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Bowing to the inevitable

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Cartwright Pickard is an individualist practice which is not afraid of unfamiliar or unusual approaches to design

'I don't know if it's Kahn who said it,' extemporises James Pickard, 'but good architecture has an inevitability.' There might have been an inevitability in his and Peter Cartwright's decision to form a practice: they both studied at Nottingham in the early 1980s which imbued them with 'an interest in the multi-disciplinary aspect of design', they both worked for prominent London practices, and they both share a delight in expression of materials through resolution in simple, repetitive and good detailing. They started talking about the idea of working together in the early 1990s, and have been 'fully fledged for 18 or 20 months'. If there was little inevitability in their decision to start their practice after winning a competition for the Musicians' Institute, there is a familiarity in the subsequent history; the project has yet to progress beyond the design stage so they have survived on the standard fare of small domestic projects and teaching.

Much about their approach is neither inevitable nor familiar. One reason the Musicians' Institute, since renamed the London Music School, failed to receive the lottery funding it needed was, they feel, because 'we didn't get any publicity on the project before it went in - we think that was a mistake . . . ' In contrast to so many of their peers, they wanted to get the project up before running to the magazines to see themselves in print.

The school turns out around 300 musicians a year - 'the troops for the music industry', backing bands and sessions musicians. Three weeks after the decision, it got nvq status. Talks are continuing with a new backer about a new site close to the original location in North Kensington, but the original design was impressive: a cable-net roof slung under the Westway took up the irregular volume of the site and made a very cost-effective roof. Although its unlikely location suited the music school - if you have to have a sound barrier to keep noise in, it will equally well keep noise out - the solution is also a strategy for using such sites: 'It's an efficient way of making a roof.'

Another unusual aspect of the practice is that they are determined to have 'a presence in the north . . . it will give us a diverse nature of work'. Pickard was born in Yorkshire and Cartwright lives there, but the policy is down to neither sentiment nor convenience, rather 'to provide some resistance to recession'. They point out that different parts of the country have different cycles. A group of listed stone barns outside Pontefract which they are converting one at a time on demand into houses was an early project - 'reasonably simple and contemporary on the inside, barns outside' - and a nineteenth-century listed warehouse near the Royal Armouries in Leeds represent two projects which they have generated for themselves.

Experience gives an edge to their insight into recession. As joint senior architect at Peter Foggo Associates after the founder's death, Pickard tried to broaden the practice's client base but found it 'a bit like turning a supertanker'. He went to Foggo's after Part III at Farrell's and a spell in Sweden to 'purge the Post-Modernism'. Two projects he worked on, at Chiswick and Stockley Park, halted overnight even when foundations were in and steelwork fabricated. Cartwright, meanwhile, had worked for Hopkins on the Bedfont Lakes buildings for ibm and taken a year out as a sabbatical at Skidmore's (som) in Chicago at a time when they were clearing whole floors. He came back to work on the Inland Revenue building, which 'came at an ideal time' for Hopkins, implying that even the mightiest practices can suffer in poor economic circumstances.

Despite its regional connections, Cartwright Pickard is determined 'to be known as a London practice'. Clients, they reckon, take London firms more seriously and in general 'the level of service from other consultants is higher', although Cartwright hastily adds that 'it's good to deal with ones in Bath' - Buro Happold is a collaborator. But proximity makes it easier to get people into the office 'to have the discussions with them we need'.

Clients, too, can be more receptive to 'the cutting edge' in London, explains Pickard. One, Dickon Robinson of the Peabody Trust, shows how Cartwright Pickard draws together its influences. Its development of 30 or so flats in Hackney uses steel-framed pods manufactured by Yorkon which will be brought to site fully assembled. A lightweight gallery-access balcony adds a delicate filigree to the design, and a staircase drum reminiscent of Foggo at his most baroque and Hopkins at his least makes a corner feature. The design also makes use of technology learned at Nottingham and Leicester where Cartwright did his Part II. Peabody may spend around 15 per cent above norm on this project, but if the prefabrication system works, the benefits for subsequent developments will be huge. Cartwright Pickard is already shortlisted for a 250-unit site in North London, and is working with Yorkon on proposals for prefabricated schools units.

With further projects including masterplanning a 30,000m2 office park for baa and an art gallery in Harrogate, Cartwright Pickard is well placed to fulfil its ambition of 'building our own office building, with offices, residential areas and perhaps a restaurant'. Not inevitable, perhaps, but very likely.

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