I think that they’re actually genuinely interested in it, when maybe 20 years ago they weren’t...the place of the architect is probably more relevant now than it’s ever been.’

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