Architectural practice Buckley Gray has just completed its first new-build - the Q Building in east London - and is about to take on its first job abroad, refurbishing the offices of the British Council in Milan
Richard Buckley and Matt Yeoman, two thirds of the triumvirate that make up architectural practice Buckley Gray, are pretty chuffed. They have just got their first commission abroad, in Milan as it happens, refurbishing the shabby offices of the British Council on chic Via Manzoni.
'It doesn't get much better than Milan for your first overseas project, does it?' says Buckley, acknowledging that not only is it a high-profile job, but it might lead to greater things, given that the council is renovating its offices the world over.
Closer to home, Buckley Gray has made a name for itself with small domestic projects and larger commercial and retail spaces.
The firm was started when Buckley, 39 (pictured, far right), and his wife Fiammetta Gray fashioned themselves a house out of an old garage in Islington, north London, in 1995. They were joined later that year by 34year-old Yeoman, old friend and fellow classmate from Oxford Polytechnic. (After studying, Yeoman and Buckley had a brief spell together at ORMS, then Yeoman worked at Lifschutz Davidson and Gray did a stint at Antonio Citterio's Milan office. ) 'When we started out, we had no great mentors and certainly no big clients. But a couple of £20,000 refurbishments got us noticed and it went from there, ' says Buckley.
Five years on, the practice comprises 10 people, only one of whom is administrative, in a small, tidy office in Shoreditch. Newbuild projects account for 30 per cent of its work and interior design another 30, with refurbs making up the rest.
'Although the commercial market is dead, we are getting a lot of work in this sector, ' says Yeoman. 'People come to us because we have a reputation for squeezing value out of a job. It would be very easy to sit back on our laurels now and spend a whole budget putting up expensive wall hangings and flash finishing touches, but we are always concerned that the project is delivering enough.'
Being picky about what work they do leads Buckley and Yeoman to claim that 'every project is a dream project'. But what about the dream client? Both say, earnestly, that they would not do a project just for the money. 'Whether it's a £50,000 or £2 million job, it all depends on the client, ' says Buckley.
Last autumn, the architects designed a London headquarters for TV station Five in Long Acre, Covent Garden. The station was great to work with, they said. 'They had a similar vision and they weren't thinking only about the budget, but also about the brief, ' says Yeoman. The architects persuaded Five not to have a foyer full of TVs showing live footage and video promos, but to opt instead for a mere three screens hidden behind glass. 'No one wants to walk in and see Gloria Hunniford, do they?' laughs Yeoman.
Gray juggles children and work, and comes into the office about once a week, though she often troubleshoots when a project is not running smoothly. 'When something's not right, of course, there is friction between us, and her input is extremely valuable, ' says Buckley. 'We're very antagonistic and get very defensive, like most people, when it's wrong.'
Like writers who intersperse novel writing with spells of journalism, the practice likes to take on large, timeconsuming projects as well as quick-fix bars and restaurants. The Q Building (pp18-23) was its first stand-alone project and took four years. Based in Stratford in east London, it has 27 one- and two-bedroom apartments and a bar/cafe on the ground floor. Last year there was the Bar Room Bar in Bristol, with its intimate pods and balloon-like 'clouds' on the ceilings by furniture designer Inflate, a fit-out for restaurant chain Zizzi in Kingston, and three new-build houses under construction in Barnsbury, Islington.
Most work to date has been in London, but a current project to create a cluster of rural retreats for a shoestring £30,000 apiece has taken Buckley Gray to South Hams, Devon. The 300 homes for Burleigh Estates are based on the mobile home idea. The country cabin has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and solar panels built around a steel box frame. To add more space, an extra cabin can be bolted to the foundation-free construction.
Nothing gives Buckley and Yeoman more of a buzz than seeing proud clients show off their new buildings to colleagues. There have been plenty of candidates. The transformation of the dingy 1970s Solar House office building, again in Stratford, into a light, open structure landed them an AJ Small Projects Award in 2002. They also impressed with the IDEO offices in Clerkenwell and Barbican offices for advertising agency K9 in 1999, and the ongoing Northbury House in Clerkenwell, where a cramped loading bay has become a swish basement.
Part of their success lies in their acute awareness of what the consumer wants and the fact they are not afraid of building it.
'Society is so much more design-conscious these days. End users really are concerned with what everything looks like, from their pen to their pizzeria.Now you really do need to create a visual desire, ' says Yeoman.
Buckley adds: 'Many concepts are good at seeking attention and receiving praise, but they would never work if they were built. It's all very well putting lots of effort into drawings but you need the contractors to appreciate them. We are not afraid of construction.'
As admiration for their work grows, which architects do Buckley and Yeoman admire? They avoid mentioning anyone contemporary. Buckley mumbles something about wattle and daub and timber frame constructions. Yeoman dismisses this as 'a cheesy question', adding: 'I recently saw the Mies van der Rohe exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery and it struck me how little we have moved on. If he was living now, the man would be a superstar.'