As an architect and co-founder of the Project Orange practice, James Soane has had an intriguing career
Words by Emily Martin
As an architect and co-founder of the Project Orange practice, James Soane has had an intriguing career. Far from obsessing over more stereotypically high profile London projects, he and his partner have instead turned their gaze to improving rural communities
In the summer I visited the beautiful village of Laversham in Suffolk to meet the co-founder of Project Orange and architect James Soane.
Having never met the practice before, I did the normal thing of checking the company website as well as other internet searches to cover my groundwork. ‘We are unusual as a practice in placing equal importance on architecture and interior design, and excel in those projects seeking a seamless marriage of the disciplines, be they homes, hotels or offices,’ says the text on the practices website. And, while driving through the glorious Suffolk countryside, instead of cramming myself into somewhere in central London, I thought it best to visit the practice’s HQ, where I was somehow sure that things were certainly different at this practice.
Partners in practice and partners in life, Project Orange was founded by Cambridge University graduates Cristopher Ash and Soane in 1997. Having spent some 25 years living near Old Street working on several ‘urban’ projects in London, around the UK, and overseas, the couple relocated their practice HQ and home out of London to the idyllic Suffolk village of Laversham – a conservation area with the highest concentration of medieval buildings in Britain. While Project Orange maintains a workforce in London, Soane tells me his focus is moving away from the corporate sector into housing, something the practice has always done, with a new emphasis away from urban architecture.
James Soane, right. Image Credit: Image Credit: Alex Sarginson
‘The idea is to embed ourselves into the community and do more local work. Particularly as architects based in London, you always talk about the city or other cities, but because we’ve been coming here for 20 years – we know people that we’ve experienced and we love it – I think there’s perhaps not enough discussion on rural areas and particularly in housing.’
The kitchen of the Grove Cottage in Lavenham, completed in 2019. Image Credit: Paul Dixon.
Laversham is a village well-known to Soane and Ash. It’s a place they’ve have visited and loved for many years, a second home if you like, before becoming their permanent home. Located near the village market square is their home, aptly named Orange Cottage, which Soane invites me to look around – a new purpose-built building set among some of the more ancient dwellings of the village, which are all listed.
Orange Cottage is located behind an existing brick and flint wall, and its design features include a steeply pitched roof, oak windows which continue ‘a rhythm of cascading gables’ when looking down the street. The rear of the building is more purposeful and modern, and includes full-height glazing encapsulating beautiful views.
Somewhat surprising there are other houses, properties and even a new development the practice is working on too, all which deliver design sensitivity to its planning restricted surroundings. But far from objection, the local parish and planners are embracing the practice’s work within this community with Soane now even re-writing the local plan and design guide.
Says Soane: ‘We’ve had several schemes at different scales – one of which is 35 houses, another 10, and one of five – but in very beautiful rural settings, and we’re beginning to test ideas like let’s not have tarmac roads, because that’s not what you get in the country. There’s a whole set of legislation that makes it harder for you, but they are surmountable. It’s including that kind of detail [and] working with landscape architects and gardeners. We always do that now on our schemes [as it’s] not just about prettifying, but also ensuring biodiversity [when responding to a climate crisis].’
The Orange Cottage, completed in 2007, with its landscaped gardens. Image Credit: Gareth Gardner
Project Orange’s Laversham HQ is Hidden House, a former artist’s studio which Soane and Ash bought from a local builder who had previously extended the building. ‘To me it looked like an NHS drop-in centre,’ recalls Soane. ‘Part of its transformation was to make it with the ambience we wanted and create a work environment that felt homely and [do it] in an ecological way.’
Soane describes the building as having ‘good bones’, such as insulated and underfloor heating, and talks about the importance of repair, rather than rebuilding. ‘We’ve tried and learnt a lot about how we can build better or less [if you can’t repair]. If we are building new, what do we do how can we make it? But how do we make it have longevity and there’s a currency to this, obviously, and an urgency. But it’s not as easy as just saying “let’s build green”. You must really do your homework, which we are doing.’ Soane also talks to me about collaboration across the built environment and the importance of working together across the disciplines. For the last seven years or so, he’s been involved in the London School of Architecture, teaching history and theory. He wanted to challenge postgraduate education, opting to talk about planet politics and people, before about architecture, and highlighting how the climate emergency is central to everything.
A view of the exterior patio area of The Hidden House, completed in 2021. Image Credit: Paul Dixon
‘But also discussing the identity and ideology behind what is an architect and what is a designer,’ he adds. ‘A lot of this is very moulded into, I would say, patriarchal or, dare I say it, a colonial view. Not that it is always at the foreground, but it’s what’s created the image and I think trying to move away from that and [highlight the need for] group work.
One of the things we’re able to do is get students to work in groups and be marked for it, which sounds easy, but at a systems level, it’s quite hard.’
Soane helped create a network of practices, where students work three days a week in an architecture practice for a year and, in return, the practice pays for their two years fees as a sort of ‘earn and learn’. But, more than that, the dialogue starts to go two ways.
Soane’s Rathbone Market design in Canning Town was completed in 2017. Image Credit: Jack Hobhouse
Students write a practice manual, a ‘How Does It Work?’ of architecture, detailing everything from finance to marketing. And, by working at the forefront of an architecture practice and education, Soane has positioned himself to kick-start this evolutional overhaul of the design, building and architecture system.
Perhaps ‘revolution’ is a more appropriate word. The ‘big idea’, as put by Soane, is other architecture practices will start to read these manuals, getting involved in the conversations, and even evolving their practices.
‘In other words, it’s quite an interesting and [is] a very powerful feedback loop that’s not just coming in, teach and go away,’ says Soane. ‘It’s about working together, evolving and change.’