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virtually real

The Stephen Lawrence Prize was awarded to Softroom last Saturday for its stunning Kielder Belvedere. But built projects are only part of the young firm's wide-ranging and challenging portfolio. Will the real Softroom stand up?

Softroom, a young practice brought into the world five years ago by three thoughtful ex-Bartlett students, believes that it represents where the profession is going - blurring the distinctions between 'virtual'and 'real'architecture and happy to work in either medium.

The firm - the name is a kind of synthesis of 'software' and the 'rooms' Softroom produces - is currently amazed by all the publicity surrounding its tiny Stephen Lawrence Prize winner, the Kielder Belvedere.

The practice is headed up by Christopher Bagot, Dan Evans and Oliver Salway, three just-thirtysomethings who appear to effortlessly move from designing slick and fashionable restaurants, shops and flats, to 3D 'virtual environments' for BBC TV's Grandstand, reams of buildings-of-the-future graphics for Wallpaper* magazine, visualisation work for other architects such as David Chipperfield, pop videos, music artwork and shortly an adventure in retail on the Internet.

'Virtual architecture and built architecture have always gone on in parallel, 'says Salway.Evans adds: 'We've never really tried to differentiate the two - it's all just an exploration of one type or another.'

Since 1995 the three have done about 100 jobs across the disciplines and, through costing their non-traditional architecture stuff in comparison to rival design firms'rate cards, they find that what the new clients call cheap actually equates to a very good architectural fee.So it pays to diversify.They call themselves architects, but have struggled to define what they do for a rebranding exercise in the coming months.

The three started a brush with the big time while they were still at the Bartlett. It was there that they entered the international competition to design the Cardiff Bay Opera House which, Bagot says, was approached 'as much as a town planning exercise as anything else'. Having made it onto a high-profile shortlist of eight with their triangular building and piazza space, they worked on it industriously over the summer, armed with a £15,000 honorarium.'It was hell, but it gave us a taste of running an office, ' says Salway. It also allowed them to hitch up with consultants such as Arup and Atelier One. But they say the scheme 'got very messy' when a local architect they worked with on the second stage (who they have not spoken to since) tried to take over the project once it got a sniff of success.

Then the trio went their separate ways - Bagot to work with Rick Mather, who had just been shortlisted for the Bankside Tate; Salway to co-edit a 'very ahead of its time' magazine called Artifice at the Bartlett, and then to work with Ron Arad; while Evans went to Australia and then on to also work with Mather. The Arad connection was crucial - he offered space for the young firm to set up in and allowed Softroom to get going without the burden of overheads.

Key early jobs were residential.One of the first in 1996 was for a solicitor client who had at first approached the busy Rick Mather. Others included the modern, Thai-food-inspired Noho restaurant in London's Charlotte Street, and from that the owner's hi-tech bachelor pad, filled with whizz-bang gadgetry such as remote curtain openers and designed around the notion of a hotel suite.'He knows he's funny, 'says Evans.

Then there was the Kielder Belvedere. 'It's a baroque bus stop, ' says Evans. It's also a shiny, petite, angular 'gem' of a building where ramblers can go to shelter from the inclement Northumberland weather and yes, wait for the local transport - a ferry. The inside is as important as the outside, says Softroom, and its long strip of window neatly borders the landscape, offering a picture-postcard panorama of the impressive and remote forest scenery.

Visitors to the (again triangular) prefabricated box, built for an astonishing £35,000, can look out onto the man-made reservoir now being prettified through a public art programme for tourism - a change from its original raison d'etre, a resource for heavy industry. 'But there was never any money in the original budget or any time to go there, 'says Salway.So the trio never paid a visit. There were two potential sites, but Softroom admits it chose it mainly on the basis of its name - Benny Shank.

(Ironically, the £5,000 Stephen Lawrence Prize award outstrips the £3,000 Softroom was paid in fees for the Kielder job. ) Retail work for Softroom started badly. The firm had designed pilot London stores for a new national high street fashion chain called Jack and had high hopes of drawing up several more, but disaster struck.Salway recalls: 'They got to the point where the shops were built, they'd got the stock, they hired the staff, and the day before they were due to open, the company went into liquidation.' It also just happened to be the week in which Softroom was moving from Chalk Farm to its new premises in Lexington Street, Soho.'At the time we kind of denied it as a problem but it probably did set us back a year or two, 'says Evans.'It would have been a great showcase for us.'

Shops continue to provide a source of work, mainly for the high-design end of the market - a tiny unit for Cutler and Gross dedicated to vintage sunglasses will soon appear in Knightsbridge and there are also built stores in the portfolio for firms such as knitwear outlet John Smedley.

But Bagot, Evans and Salway yearn to have the amount of staff - currently they are at seven - to be able to take part in more competitions. This bore fruit with Kielder and even a commendation in the Urban Splash Britannia Basin housing competition in Manchester, but Cardiff was a salutary lesson in the company that they were suddenly keeping.'At the ripe old age of 25, ' says Evans, 'the hideous intrigue of big business that swarmed around you when you had even the chance of getting the building up was just too much.'

But perhaps the really interesting thing about Softroom is its ability to transform and adapt to different areas and eschew the traditional lot of the architect.Wallpaper* magazine used the practice extensively to come up with designs for the house of the future, office of the future, supermarket of the future - anything of the future. It is something which appears a little tiresome to the men now, but brought them a good deal of international exposure. As well as magazine design, they plunged in at the deep-end into directing pop videos. And, when the BBC was struggling to find a new look for the studio of its Grandstand sports programme, Softroom was in the right place at the right time to come up with virtual spaces, surprising the BBC that it was architects and not its in-house team coming up with the solution.

So perhaps the architecture practice of the future is changing, as boundaries collapse and computer-aided design for the Internet generation takes further hold. If so, Softroom is ready.

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