Founded in 1980, husband-and-wife practice Bolles Wilson had to wait a long time for its first big break. Being of the generation which graduated from the aa just as the oil crisis hit meant that Peter Wilson stayed on teaching for 10 years, 'fundamental in creating our ideas', he told an eager audience overflowing from the gunnels of Manchester Town Hall last week.
Despite the attention heaped on the Blackburn house - still Bolles Wilson's only project in England - it was winning the 1987 competition for a new city library in the German city of Munster that really established the practice. A 10,000m2 site was broken into three separate blocks, or, as Wilson says, 'two volumes and a lot of scattered incidence'. Order and disorder recur throughout subsequent work, though it's not always apparent which is which. This is an architecture of wit which seems to delight in playing games while also addressing the brief. In the library the deliberate incident and accident of the various spaces combine to create what he likes to think of 'not as reading rooms but a landscape of atmospheres'.
Since then, competition success has been at the heart of an expanding practice which has taken on offices, kindergartens, shops and warehouses, but still delights in creating dwellings, such as the much-lauded Suzuki house of 1994 in Tokyo. 'We usually enter about 10 competitions a year, and as they cost £10,000 each we have to have a reasonably good success rate.'
Since German re-unification, about half the practice's work is in Holland. The couple clearly feels comfortable working here and enjoys the fact that the Dutch expect good architecture as a right. A typical example of this is its scheme for the Rotterdam waterfront and the nearby Luxor Theatre, where Wilson says the practice 'developed a volume into a skin'.
Perhaps this success late in the day is down to being part of the generation to learn about urban context. Taught by Leon Krier, Wilson recalled with pride: 'He threw us out after three weeks.'
The practice approaches the issue now with what it terms its 'iceberg strategy', letting loose buildings which either seem to float in the almost contextless ravaged post-industrial landscape or reconnect with its monumental and elegiac past in an attempt to become 'super present'. The wit in so much of the work - the Bridgewatcher's house like a daddy-long-legs Villa Savoye, the Deeze building with a pattern of fenestration aping Mondrian paintings - is part of a determination that architecture should tell a story.