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a family affair

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People Amir Sanei and Abigail Hopkins want to 'bring a little bit of California to London'. With their immaculate architectural pedigrees and their own practice, Sanei Hopkins Studio, it seems only building regulations stand in their way

Architects beget architects, or so it would seem. Both partners in the Sanei Hopkins Studio are scions of distinguished architectural families - Abigail Hopkins from England and Amir Sanei from a long line in Iran (Sanei translates literally as 'builder of beautiful buildings'). One might go further and say that architectural practices beget architectural practices. In this case Michael Hopkins and Partners, where the couple met.

Sanei first worked in the office in his year out, following his degree at Edinburgh University. He continued there part-time during his subsequent studies at the AA, and then joined the practice full-time, working on a series of high-profile projects, including the new parliamentary building.

Hopkins came back to London after a spell in the US, where she worked for Richard Meier following a masters course at Columbia University. Frustrated by the limited scope for building in New York, she took up the offer to work in the Hopkins office as 'too good an opportunity to miss', and went on to complete three buildings in quick succession.

After 12 years in the Hopkins office, Sanei found the hardest thing about deciding to set up a new practice was leaving the security of what was clearly an enjoyable working environment and taking a step into the unknown. He was fortunate, however, in being able to ease himself out slowly, working as a consultant on a part-time basis for several months before Sanei Hopkins was incorporated in January this year.

Hopkins had already left the office after six years to have their second child.

Their first completed project - indeed their first collaboration - happens to be their house, which they finished two years ago (page 35). For the time being at least, it also serves as their studio.Armed with little more than a computer, a fax machine and a good accountant, they have followed a timehonoured tradition of young modern practices - living and working in the same space.With two small children to look after, and a client roster to build, there is clearly an advantage in being based at home and keeping overheads down. But they are both keen to establish a separate office as soon as workload permits.

This, of course, assumes that the work is there. So far Sanei Hopkins has been successful in attracting new clients. One of the most difficult decisions for a young practice is deciding what kind of work to take on and how quickly to begin to build a team.

At the moment, they each have their own projects, which seems to work very well. 'It means we don't step on each other's toes, ' says Hopkins. And although they have their hands full, they are content to postpone hiring people until they can offer some sense of job security and build long-term relationships, perhaps with one or two key people.

Currently, they are focussed on housing in one form or another, which they see as a refreshing counterpoint to the large-scale projects they worked on in the Hopkins office. They have several clients in London;

they are hoping to remodel and add a mirror-clad rear extension to a house in Notting Hill (which echoes the distinctive formal language of their own house).

Another project involves scooping out the interior of a 19th-century house that backs onto Regent's Canal, in Maida Vale.

In each case they are seeking to use materials in unusual ways, while finding a path through a maze of building regulations and pursuing intricate negotiations with the local planners, just as they did when they extended their own property.

They are also working with a housing developer in Southampton on a series of small-scale urban infill sites, each of which presents its own complex planning problems. And there is a commission to design an apartment on the first floor of a Norman Shaw building on the Chelsea Embankment for a Lebanese developer, who is making interesting noises about asking them to design a villa in Dubai, which would be their first entirely new-build project.

Looking at this work and talking to Hopkins and Sanei there seems to be a real desire to face tough challenges head on, to break new ground and resist compromise.

The mirrored wall of the Notting Hill house, if it is allowed to happen, will be an immensely elegant, minimalist statement.

Sanei describes it as bringing 'a little bit of California to London'. Certainly, it has an other-worldly quality but it is also a sculptural piece, combining the cool, Platonic forms of Donald Judd with the enigmatic polished surfaces of Anish Kapoor. It plays similar games in terms of surface and illusions of depth. The wall will reflect the sky or the facades of the houses that face it across the intervening gardens, making it virtually invisible.

One hopes it gets built. It seems odd that anyone would object - it is surely the ultimate contextual building.

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