people space invaders
'If anything is described by an architectural plan, it is the nature of human relationships, since the elements whose trace it records - walls, doors, windows and stairs - are employed first to divide and then to selectively reunite inhabited space. But what is generally absent in even the most elaborately illustrated building is the way in which human figures will occupy it.' So begins the first chapter of Robin Evans' essay Figures, Doors and Passages.
It is precisely this reciprocity of behaviour and space that informs the architecture of Buschow Henley. The practice was formed in 1994 by Simon Henley and Ralph Buschow as a response to the times, 'Lots of style; not much content'. Initially working from a kitchen table, the pair was joined some six months later by Ken Rorrison and Gavin Hale-Brown. The four have since gone from strength to strength.
They began by asking fundamental questions about the way people lived their lives. 'How do you move from one space to another; what does it feel like to be walking down the street?' One of their earliest schemes started as a fit-out and quickly became the iconic 'big table project'. The scheme introduced the idea of the unremitting process of questioning that engenders all of the practice's work. They are unanimous in their faith in research, preferring to guide each client into a certain sensibility before engaging with the specifics of a project.
Due to such rigorous research they have even found themselves teaching a class full of eight-year-olds . 'It seemed like a good idea at the time,' explains Buschow, 'but was the hardest thing we've ever done!' The pertinent project, which has yet to be completed, was a lottery-funded mobile children's theatre. The work undertaken by the office is predominantly offices and housing. However, it is through their experience of working on such projects, from 'the inside out' that they have learnt to assemble small spaces. They have also come to understand how to explain the episodic qualities of their architecture.
A consequence of their design sensibility is that their buildings are difficult to photograph - composed as a layering of space-upon-space rather than a series of set pieces, one must move in, around and though their work. For this reason they eschew the notion of brochures, instead taking potential clients on a guided tour which is tailored to suit.
They describe their architecture as something that is both humane and eventful, citing the recently completed warehouse conversion at Shepherdess Walk (see pages 22 to 31) as a good example of how such characteristics can be translated into a building. Here they wanted to avoid the ubiquitous single gesture of perching a new modern floor on top of the old and instead created a roofscape of 'bungalows' (formerly skylights) leading to individual gardens. The relation of the inside to the outside and how people use such spaces is an issue to which they frequently return.
Their treatment of the bungalows is typically 'un-object like'. Generated from a series of possibly prosaic issues the resulting pieces look, according to Rorrison, a little strange. However, he goes on to explain that the question of their appearance is incidental since they were driven by a whole series of investigations which informed their nature. 'How you negotiate such issues is how you form a framework and slowly make sense of the brief.'
'We're not fixated by how things work', Henley is quick to add, 'but when you understand what's going to happen in a number of spaces there is far better chance those spaces will be right.'
They are not afraid to confront the inherently political nature of space while acknowledging the potential difficulties found in such speculation of human behaviour. 'There has to be a balance between the degree of order you impose and the degree of order you find', says Henley. Their belief that observing difference is as important as finding order manifests itself clearly in the Shepherdess Walk scheme. Each floor has access to outside space; the ground floor onto a courtyard, the top to the aforementioned 'bungalows' while the first makes use of a series of terraces. Avoiding the typical stance of wrapping them all the way round the building, the terraces only go where they need. This results in a few neighbours sharing these spaces rather than 30 or so strangers passing along, what is in effect, a corridor.
In following this rationale the practice has managed to avoid a 'trade- mark' look while actively developing a signature method of working. 'Clients don't come to us because they want an iconic building' says Hale-Brown, 'but because they want a space to work better.' With most of their work coming from client referrals, the success of their 'method' speaks for itself. 'It's about negotiating a position between the client's requirements, planning and the building process,' he adds. They tackle such negotiation with an admirable enthusiasm producing what, they themselves describe as, 'quirky rationality'.
Clearly they care a great deal about how people use space so it is ironic that ultimately only a limited number of people actually use the spaces they create. This is a paradox they intend to address, hoping eventually to work more in the public domain. At the moment, they are looking at the workplace as a transition between commerce and research. This is something they seem to have successfully achieved within their own working environment. 'Every day we get closer to the kind of office that we want', says Buschow. 'At the end of the day this is a place that I want to come to.'