Building on success
de Rijke Marsh Morgan senses it is in a 'transitional phase'making the jump from university tutors to an architectural practice building award-winning works
These are changing times for de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM). From being perceived as an interesting young practice, featuring regularly on shortlists (though not quite often enough as winners for its liking), suddenly, it seems, it is now building - doing, rather than talking. And the partners rather like it.
Headed up by 'Anglicised Dutchman' Alex de Rijke, wife Sadie Morgan, and Philip Marsh, dRMM's latest is the 'no. one' (as in number one) building, built with railway arches and the rest of the gritty urban landscape on Centaur Street in London's Waterloo (see building study, pages 28-35).
It is, say project architect Morgan and de Rijke with pride, their best work, and displays what can be done with truly brownfield land, imagination and no little skill. In time, it may be joined by another in the same family, as client Roger Zogolovitch is keen to buy another site nearby. The RIBA-awardwinning block on Centaur Street will be home to dRMM and de Rijke's motorbikes when the team moves over from present offices on Clink Street, near London Bridge.
'We've escaped the Clink, ' beams de Rijke.
All three partners met at Kingston University, where de Rijke (now 42), who had just graduated from the RCA, was teaching. 'I think as a partnership we really fell together, ' says Morgan, 34, with a specialism in interior design from the RCA.Marsh and de Rijke had collaborated on a house design, which was 'noticed' by Ricky Burdett, then of the Architecture Foundation. So they were invited to exhibit at the AF's New British Architecture Show, alongside 11 other practices. Following that, their Ecostation design won a competition run by the now defunct London Docklands Development Corporation. Ecostation had to explain ecology - their scheme was made of recycled materials, was 'nearly zero energy' and boasted now widespread landscape ideas.
'That was our moment. We'd been engaged and then we got married, ' says Morgan, figuratively. There were no formal plans to start as a practice, no long-term strategy, but that seemed fine. 'It was starting with a public building project, which was right up our street', says de Rijke.
'We were loosely joined for the exhibition', says Morgan, 'and then we won and thought, woah we have to get it together.' The prize was to build the ecostation, though sadly it only got as far as tender stage. The LDDC, in its last few years, was faced with overspends in other areas and people leaving, and the project lacked a real champion. 'So it didn't happen, which was a shame, ' shrugs de Rijke.
'On the other hand, it was a good thing because it made us highly conscious of what we thought was important.'
'We're tougher', adds Morgan, 'but I'd definitely say we're not cynical. We're wiser to see what makes a good project.'
Teaching and small projects kept some money coming in, a key one being a series of gymnasia. 'We broke our teeth on that, in terms of running contracts, learning how to detail, getting things built, controlling the contract, ' explains de Rijke. The project came about after touring the firm's existing sites. 'We were so critical, ' says Morgan. 'I'm amazed they gave us the job.'
Crucially, the money from the gymnasia contract was funnelled into a year spent entering competitions. 'We invested every single penny from the commercial work into achieving a different ambition, ' says Morgan. Along the way, they found they were learning a lot about new materials, particularly from the continent, some of which are being used at Centaur Street. 'It was a bit like having a laboratory on hand, ' says de Rijke.
More bad luck, though, came at the Watney Market competition, again for the AF;
dRMM won but the local authority 'bottled out' after a lot of work.
Today, however, things are happening: its works in progress includes schemes for the Peabody Trust at Ladbroke Green; a school project in Dulwich, with a light-controllable (via a moving pattern) ETFE roof; and a 300seat auditorium/cinema 'capsule' by Marsh.
'The kids are saying, 'what, that's for us?'.
They can't believe it and that's so exciting, ' says de Rijke. Again, this reworking of the Leslie Martin-designed school is from an AF initiative, School Works, to prove the connection between educational standards and well-designed buildings.
What, then, is the practice ethos? 'I characterise it with the expression, non-standard architecture, using standard components, ' explains de Rijke. 'But it's as much to do with the function over time. I'm very interested in architecture that develops over a whole series of conditions.'
The practice delights in using catalogue items, because they work, are cost-effective and allow products to be put together in a clever, inventive way. De Rijke says they like working with such 'givens'. 'Sometimes the greatest limitations are your biggest freedoms, ' he says. 'It's only possible to be creative once the terms are established - if anything goes, then nothing goes particularly deep. Plus, we just love catalogues.'
'I think our work is very forthright, ' adds Morgan. 'It's very direct but I like to think it has humour, is kind of sexy. I think this building's really sexy. It's a really strong and tough building. And I'd like to think we always maintain a sense of humour.'
That goes for the dRMM team, too, says de Rijke, which works to the 'total football management model' - that is, everybody can do everything. De Rijke, Morgan and Marsh like to be good to their 'well balanced, loyal' staff, and can listen, too, a skill they ascribe to teaching. The practice is now seven years old but ready for the next step. 'It feels like a special time, ' says de Rijke. 'And moving here will be like a reward for all the effort over the years. The prospect of testing the building by occupying it is also interesting.'
'It's about to happen, ' adds Morgan. 'The difference now is that we're getting it built and it's working, and the clients are happy with it. They're putting their money where our mouth is.'