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Country boys

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Richard Burton, Peter Ahrends and Paul Koralek have been partners in ABK for 40 years and have stuck together for better and for worse, from the Prince's carbuncle speech to the new British Embassy in Moscow by kenneth powell. photograph by guy jordan

Architectural partnerships can be as transient as modern marriages, which makes the 40 year partnership of Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek something of an achievement.

Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, all born in 1933, have actually been collaborators for half a century.

They met in their first year at the Architectural Association in 1951.

Both Peter Ahrends and Paul Koralek had been childhood refugees from the Third Reich - Ahrends left Germany at the age of four for South Africa, where his father resumed practice as an architect. Vienna-born Koralek came to London in 1939, and was packed off to an English public school 'to become anglicised'. He won a place at the AAat the age of 17, but deferred his entry in order to spend a year in Paris.

Meanwhile, Ahrends, having served apprenticeships as a carpenter and plumber (his father's idea of a sound practical training), decided that London was the place to study. Richard Burton, Anglo-Russian in background with Gerald Barry (general director of the Festival of Britain) as his stepfather, had been through Bryanston. From their diverse backgrounds, the three men found that they had a lot in common - not least their interest in Frank Lloyd Wright.

'We were mad on octagons', Burton recalls. 'Mies and Corbusier were the favoured models at the AAand liking Wright was considered very eccentric'.

The trio was nicknamed 'the country boys', but held their own against some brilliant tutors.

For Ahrends, London in the year of the Festival was a liberating experience: 'I was a boy from the outback - the Festival was so confident and fresh. It was thanks to Casson that it was so good'. Sir Hugh Casson was later to feature prominently in the history of ABK.

In 1960 he chaired the competition jury for the new library planned for Trinity College, Dublin.

Koralek's entry (done from New York, where he was working with Marcel Breuer) won - and in 1961 ABK was seriously launched. Both Koralek and Burton had done stints with Powell & Moya - Philip Powell proved to be a good friend to the young firm - while Ahrends had worked briefly for Denys Lasdun after returning to South Africa for two years. (The growth of apartheid repelled him and he became a fervent campaigner for democracy. ) 'Both Wright and Corb were influences on the Dublin library, ' says Koralek, 'though I doubt we would have admitted it at the time'.

Spatially complex, offering users a wide choice of places to read, the Berkeley Library was far removed, for example, from the Miesian universalism of GMW's recently completed library at Sheffield University. Its monumentality might have appealed to ABK's Brutalist tutors, but was tempered by a delicacy of detail and economy of means uncommon in British buildings of the period. Its physical context was highly sensitive - a campus of outstanding eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. 'The theme of building with history was present in our work from the beginning', Koralek says. Both the Chichester Theological College (completed 1965) and the Roman Catholic chaplaincy in Oxford addressed sensitive sites. If the college has a distinct Brutalist flavour, the Oxford building builds to some extent on the work of Powell & Moya.

After Dublin, libraries became something of an ABK speciality - the public libraries at Maidenhead and Redcar are educational and community facilities, not civic monuments. ABK has always sought to re-examine the basic premises underlying a particular building type. Peter Ahrends believes that, for a practice coming to maturity in the 1970s, it was necessary to rigorously question formulae which had been adopted, perhaps too readily, by the Modern Movement.

In particular, there was the issue of user choice and preference. 'If our architecture is 'social', it's because it's about people and the way they really live, not just aesthetics', says Ahrends. The Cummins factory at Shotts, Lanark, completed in 1983, reflected intense discussion with management and workforce. A similarly inclusive approach informed the unbuilt 1978 scheme for Johnson & Johnson's headquarters, complete with pioneering raised floor.

The genuine idealism of ABK's work added a certain irony to the devastating attack on its competition-winning National Gallery scheme delivered by the Prince of Wales. The designs were, in fact, not only contextual but, by ABK standards, quite formal. But the scheme was abandoned, and the impact on the practice was 'very serious and very damaging'. There was no 1980s boom period for ABK and even today the firm has little or no work in Britain and is currently most active in Ireland, where its success has been all the more remarkable in view of the Irish architectural renaissance.

With Richard Burton now semi-retired, Ahrends and Koralek will be maintaining continuity for the next couple of years, but one senses the end of an era at ABK. With Robert Davys running the Dublin office, director David Cruse is heir apparent in London. He is bullish about the practice's prospects but he concedes, 'there is a need for us to re-connect'.

Steering a lone path through the tides of fashion, ABK has never lost sight of the ideas which moved its founders from the beginning: the practice has always believed that 'the quality of our surroundings cannot be dissociated from the quality of life'. Winning, and building, the British Embassy in Moscow was clearly an enormous fillip for ABK. Its great timber pavilion roofs are a nod to Russian tradition, but they could equally be read as a reference to the Prairie School and to the great tradition of an organic modern architecture rooted in the work of Sullivan and Wright. The 'country boys' have proved quite irrepressible: few architects of their generation have done so much to enrich the British scene.

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