'Manners are important,' says Mark Langston, 'Architecture should be collaborative . . . it's all about getting on with people, and operating with a degree of respect.' Langston works with Andy Gollifer of Andy Gollifer Associates, and both Langston and Gollifer are polite. Impeccably polite. They are courteous to clients, and courteous to contractors. Their commitment to collaboration spans from concept to construction, and their respective strengths ensure that equal weight is accorded to each As Langston puts it, 'I know more about the process of getting things built. Andy is more of a Designer, with a capital 'D'.' Gollifer, who gained his diploma in architecture from the rca, says he regards the practice as 'still essentially arts-based'. He has found a natural constituency in the creative Soho crowd, setting up practice in 1993 on the back of a commission to refurbish offices for 3D-imaging company 601, and following it up with a range of projects, including the Ally Capellino store pictured here, which are decidedly sculptural in feel.
Before setting up on his own, Gollifer worked at Hawkins Brown as a consultant on the proposed Liverpool Street-Paddington link. The chance to work on a big project of his own came in 1994 with the commission for Sunderland's £16 million Glass Centre. The competition was entered by 87 practices, and Gollifer says he was 'fairly amazed' to win. He is justifiably proud of the design - 'It's a big idea, which works at detail level too' - but the real triumph has been steering the scheme, more or less intact, through the murky waters of funding, planning, and procurement. With characteristic modesty, Gollifer claims that 'it was a question of all the planets being in the right the place at once . . . if the Arts Council's National Lottery grants hadn't been available the thing would never have come off. We've been very lucky'. He is quick to point out Langston's role in the project. The two have known each other for so long that they have no recollection of how they originally met (Langston jokes, 'I met my wife at his house . . . so I owe him my happiness. I'm not paid, I'd work for him for the rest of my life'), but Langston did not join the practice until the Glass Centre commission had been won. He has been responsible for running the project on site and negotiating the intricacies of the hybrid design-and- build procurement route. 'We have had to compromise a lot,' says Gollifer, 'but it's all credit to Mark that it's still basically the building we wanted it to be.'
Langston, in turn, credits various subcontractors as 'the unsung heroes of the project'. Perhaps more unusually, both have the grace to admit that in retrospect they might have approached the project rather differently, possibly forming an alliance with bdp, architect of Sunderland University, the Glass Centre's immediate neighbour.
Gollifer Associates' natural generosity translates into a social agenda which is not explicit but is evident in the way they speak about their work. Both admire Cullinan 'as much for his continuing social idealism as for his architecture'. Coincidentally, Cullinan's Archaeolink Centre (aj 6.11.97) and the Glass Centre, designed around the same time, both include a roof which integrates with the landscape, and is accessible by foot, thus incorporating a public layer which is free of charge into a brief for an essentially commercial space.
Given this generosity, it seems particularly unfair that, in terms of media coverage, Gollifer Associates has undergone a baptism of fire. Hugh Pearman recently published a review in the Sunday Times which, in the current climate of blanket enthusiasm, stood out as positively vitriolic. Gollifer Associates has carried off a remarkable feat: a truly controversial building. The fact that negative opinions are aired in major newspapers marks a general acknowledgement that Gollifer has propelled himself into the sphere of architects worth worrying about. For all their good manners, as designers Gollifer and Langston are seriously tough and they have created a building which people will love or hate. It is rare to find a place which is quite so exhilarating to visit. Passers-by stop and stare, and the Guardian's Jonathan Glancey wrote that 'its sheer gutsiness wins through'.
In this respect it reflects the attitude of its designers. Gollifer says, 'We don't fit into a particular clique,' and Langston 'can't imagine working for anyone else and dancing to their tune'. They have encountered 'a degree of ageism in architecture' and 'there have been times when we've been treated more badly than you could possibly imagine' but there has been a steady stream of takers for their individualistic approach. Current projects, including an office refurbishment at Heathrow and work on a school in Camden, will bring the practice's work to a wider audience. Gollifer Associates would love the chance to design another high-profile public building, but is realistic about the scarcity of such commissions. 'I think it's likely that our next major commission might be abroad,' says Gollifer. He is ready for the next challenge. The Glass Centre has been described as 'not for those with vertigo', and, appropriately enough, Gollifer says his motto is 'Never look down.' Building Study, page 31