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harnessing the wam factor

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'Upfront and rude', the guiding lights behind young, upwardly mobile practice WAM like to make an impact, be it designing with 'a sense of delight' or turning up to pitch for a job on their high-performance motorbikes by david taylor. photograph by guy jo

In September this year the Architecture Foundation will publish New Architects II.It promises to be another glossy snapshot of the 'bright young things' in the profession, and an update on the guide to the best 83 'emerging' practices the foundation came up with three years ago.

But when the previous book was published the selection of exactly who made the grade proved controversial. Some of the practices were clearly on the 'emerged', rather than the emerging side, whereas others - such as Sauerbruch Hutton and Foreign Office Architects - have gone on to bigger and better things.

Now a practice which is already guaranteed a place in the new book and aiming to join the latter category is WAM, an office of eight based on Old Street, north London, and headed up by ex-Pringle Brandon-staffers David Walker and Stuart Martin. 'We'd always wanted to do our own thing, ' says New Zealander Walker. 'And we're like-minded people with the same attitude.'

That attitude, judging from the kind of work they have picked up in five and a half years, is colourful, playful and, in their own words, 'lively', but with an underbelly of (they insist) realistic and workable solutions. 'We were fun and funky five years ago, now we're upfront and rude, ' laughs Martin. 'Surprisingly practical, 'Walker chips in, with a grin.

And the bold approach appears to be paying dividends. Elements within WAM's schemes quickly foster often childish nicknames which are, to the pair's surprise, adopted by the clients, whose satellite office workers suddenly start whining that they want one too. That happened with the 'Mr Tickle' feature - long, arm-like structures suspended from a ceiling - and 'Mr Bouncy' inflatable meeting pod for car hire firm Avis, and the 'mission control' area they designed for Thomas Cook. Beach huts make it into a traditionally dull building type, a call centre, for another Thomas Cook building in Peterborough. And there is both a 'time tunnel' entrance and a 'pissometer' in the gents at the WAM-designed Allgood showrooms, where tiny lights glint from the back wall of the pissoir. Finally there is the almost-ready four-floor fit-out for American PR giant Fleishman Hillard, in a building above Covent Garden station in London. The building has a large, 'organic' reception desk which looks like the front of a TVR car crossed with a giant dinosaur egg. It is made out of smooth, shiny fibreglass, with recessed headlight-like spaces (for sweets) and a brown suede lining on the receptionist's side. The desk cost £13,000 to fabricate but, along with large petal-like light-diffusing features (by Herman Miller) above each staff member's desk, it provides an immediate visual clue to the approach of both the client and the architects.

'One thing we won't do is temper our personalities, ' says Walker, '. . . and we don't do preconceptions. We are who we are, and architecture, designing buildings, the whole business, is about people.'

The pair appear to revel in building relationships, and it is not hindered by their memorable approaches to jobs. Late last year, for example, a fax arrived from a firm called ABC Holiday Extras. It lay in the intray, ignored, because most at the firm thought it was an insurance circular or just a wind-up. But it was in fact an interested client who had spotted WAM's work for Thomas Cook and liked it.

The man from the holiday firm phoned and asked them to pitch for a new-build job in Ashford. Walker and Martin said they could come - the very next day - and duly arrived, not like the others in their suits, but in their motorcycle leathers, clutching their bike helmets. They ended up winning the £4.5 million job. I put it to them that the motorbikes they ride (sometimes full throttle at Brands Hatch and Thruxton), massively high-powered machines which do 0-60 in under three seconds, are a useful metaphor for their designs. A faint whiff of rebelliousness, coupled with the high-end, functional design apparent in their Aprilia and Ducati ('the Ferrari of bikes') marques.

'I think they like it, ' says Martin of the bike effect. 'Whatever meeting you go to there's always someone, be it their brother or their father, or a brother-in-law or whatever who's got a motorbike - and that's what breaks the ice.'

Work has tended to come through recommendation, but a useful leg-up into the world of larger scale projects came from furniture specialist Aram Design. Walker is married to Ruth Aram and had initially refused to mix business with pleasure when well-connected father-in-law and owner Zeev Aram asked WAM to design an extension to the Aram store in London's theatreland.

CZWG was hired, but that collaboration did not work out. The second time WAM was asked, the pair could not refuse.

WAM is proud of what it does and boasts a very open relationship with staff, allowing anyone at the office to tap into central information about fees, wages and other details. Walker and Martin appear unencumbered by rules, demarcations of class or the 'correct' ways of doing things, partially because of their backgrounds (Walker calls Martin the most laid-back English person he has ever met).Now they are set to move up another gear, something which will be significantly helped by appearing in that foundation book in four months' time.

And then WAM will be truly motoring.

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