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dealing with complexity

people; Intricacy and respect for existing buildings are the common factors in the otherwise diverse portfolio of the two partners at Haworth Tompkins. Now, they are reviewing the future development of their practice by ruth slavid. photograph by guy jord

When Graham Haworth showed the photographs taken for this piece to his childminder, she thought he looked in need of a rest, or at least a cup of tea. And she was probably right. He and partner Steve Tompkins have been working flat out for the last 10 years on a range of projects united only by their complexity. For a relatively new practice, their built record is impressive but they are keen not to be entirely submerged in the world of architecture. Both have small children, plus other interests - Haworth was recently limping after playing football 'with people who are all a lot younger than me'. He said: 'If you are involved in other things, it increases your worth to other people. I find it interesting when architects move outside pure design things.'

This is not to deny their interest in architecture. They are both very focused, not in the sense of business aims and profit plans, but of knowing what kind of architects they want to be. And with about £60 million of built work under their belts, their concern is not expansion but refocusing. 'We are at a really interesting stage now. We feel we can move up a few gears, raise the architectural stakes. Intellectually we still have a lot of growing to do.' They will both be 40 in a year's time, and 'we should be able to find ourselves the space and time to do an MPhil or some writing'.

This would be the second time that they stood back from their careers. Tompkins trained at Bath, Haworth at Cambridge, and both ended up working for large practices where they learned a tremendous amount about building. Haworth went to the us where he worked briefly for som. When he came back to the uk he continued with som, choosing 'a big practice as a reaction to Cambridge'.

Tompkins went from Bath to Arup Associates. There he met Rab Bennetts and, with Tompkins, helped him set up Bennetts Associates in 1987. Haworth described Bennetts as 'a really good educationist', and he gave the two the opportunity to work on large projects. Although this period served as a wonderful apprenticeship, they were aware of the age difference. In addition, explained Tompkins: 'Bennetts Associates has a very firm agenda about the kind of working methodology. It produces fantastically considered buildings of a type. We wanted to explore a different agenda.'

So when Bennetts ran out of work, both were happy to leave, but they didn't set up their own practice immediately. Haworth travelled and worked on his house; Tompkins went painting, cycling the length of the Hebrides with a tent in winter.

When they did set up as Haworth Tompkins Architects in 1991, said Haworth, 'we set off thinking that there's a better way of producing buildings than what was happening in the uk at the time. We wanted to connect on a cultural level.'

'So much that was going or around us was so crass and so shallow,' said Tompkins. He found this a disappointing contrast to the heroic teachers he had had at Bath: Peter Smithson, Patrick Hodgkinson, Neave Brown, Michael Brawne and Ted Happold. 'There was such a strong sense of the poetry of Modernism, the possibilities, the sheer excitement of building.' They admired David Chipperfield, Herzog and de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, Tony Fretton and Frank Gehry.

The pair's first project, although not the first to be built, came thorough Tompkins' father, 'a fantastic project manager'. This was a commercial development in St Helier, Jersey for axa Sun Life. 'We built big models, little models, we did all the drawings,' said Haworth. 'We can't do it any more. You still crave for it.' For the same client they built a mixed- use seafront development at Douglas on the Isle of Man which respects the rhythm of Victorian terraces in a contemporary idiom. Other projects are a factory for Doc Martens; the latest phase of the Coin Street affordable housing scheme on London's South Bank; and, of course, London's Royal Court Theatre, due for completion this year.

'For whatever reason,' said Tompkins, 'we have ended up doing very complicated, sensitive work on controversial sites in historic settings. We have architecture across a very broad range of building typologies, from the classic glass house extension to big commercial work.' Having rejected 'soft, pragmatic Modernism', they pride themselves on 'a great fluency in the way in which we can incorporate a building or a client's past in the present and draw on aspects of the past in dealing with the present.' They have a confident humility which allows them to put the client's agenda before their own, a concern with detail which avoids being precious. 'We have never been into shadow gaps,' said Haworth, 'that anal quality that a lot of architects can't unhitch from.' Instead, his tastes are moving towards vernacular buildings 'that don't have a strong hand on them. It would be really fantastic to do a really crude, rough building not obsessed with detail.'

So what next? Haworth and Tompkins are wary. 'There are practices that have been established five or six years longer than us that have gone a way that we don't want to go. They have a formula. They are on the edge of being commercial. They have directors.' Instead they are keen to develop the strengths that underlie their diverse portfolio. 'We want to try to find work that will allow us to think more deeply at an architectural level,' said Tompkins. Hence the desire for some breathing space, some other activities. This approach is unlikely to make them rich, but it should allow them to continue to boast: 'We have no cupboard jobs that we hide away.'

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