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interview

Architects Alex Mowat and Diana Cochrane formed Urban Salon after graduating from the Royal College of Art.The name allows for fluctuations in the size of the practice as they take on different projects and link up periodically with other designers. In th

Why Urban Salon?

Alex Mowat: The idea was that as a salon it could get bigger and smaller and we could collaborate with different types of people, not necessarily architects, for different types of projects.

How did it start?

AM: We met at the Royal College of Art and set up two years after we left, in 1996, working from a one-room studio near here, in Southwark.

How did you get into exhibition design?

AM: One of the first projects we did was an exhibition at the Crafts Council, 'Objects of Our Time'. It was about the work of young designers crafting their own objects as one-offs.Among the exhibitors were well-known people like Tom Dixon and Ron Arad, but then there were a lot of our contemporaries from the Royal College.

You were commissioned to design the Rem Koolhaas exhibition, 'Living', at the ICA.How did that come about?

Diana Cochrane: We did the 'Stealing Beauty' show at the ICA with Claire Catterall, the curator. I think that was when Rem first went to the ICA to discuss his exhibition.

AM: They telephoned us on a Friday and we were eating croissants in Rotterdam with Rem on Monday morning. We had only three weeks to design and build the exhibition, but it was one of those challenges that you couldn't refuse.

Apart from exhibitions, what sort of work have you been doing?

DC: We do domestic work, we do portable and temporary buildings, and we've pitched for a few public realm schemes.There's a strong relationship between the exhibitions and the public realm.Once you set up an exhibition in a space, it becomes a spatial experience for visitors which can be similar to how they experience a public space. . .

AM: But it's also about communicating information.

DC: . . . and then the exhibitions tie in with temporary and portable architecture because it's only there for a specific amount of time and it can have quite a big impact on a city. That's where we see connections between exhibitions and portable architecture - for example, a U2 pop concert, or even a big tent in a field for a religious festival. All the equipment is brought together for a specific event and for a limited period of time.

AM: It's also about finding solutions to a fastmoving world.

DC: And there's the ecological aspect. Every architect has got to be more and more responsible in terms of the materials they use and the sources they come from. Skyscape, the cinema building we did at the Millennium Dome, was only built for a year but many parts of it can be reused, or it can be rebuilt in its entirety or in small sections.

You say exhibitions are connected with public space. Is there any connection with interior design?

DC: Exhibitions are usually inside, they provide a primarily visual experience and they allow you to experiment with new materials.

AM: For 'Living' we commissioned these huge beanbags by Inflate. At the weekends we'd watch architects - you know how formal architects are - and we'd see them sprawled on the beanbags, with their kids, watching a Rem Koolhaas video on the ceiling-mounted television: using a public space as they would a domestic space.

How did you get the Orange commission?

AM: We think that Orange got a list of Royal College graduates who were running architecture practices. We did a pitch against another practice and got the job.

DC: We brought the stylist Sarah Hollywood on board right from the first day - that's the joy of Urban Salon's flexibility. Because even though the Orange house 'family' had been written about, they hadn't been visualized.

AM: Sarah was fantastic. Over that period of about six months we were accumulating the right objects for the house.

DC: Orange had two specific requirements.

They wanted to show technology that you could retrofit into an existing house. Secondly, they wanted you to feel the benefits of the technology without necessarily seeing it.

As architects, what do you think was your most significant contribution to the scheme?

AM: We told Orange at the outset that if this is an imaginary house for 2005 it will have some kind of solar power generation, whether for hot water heating or as photovoltaics to generate electricity.

Do you think there's a bigger role for architects to play in the domestic market?

AM: I think that there is a role for architects to play in the housing boom that is meant to be on our doorstep, but most housebuilders in the UK don't understand that. They haven't taken account of the way that contemporary design has become more desirable to the UK house consumer.

How applicable is the Orange house to housing in general?

AM: It's full of gadgets and you have to look at it as a sort of shopping list. It's like going to the supermarket - you choose what's relevant to you and what you'd like.

Like Ikea?

DC: I think the difference between Ikea and Orange is that some of the Orange technology enables you to do things that you've never been able to do before. For example, you are now able to talk to your house.

What of Urban Salon and the future?

AM: We'd love to take some of the Orange elements - solar power, building controls or luxury gadgets - to a major housing developer and see how on a bigger scale you could bring the costs down and the benefits up. That would be a fantastic experiment.

Do you see the large developers embracing quality design?

AM: They're beginning to do it on a superficial level, principally in specifying surfaces and materials. But I think one day one of them will really wake up and then I think the others will follow, but one of them has got to take a lone brave step.

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