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leader of the band

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Niall McLaughlin is basking in the success of his bandstand at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. But his practice is not stopping there, regularly winning competitions using a wide-ranging, collaborative approach.

Say the words De La Warr Pavilion, bandstand and planning meetings to Niall McLaughlin and he has a vivid recollection of an 'almost unimaginably old woman' waving an umbrella. 'She was saying: 'I don't care if it was designed with the help of local children, I don't like your bandstand.

It's bloody ugly, it's bloody ugly.'' Thankfully, few others share this view.

McLaughlin's sinuous bandstand, at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, had a tough neighbour to live up to in Mendelsohn and Chermayeff 's Grade Ilisted Modernist icon. It got the brolly waving treatment at the local planning committee meeting, at which the schoolchildren who had helped the architect conceive his vision looked on, bemused. But the granny was in the minority. McLaughlin triumphed enough with his futuristic, acoustically driven structure, featured in this issue of the AJ (see page 34), that it persuaded RIBA judges to give it an award.And it has slotted in with its famous neighbour with aplomb.

Much of its design owed to an approach one-time Young Architect Of The Year McLaughlin favours - getting on board people who are external to the design process to provide added creative 'oomph' and inspiration. In this instance, it was those local schoolkids, who were selected by their schools and 'prompted' to think about what a bandstand should be, how it should look, how it should sound, how it could deal with considerable wind loads, what imagery it should convey of being at the seaside and the space between it and the pavilion itself.

The 10-year-old kids were separated into six teams, each with an architectural student from Canterbury in tow as a prompter. They came up with designs and McLaughlin, used to teaching at the Bartlett and elsewhere, gave them an old-fashioned crit. Each scheme was very different, but McLaughlin managed to crit each so that the kids felt they had contributed, and ideas - its wave form, its portability, the shells, sails and seagulls aesthetic - made it through to the finished project. In short, people were involved.

'We found those kinds of things very easy to our understanding of Mendelsohn, ' explains McLaughlin. 'The inside of the helical stair in the pavilion is very like the tailoring of the shell of the bandstand and it's very like the eyebrow window used on the Einstein tower.'

McLaughlin started at University College, Dublin, graduating in 1984. From there he went on to work for Scott Tallon Walker - the subject of this week's building study, the Goulding Summerhouse (see page 26) - in both Dublin and London, for a couple of years. Then he started his own practice in 1991, teaching at the then Oxford Polytechnic at the same time. That synthesis between academia and practice has proved important, with McLaughlin choosing 70 per cent of his staff from students he has admired and taught at the Bartlett. 'The other 30 per cent are troublesome people I bring in to shake things up a bit, ' he smiles.

The progression of the firm has been steady and gradual. From flat extensions to loft conversions to the first private house, and thence the first public commission. But the firm never thought big projects - such as the Turner Centre it was shortlisted for - were beyond it. Nowadays, in the past two or three years, the practice has been doing 30 per cent refurbishment, 30 per cent private new building and about 30-40 per cent public buildings, McLaughlin estimates.

'We're in business to do architecture, not the other way around, ' he says, and growing for the sake of it does not fit the bill. But every other week, the practice appears to win a competition.McLaughlin says that for 10 years it had a ban on such things.Why?

'I felt that in competitions you often get pulled around in second-guessing, ' he says.

'You need to be very clear about what you are doing. We've got to be doing competitions for more than just the possibility of winning.'

Most recently the practice struck gold with the Finsbury Hub, a building which will be part crèche, part cafe, part exhibitions space in the north London borough near the park. Another is an open competition for housing in Silvertown for the Peabody Trust.

The collaboration this time is with an artist, Martin Richman, who McLaughlin first worked with as a 'blind date' in the 1997 RIBA exhibition 'Fused'. Richman is developing the facade with radiant light film.

This is like dichroic glass and should, McLaughlin hopes, allow the building to shimmer and mutate its colours with the changing effects of the day's light.

Again it is the collaborative approach.

'Almost every project we work on, we're looking for input that is going to, in a sense, ambush us and make us think about what we're doing in different ways.' Another scheme in research phase is for an Alzheimer's Day Care and Respite Centre in Dublin, in a country with a substantial ageing population.

How do you design for people with fragile memories? Do you make your spaces more 'memorable'? More colourful? (Such spaces are often colour-coded in the US. ) McLaughlin is still seeking answers, still eager to hoover up as much medical thinking or examples he can pluck from the real world to inform his architectural solution - but there is almost no built paradigm. It is a completely different scale of sense of responsibility to that of working with Mendelsohn, he says. The building will be arranged around a series of social spaces, serene gardens and courtyards through which patients may wander. A number of sinuous paths naturally loop back on themselves, always bringing a person back 'home' again. Inspiration is coming from, among other things, Barragán's house in Mexico City, and the goal is to produce 'coherent, calm spaces which reduce enervating distraction, aid orientation and encourage mobility', along with 'really inventive' landscaping (help required).

Whatever results, you can be sure that it will be a thoughtful, considered response, forged from extensive consultation, research and possibly more of that 'open-ended collaboration'. Even if some umbrellawaving grannies might not like it.

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