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Small Projects: ingenuity in the face of adversity

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalists
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Outgoing RIBA head of awards and Small Projects jury member Tony Chapman brings his own perspective to this year’s awards

Small is not necessarily beautiful (but then, nor is big). Designing at a small scale means there is nowhere to hide. It’s like thinking aloud; every whirring of the cognitive gears can be heard. It will be apparent: you’re either a genius or an idiot. And that’s why prizes for small projects are so important: to sort the one from the other.

Most clients are not idiots, so they’re more likely to take a chance on an unknown architect when they have a small budget to spend than when they have a large one. Hence the truism that most young architects cut their teeth on small projects. And what makes the results interesting is that often their authors are still close to their student selves. Untrammelled by the quotidian grind of practice, they are never more likely to come up with fresh and original solutions to problems they are likely not to have come up against before – at least not in the real world.

A number of the shortlisted projects this year have the air of built student projects – and why not? It’s great to get the opportunity to find out if free-thinking can translate into spaces people can inhabit and enjoy. Take Charlie Redman’s Welcoming Shelter. This latter-day lightweight structure in the King’s Cross Skip Garden, in the spirit of Frei Otto, is a Bartlett project, realised with Arup’s help.

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalist

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalist

Welcoming Shelter by Charlie Redman

One of the surprising things about this year’s shortlist is the number of projects by established practices – NORD, Feilden + Mawson, Carmody Groarke and, most notably, Stirling-winning Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios with its Observatory artist’s studio buildings. No doubt the practice put some of its younger architects to work on these two objects in a landscape on the south coast of England. I hope so. This was one of a number of schemes that show a refreshing interest in architectural history – here the reference is to St Jerome’s study, which has inspired a number of great architects over time, including Herman Hertzberger, no less.

History surrounds and imbues Carden & Godfrey’s medieval carved panels-meet-shipping container solution to the storage of sacred objects in Rochester Cathedral. Taro Tsuruta’s house extension (a common type, inevitably – check out Doma’s lovely lean-to) shows an awareness of another kind of history – that of the ordinary Victorian house, retaining here not only the gable end in its deliberately non-matched brick extension, but also the cracks in the old structure. It’s the kind of thinking also seen in Alma‑nac’s spectacularly over-sized door, worth it even at the expense of elevational composition; and in Archmonger’s replacement of weatherboarding with ceramic tiles in a terrace of 1960s housing. The fact that I live in an identical house and would probably hate it if it happened next door to me is not the point; they have had a go and not worried about taste or the neighbours.

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalists

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalists

Contemporary Lean-to by Doma Architects

Other schemes demonstrate ingenuity in the face of adversity in the shape of planning constraints. Jonathan Tuckey’s mews, with its retained stable doors and tight site, is as much a piece of inhabited furniture design as the cathedral job. Others have had to dig deep, not in the sod-you gym and cinema double-decker basement way, but discreetly and ingeniously, as in Konishi Gaffney’s sunken extension that (more history here) pays tribute to Walter Segal in its construction techniques; or Studio McLeod, which has tucked its entire office in under a grass roof and got beautiful light in.

Origami makes a comeback in – you guessed it – Folds, by Bureau de Change (but why did they submit no exterior shots?) and in the Archive, Homestore and Kitchen by Haptic, whose use of birch ply instead of cross-laminated timber to produce the folds gets extra marks.

There are plenty of projects here to delight another Royal Gold Medal winner, AJ contributor Joseph Rykwert – more primitive huts than you can shake a cedar stick at in Scotland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and all over England like a rash: a shingle-clad writer’s hut in Greenwich, Nozomi Nakabayashi’s Hut on Stilts, a Japanese-style treehouse in Dorset.

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalist

AJ Small Projects Awards 2016 finalist

Source: Henrietta Williams

Hut on Stilts by Nozomi Nakabayashi

And here’s another thing: it’s good to see that UK architecture is as international as ever, whether it’s people coming to study and work here or British architects working overseas, even at this level.

The context of landscape can be as demanding and inhibiting as that of the city. To place a new object in a sensitive piece of countryside takes maturity but not great age; tact but not subservience. Hugh Strange’s Wildlife Cabin in the Avon Gorge looks like it’s always been there, storing agricultural equipment. FAM Architekti and Feilden + Mawson’s collaboration in northern Bohemia (where else?) has led to a wooden box so intriguing that opening it up would make every day like Christmas. And De Rosee Sa’s woodland cabin is so deliciously inviting I’ll even forgive it its dusk photography.

Imagination abounds in these projects

The greatest constraint of all is budget and how to stretch it. Inevitably in Scotland £120k will get you a new-build house (albeit self-built); in London you get a back extension for that. But the issue is the same: how to get value for your client. And that is down to imagination, which abounds in these projects – some of which I hope we’ll be seeing in this year’s RIBA Awards.

There’s something rather pleasing about leaving behind the apples and oranges of the RIBA Awards – how do you compare a bus shelter with a concert hall? The answer is on their own terms, and it is what judges do all the time. But it is liberating to forget such considerations and concentrate on small projects: schemes of a similar-ish size, relatively unknown architects and no politics to take into account, at least not of the macro kind.

Tony Chapman is the outgoing RIBA Head of Awards. He will be judging this year’s Small Projects Awards alongside architect and developer Roger Zogolovitch, architect Sally Lewis, and quantity surveyor John Boxall. 

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