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Adventurous spirits

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'You bring your character to a job, as much as your skills, and we just get along and enjoy our work.' So says engineer Jo da Silva, an associate at Ove Arup & Partners, on her collaboration with Craig Downie of Studio Downie.

Downie studied architecture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art - 'I wanted to go to art college, I mixed with sculptors and artists . . . and there were lots of girls' - and spent his year out at Dundee District Council, where his first job was designing a brick store in an abattoir.

He fled to London 'within a week' of finishing Part 2, working first for Lanchester & Lodge, then spending just over three years at Terry Farrell where he discovered a real love of engineering. 'I was working on the Clifton Nurseries, which was the first tensile building in the uk, and I spent a lot of time at Arups working with Brian Foster in the lightweight structure group'.

From Farrells he moved to Fosters, then went abroad. 'I went off for three months and didn't come back for a year and a half - my bank manager thought I was dead.' The travel was financed by stints in architectural offices in California, Sydney and Perth. In Australia, Downie discovered surfing: 'At one point I was going to buy a place on the beach and just surf . . . but I had an accident . . . I got caught by a big wave, and a little fisherman pulled me out. That focused me. I thought: 'I'd better do something with my life if I'm going to die'.' He came back to England and set up practice in 1993 but still loves surfing and the sea: 'I've maintained a huge interest in ocean waves - the perpetual motion - I've studied them and given lectures.'

In the meantime, da Silva had graduated from Cambridge, and suffered doubts about whether she really wanted to be an engineer. 'I went to India and ran a camp in the jungle. It was to do with Project Tiger, so I looked after lots of tigers and hung out with my elephant, and in the process built a road and a hot water system and thought maybe I should be an engineer after all.' She came back to England and joined Ove Arup & Partners, where she has worked ever since, including two years in Hong Kong working with Fosters on Chek Lap Kok, and a brief spell in Germany.

When she settled back into the London office, Arups suggested that she might enjoy working on Hat Hill (aj 28.9.95), a gallery and education building for a woodland sculpture park, which Downie had won in competition. 'They said: 'It's a site of outstanding natural beauty, and it's a sculpture gallery, and it's this architect who's never really built anything',' da Silva recalls, 'and it sounded like a challenge.' As soon as the drawings were finished she was called up by RedR, a charity which provides engineers for other charities coping with disaster relief. 'I was sent to Rwanda, to an area where I was the only engineer, building and planning refugee camps, engineering repairs on the roads. It was the hardest work I've ever done, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three months.' When she came back, Hat Hill was almost built. Though modest in size - the contract value was £100,000 - it proved to be Downie's best-known project, and spawned several future commissions.

Downie and da Silva are currently working on various additions to a Suffolk farmhouse for a lady who 'just walked into the office and said she loved Hat Hill'. They have also collaborated on the Image Bank pictured here and featured on pages 39-41, and a feasibility study for a rare books library, and have just won a competition for another feasibility study of new facilities at the hq of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) on Kensington Gore.

For da Silva, who has spent the last year and a half as project manager and structural engineer on the £14-15 million National Portrait Gallery, these projects are small fry - the engineering fee on the £200,000 Image Bank project was, she says, 'virtually non-existent' - but Arups, despite its reputation for monster projects, encourages young engineers to work with young architects, on projects which fuel their interest.

She likes the fact that at Studio Downie 'all the time is spent on engineering and design, and not on management and administration'. Both share a dislike of what Downie calls 'power presentation', opting for simple, often freehand, drawings, and both dislike 'structural gymnastics', favouring buildings which are based on a clear diagram. Both believe in blurring the boundaries between architect and engineer. 'Some people employ me as a technical boffin,' says da Silva, 'but I've been in the industry for nine years, and I've got more to offer. With Craig I have the courage to say, 'I don't like that'.'

Downie takes the criticism in good part: 'I have clients who do that too, and I go away and think about it, and the solution I come up with is almost always better than before.'

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