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AJ100 #8: Jonathan Glancey on Allies and Morrison

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AJ100 Top 10 profiles: Allies and Morrison has produced work that is quietly distinguished, careful in its composition, craft and layering, writes Jonathan Glancey

‘British restraint with a human face’. This pertinent online comment appended to a review of Allies and Morrison’s recent, and happy, steel-framed, terracottaclad extension to Brighton College encapsulates and catches much of the spirit of the burgeoning London practice founded by Bob Allies and Graham Morrison.

Bob, who trained at Edinburgh and won the Rome Scholarship in 1981, and Graham, a Cambridge graduate whose Brancusi Prize took him off to Finland to study the works of Alvar Aalto, have always been scholarly architects. And yet they have built up a practice ranked eighth in this year’s AJ100, riding tides of brutal economics, crass globalism and a general demeaning of cultural values. In doing so, they have produced a body of work that is quietly distinguished, careful in its composition, craft and layering, and imbued with some of the core values and architectural lessons that have given us the best of workaday Rome, and of Aalto.

The gabled Simon Smith Building at Brighton College tells the practice’s story rather neatly; its deft plan and positioning within the confines of the 19th century Gothic school aside, its terracotta facade conceals a steel frame. For all its quiet courtesy, Allies and Morrison could not have done so well among a crowd of thrusting, muscular British practices unless it had a degree of steel in its soul, too.

The firm has realised over 30 years a more or less consistent body of work that has aimed, without having to shout, to uplift and civilise everyday architecture. Its own office on London’s Southwark Street, with its handsome facade, its lofty spaces for exhibitions, lectures, concerts and screenings - and its public café, The Table - sets the scene for a growing number of big, commercial office blocks made to be as refined, well made and urban as budgets and client demands allow.

Look up at Bankside 123, one of these imposing office blocks, and see how the treatment of the facades - recessed windows, regular proportions and well-judged materials - helps shape a contemporary architecture that is at once respectful of the streets it defines and serves, and satisfyingly substantial.

Graham Morrison made his, and the practice’s, views on urban composition clear in a spirited speech he gave in 2004 at the AJ/Bovis Awards dinner. He
called it ‘The Trouble with Icons’, something that has concerned architects who believe cities should be neither cartoons nor playpens. In his speech, he said: ‘Perhaps we should ask some simple questions before handing out more money and plaudits to “visionary” designers. What is the value of turning functional buildings into iconic ones? Are we simply trying too hard? Is a building’s purpose compromised by its style? And what contribution does the icon make to its surroundings? Too many iconic buildings and the fabric of the city is distorted; but too few and the city is dull. It is the quiet strength of ordinary streets and unexceptional buildings that allows the icon to be special. We need to look at the city as a whole, and no building should leave it worse-off.’

Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners has grown within the practice in recent years to further thinking on urban design and put it into practice at home and abroad. It has also developed a role as an executive architect, most notably for OMA’s Rothschild headquarters in the City of London, which was
shortlisted for the 2012 Stirling Prize. And yet, as the practice has grown, so the attention given to small projects, whether the barn-like Welney Visitor Centre for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on the Norfolk marshes or the handsome, cloistered brick extensions to St Thomas the Apostle College, ‘Southwark’s mostimproved school’, has been nurtured too. ‘Civilising the everyday’ is a tag that might be added to Allies and Morrison’s ‘British restraint with a human face’.

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