the big issue
Simon Conder has won this year's AJ/Robin Ellis Design Build Small Projects competition with a stunningly elegant garden room (pictured) in storey-height timber and glass panels and some seemingly risky structural glass, courtesy of engineer Dewhurst MacFarlane.
Conder says the whole structure seemed rather floppy before the glass was fitted.
Then everything locked into place.
Fascinating as this kind of thing is, and however good his practice may be at it, Conder has had enough. 'I don't want to do any more small-scale domestic work, ' he says.
'Yeah, yeah, yeah, ' you say to yourself.
Since when have small practices been able to pick and choose as simply as that? But Conder's alternative vision is not of wallowing in the lucrative delights of fat cat mega-scale commercial development. He says. 'I quite like the idea of the intellectual challenge involved in making money. But we are small because we want to do it all ourselves: we find it difficult to delegate, especially delegating working drawings.' So no design and build there.
The Conder practice's work had been in the £50,000-£400,000 bracket. Now it is working on a couple of commissions worth several millions each: the public sector work is starting to come in. Conder is finding that housing associations are veering uncomfortably in the direction of commercial developers. Happily, given Conder's need to do everything and not delegate, he has persuaded one housing association client not to do design and build. But he has plainly been personally persuasive. He says: 'Whenever I get out there, it's clear that their idea of architects is not ours. We are not trusted on grounds of value for money and of reliability. But as a practice we have had to learn how much things cost because quite often our small-scale work hasn't had the budget to include a quantity surveyor.'
Conder wants to work with the public sector. It is not just because the projects are bigger but because he has a commitment to the idea of the role of architecture in the public service. 'It dates back to the time I was at college, ' he says. 'We inherited the general propositions of our previous generation.'
That generation had largely worked only in the public sector because of the straitened commercial circumstances after the end of the war. It is a position he has come to from enforced periods of introspection. In the depths of the early '90s recession, lots of practices lost jobs with cataclysmic speed.
Conder was no exception. In six months his office lost 90 per cent of its work and the office went from 12 staff to two. He says: 'All that closing down meant I had to think about what I really wanted to do. Lots of people simply gave up architecture.'
His arguments against small domestic commissions are deep-seated but they also turn on their exigencies. There's the fact that this scale of work involves close-up relationships with clients. Conder is either weighed down by experience or overly selfdeprecating about his ability to understand clients. This kind of work is also at too small a physical scale to allow much in the way of architectural invention and you have to go to extraordinary lengths to get the detail right because the client is going to see it every morning over the cornflakes. And eventually hate you for it. Conder is probably incapable of not having to get every detail right. He has done some really inventive things, such as the polycarbonate and timber rooftop gazebo at a converted warehouse round the corner from his office (AJ 27.1.00). Then there are a number of elegant fit-outs in adjacent warehouses - plus a rubber-clad beach house starting soon on the Dungeness shingle near the late Derek Jarman's house and stone garden. He says: 'We started off with the idea of not doing any drawings to see if we could relate to the ad hocness of the surrounding dwellings. That didn't last long. But we found this wonderful German rubber roofing called Prelasti. They'll make up all the elevations with cut-outs for windows and doors in their factory and ship it over.'
Because he is the son of Neville Conder, as in Casson & Conder, you might think he suffered from the famous architectural father effect. Not so. He has been determined from the beginning not to let it get in the way.
He went to the AA and the RCA. After this he went to work at Basildon New Town, then producing some very interesting housing. He says: 'I was given great chunks of work to do which was very unwise because I had almost no experience.' But he began learning the architectural nuts and bolts at Basildon and later at Lambeth, under Ted Hollamby.
In 1984 he started his own practice in the darkroom of his typographer partner, Chrissie Charlton. She moved with him to a couple of rooms over Zwemmers in the Charing Cross Road, then to an office in Shoreditch, not far from the present Conder office in the basement of an old warehouse off the bottom of Islington's City Road. He bought the building with a group of artists who have now all sold out to City types.
There, in what was once a half-flooded wreck, there is a big, cool, grey and white space with about six staff working at VDUs and the odd drawing board. And some models of cool, bigger buildings yet to come.