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Architecture as a social art Feilden Clegg celebrates 20 years of balancing modernism with tradition and romanticism with technological rationalism

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Richard Feilden of Feilden Clegg Architects admits that he ‘set up in practice virtually by mistake’, and was pleasantly surprised to get enough work to live on. This year, the practice that Richard Feilden and Peter Clegg founded celebrates its 20th birthday - with rather more work than it had back in 1978 and a reputation which reflects its broad and undogmatic (but always thoughtful) approach to modern design.

Feilden Clegg is that comparative rarity, a practice of national standing based outside London - and not in a regional metropolis, like Manchester or Glasgow, but in middling-sized Bath. Feilden came to Bath in 1975, after training at Cambridge and the aa, simply because his future wife was still a student there. He liked the place and stayed on. Feilden Clegg came into being three years later, following the return of Peter Clegg (whom Feilden had met at Cambridge) from Yale. The practice sees partnership as dynamic and has made it easy for people to join or leave. Since 1995 ten new partners have been created and the current group is 13 strong, with Feilden, Clegg and Keith Bradley (a Bath graduate) as senior partners.

The practice is based in the provinces but determinedly anti-provincial in outlook. In the early years, Feilden Clegg’s workload was diverse - small refurbishment jobs, and local authority work on housing and schools - but rather unchallenging. The need for a challenge and the desire to build experimental, low-energy buildings drove Feilden Clegg into becoming a developer. As such, it built some highly-praised residential schemes, but in 1991 the development operation had to be wound up - fortunately, at a time when the practice was obtaining some excellent client commissions.

Feilden Clegg’s offices are in the former Bath Brewery, a handsome nineteenth- century stone building which it converted as its own base and as a lettable investment. The firm’s agenda is, and always has been, firmly social and environmental. Though catholic in its interests and resistant to attempts to categorise its work, Feilden Clegg admits to being influenced by - and even, to some degree, modelled on - the organisational structure of Edward Cullinan Architects, though the architectural approach of the two firms is not particularly close these days. The idea of the office as a community of equals - with communal lunches and shared cars - is Cullinan- esque and Feilden Clegg, like Cullinan, feels an emotional tie with the English Arts and Crafts tradition. The practice’s early work, notably the Voysey-esque Macleod Centre on the island of Iona, reflects unmistakeable Arts and Crafts influences. The Iona commission (won in competition in 1985) got Feilden Clegg noticed. But how does it square with the firm’s latest work, including an impeccably ‘green’ building for the bre and the first phase of the Lottery-funded Earth Centre in South Yorkshire? The nostalgia, if such it was, has apparently vanished and the Feilden Clegg of the late 1990s looks at ease in the company of Will Alsop and Future Systems.

A closer look at Feilden Clegg’s recent work reveals both the essential continuity of its approach and a developing expertise and willingness to experiment. The recording studio complex, part conversion, part new- build, which the practice designed for rock star Peter Gabriel at Box, near Bath, in the mid-1980s married a number of interests. Far from being over-sensitive or preoccupied with the English disease of ‘keeping in keeping’, Feilden Clegg is capable of being uncompromisingly modern, using the language of High-Tech where appropriate. But technological rationalism is balanced by a persistently romantic element which suggests the influence of the ‘alternative’ - organic or ‘humanistic’ - modern tradition and of Scandinavia in particular. Both Feilden and Clegg absorbed this influence at Cambridge under the influence of Leslie Martin, Barry Gasson, David Thurlow, Michael Brawne and, indeed, Ted Cullinan. The Cambridge influence permeated the Bath school in the 1980s, when Brawne and Patrick Hodgkinson both taught there alongside Peter Clegg.

Feilden Clegg tends to see itself as part of a ‘family’ of practitioners in the alternative modern mould, which encompasses, for example, Sverre Fehn and Alvaro Siza. It believes that architecture, as a social art, must pay close regard to users’ needs and preferences. To be ‘populist’ is risky, but preferable, in Feilden Clegg’s book, to being merely arrogant. Making abstract forms is not the proper business of architects, the practice believes, but making places must be a central concern of architecture. Any building, in the Feilden Clegg agenda, should, in addition, be responsible and responsive to the wider environment in terms of energy and materials.

Most architects have become ‘green’ in recent years, but for Feilden Clegg it has been a fundamental tenet from the beginning. Being commissioned to design the Greenpeace headquarters in London (a conversion of a 1920s factory completed in 1991) was a conspicuous challenge. This low-cost project depended on natural ventilation and maximum utilisation of natural light. By inserting a new stair through the centre of the building, the architects increased daylight levels and created an effective ventilation stack - as well as a cohesive social device, promoting good communications in the office.

The Greenpeace job led directly to work at the Earth Centre, founded by ex-Greenpeace director Jonathan Smales. Insulation, shading and natural ventilation were major issues in subsequent schemes such as the extension to Cheltenham and Gloucester College (1991-93) and the John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol (also completed in 1993). Rooted in research done by Richard Feilden and Peter Clegg a quarter of a century ago, the firm’s expertise in environmentally benign design has developed steadily. It is demonstrated dramatically in the didactic office building designed for the bre, in which a low-energy strategy and recycled materials are combined with strong architectural form. Feilden Clegg believes that the hair-shirt, anti-design image of eco-architecture is a major hindrance to the advance of the cause. The environmental programme for the bre block - developed with Max Fordham & Partners - was, the architects say, ‘very ambitious’ and included a sophisticated natural ventilation strategy, use of naturally cooled floor slabs (using borehole water from 60m below ground) and extensive shading. The indications are that it has worked well, though its example may continue to be resisted by developers for whom gas-guzzling American buildings represent an ideal.

The social and community bias of Feilden Clegg’s work is reflected in the early housing schemes and in later projects such as Bengough’s House, a residential home on the outskirts of Bristol, and the Popley Fields community centre in Basingstoke, both completed in 1996 and both concerned with making agreeable places for people on unpromising sites. Richard Feilden, who has served as chairman of the riba’s Community Architecture Group, argues that concern for community, as for the environment, is no excuse for mediocre design.

Social concerns and a poetic use of materials - plus a surefire approach to cost control - are evident in the Lantern Community Centre at Ringwoood, Hampshire, designed in line with the prescriptions of Rudolf Steiner and completed in 1992 at a cost of just £478,000. The Lantern Centre is a far remove from the recently completed office building for the Open University at Milton Keynes, where metal and glass, rather than timber, provided the raw materials. But once again cost was a key issue - the 7500m2 building, housing 450 staff, came in on budget at £7.5 million. Naturally ventilated and providing for low-energy operation - the strategy in this instance was developed with Feilden Clegg’s frequent collaborator, Buro Happold - the building injects some style into an otherwise drab campus. Cool and rational, it is a replicable prototype - built as a construction management project with Mace - rather than a prestigious one-off. But it could represent one important element in Feilden Clegg’s future workload.

Half, if not more, of Feilden Clegg’s very recent and continuing work consists of higher education projects, much of it far from the practice’s West Country home territory. There is more work for Cheltenham and Gloucester College in Gloucester, but also a 275-bed student housing complex at Sunderland University (won in a competition where Richard MacCormac was a strong contender), a major refurbishment scheme for Imperial College, London, and a major, 650-unit, residential development, including a 17-storey tower, at Aston University, Birmingham. Too much new student housing reflects the over-hasty expansion of higher education, the concern for quantity over quality, which began under the last government. Feilden Clegg manages to adhere to inevitably strict budgets without losing sight of architectural quality - the West Downs Student Village in Winchester (650 units completed so far and another 200 still to come) demonstrates a continuing concern for place-making. It has a sturdy elegance in tune with the student lifestyle. Feilden Clegg believes that buildings of this kind have to be easily maintained, not so sophisticated that they defy the skills of typical building managers, and certainly not easily bruised by robust use. The practice is adept at taking seemingly intractable building types, which mere stylists might avoid, and making out of them something both stylish and practical.

Feilden Clegg seems to have firmly jettisoned the element of nostalgia which characterised its earliest projects. The practice is not too grand to undertake small commissions, which often have to pay some heed to the prejudices of planners, but its own inclinations are towards the bold and the unsentimental. In the centre of Cheltenham, of all places, where pastiche has long ruled, it has designed an entirely modern, very dense residential development for Beaufort Homes and secured support from the local authority.

Feilden Clegg’s reputation for pragmatism is both an asset and a burden. Turning in buildings which perform well attracts clients, but the firm has aspirations to be recognised for something more than common sense - though reasserting the place of architects in a field, like housing, where they seemed increasingly irrelevant, is an achievement in itself. The balance of skills which is seen as defining the role of the architect is changing, as society itself changes. Architects cannot simply ignore the pressure for delivering buildings on time and to cost. Idealism is not enough.

The idealism in the practice is, however, genuine enough. In part, it harks back to the Arts and Crafts roots which only occasionally emerge in Feilden Clegg’s work of the 1990s. But, as Clegg points out, ‘there is more than one brand of idealism’. The Olivier Theatre at Bedales School in Hampshire is a worthy neighbour to Ernest Gimson’s marvellous, hand- hewn school library and was designed in the spirit of Bedales, an institutionfar removed from the stiff-upper-lip philistinism of the typical public school. The fact that it is constructed on a timber frame, with pupils involved (in true Bedales fashion) in the building operation (which was managed by the client), does not make it anything but modern. The theatre was low-cost (£1.1 million) and was designed, again with the help of Max Fordham, for low-cost running. It is an exemplar for modern building within a real tradition. Feilden Clegg was worried, as the project progressed, that it was extreme, an oddity - but the end results prove that its fears were misplaced. The theatre is as valid an approach to modern design as, say, Richard Rogers’ library at Thames Valley University - and an equal visual delight.

Feilden Clegg is opening a London branch this month, but remains unlikely to abandon its roots in the regions or its interest in the spontaneous and the highly practical. Its strengths lie in its ability to build on its roots and apply them to a wide range of current concerns. The agricultural barn might seem an odd model for the headquarters of a computer-software company, but software designers tend to be individualists to the core. rare Ltd, based at Twycross in deepest Leicestershire, specified the use of traditional building forms for its new buildings (totalling 3500m2) which are currently nearing completion. The materials are a mix of the traditional and the modern, the forms are familiar in feel but not replicatory. The aim is to create agreeable, even inspirational, workplaces for creative people. All the old Feilden Clegg themes are present, but you sense that the inspiration is two-way between client and architect. The scheme suggests that Feilden Clegg’s view of architecture as a social art still holds good and has appeal for a new generation of clients. But it is the Earth Centre which is a more accurate marker of Feilden Clegg’s current ideals and interests, bringing together themes in its work which have developed over some years. The quality of this project makes one regret all the more that it may not be completed as planned - nor are the later phases of the centre at all certain to happen. The practice wears its maturity well. After 20 years, Feilden Clegg’s view of architecture as a social art still holds good and seems to have appeal for a widening circle of clients.

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