Moving centre stage
'I suppose we were typecast,' says Paul Williams of Stanton Williams. Not so long ago, many saw the practice (founded in 1985) as chiefly concerned with interiors and, in particular, with exhibition design. With the National Theatre revamp nearly finished, the first building phase of a new gallery at Compton Verney completing this summer, and a large office building at Brindleyplace, Birmingham, on site, the image of the partnership is set to change. Last year, the teaching building which it designed for Birkbeck College, London, opened, while its 60 Sloane Avenue scheme, completed in 1994, has won a string of awards and been applauded as a particularly successful blend of old and new. Moreover, the firm is building a prestigious Millennium project and working on a visitor centre for Whitby Abbey and its first private house.
Paul Williams and Alan Stanton got to know each other in the early 1980s, when both were working on projects for the Tate Gallery. Williams was already known internationally as a designer of art exhibitions. Stanton had spent six years with Piano & Rogers on the Pompidou Centre, moving on to teach at the aa and work with Mike Davies and Ian Ritchie in the innovative Chrysalis practice. 'We got together because a passion for art was our common ground,' says Stanton. 'Besides, we both wanted to have an office and make a decent living without having to travel constantly.' Williams' sources included the organic modernism of Carlo Scarpa, while Stanton was associated with High-Tech. Neither would want to be described as a minimalist, but both admit to a passionate interest in the proper use of materials and a concern for detailing alongside form.
Exhibition design was a staple of the office in the early days. ('The Age of Chivalry' show at the Royal Academy was a highlight.) 'It's very English to see exhibitions as detached from architecture,' says Williams. 'The Italians, for instance, see it differently. We've built more than most of our contemporaries, but most of what we've built has been temporary. It's still architecture, concerned with space, movement, and light. Exhibitions have always provided a context for innovation and experiment.'
Fearing that it had, indeed, been typecast, Stanton Williams began declining invitations to design exhibitions. Permanent installations, such as the interior of the Design Museum and the cathedral museum at Winchester, were more attractive. The practice was commissioned to design its first of only three retail projects, notably for Issey Miyake (who remains a client). 'We were then bracketed as shop designers!' says Williams. Winning the competition for a new gallery at the riba - the brief developed into a major extension to the building - was a boost for Stanton Williams in its early years, but led, of course, nowhere.
The completion of 60 Sloane Avenue was something of a breakthrough. Crispin Kelly was 'a very special client' and, working in association with yrm, Stanton Williams juxtaposed new architecture with a restored terracotta facade to make a new entity with a strong personality of its own. Accustomed to working in interesting old buildings - such as the Gas Hall in Birmingham, the Grade II*-listed Economist Building and the former office of Serge Chermayeff (where it installed Classic fm) - Stanton Williams was a natural choice to extend and refurbish Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. The practice is still astonished that its work there, which included well-designed access for disabled people, was labelled as 'vandalism'. 'They used to drag people in wheelchairs up the front steps - not easy or dignified,' says Stanton. 'The Victorian Society brings parties to the museum to show them the damage we've allegedly done'.
For a certain sort of fogeyesque critic, Stanton Williams is anathema. Against their natural inclinations, perhaps, such critics ganged up with Sir Denys Lasdun to slam Stanton Williams' proposals for the National Theatre. 'We lost a lot of sleep over the nt,' Williams admits. He and Stanton (who ran the job) were dismayed by the criticisms voiced by Lasdun, whom they much admire, and the chorus of opposition from lesser individuals which followed. 'Nobody bothered to find out what was really going on,' says Stanton. 'But I'm not ashamed of our approach, which is not about preservation. We believe old buildings can be successfully and sensitively updated.'
Stanton Williams is enjoying the particular challenge of substantial new buildings. At Compton Verney, the new gallery has been endorsed by English Heritage as a model extension to a Grade I-listed country house. The £15 million Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place for Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is unquestionably one of the best thought-out of millennium projects - it is also one of the most economical.
Fitness for purpose does not, however, make news. Stanton and Williams have never set out to make news, simply to produce excellent, gimmick- free architecture. Esteemed by their peers, they may be, but, says Williams, 'an awful lot of people don't really know what we do'. With an exhibition of its work on at the National Theatre, an office of 25 (and growing) and £45 million of jobs on site, Stanton Williams is at last set for the recognition that is so long overdue.