Law of the jungle
When I arrived at MJP in 1996 I was met by a bright, plant-filled, double-height space that looked for all the world as if the wilderness had crept back to reclaim this small corner of Spitalfields. Large rubber plants trailed over drawing boards and to sit on one of the mezzanines that crossed the main space was like being in the tree canopy of a tropical jungle looking down on the creatures scurrying around on the floor below. Someone had even placed a small inflatable parrot in among the foliage.
The practice took root in the area, setting up Spitalfields Workspace where small companies were offered space in the open plan office sharing common facilities and providing one another with moral support.
This seemed a very apt beginning for an architect's office.
These days the companies have been replaced by project teams but the culture is much the same. Some days there was a kind of static electricity in the air, and when the office was busy with the Science Museum and Southwark Station, I was struck by a sense of strong kinship between individuals that was more than just a successful working relationship. There was some other connection, a sort of collective consciousness, that I could not quite explain.
Design pervaded the majority of conversation, whether in the morning at the tea point, at lunchtime in the curry houses on Brick Lane, or in the early hours of the morning in the Pride of Spitalfields (the pub given its name by one of the partners). It was a fertile environment for the creative mind.
The energies and enthusiasms of the partners were infectious as they whizzed around from client meeting to design review. Individuals had creative freedom to explore their own ideas but there was an unspoken loyalty to an unwritten code that even the most maverick subscribed to.
Weekly design reviews were highly charged occasions where ideas stood or fell and creative conflict reigned. Then, like a highpitched dinner gong, the sound of a bottle being uncorked would gather the office to toast someone joining or leaving. It was a comfortable family atmosphere. My first impression had been a good one.
Then, almost seven years on at the 30th anniversary party last October, while the familiar faces of past and present stood around in animated conversation, the practice was described as 'a kind of tribe'.
That was it! That was what we were. It was the obvious but perfect analogy for a group sharing common values and supportive network.And like a tribe, there were newcomers and those that had left and returned but there was a strong sense of belonging.
Whenever I meet a past employee of MJP there is always a knowing smile and immediately 101 things to talk about.
It was an important reminder of the number of people that have contributed to the work of the practice over the years.When we pore over photographs of the latest shiny new pieces of built perfection, or sexy competition winner, it is easy to forget that the success of a project relies upon the commitment of a cast of enthusiastic and talented individuals ready to go the extra mile to create something special. The practice has always been fortunate in attracting such individuals, never more so than now.
While the practice has doubled in size since 1996, in many ways little has changed.
Design and delivery is still top of the agenda, the atmosphere is still convivial and design reviews still occasionally carry health warnings for the faint-hearted. The foliage has retreated but the tribe is thriving.