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mind over matter

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PEOPLE: Modern-day engineer-inventor Ben Morris is keen to push the boundaries of materials, to spark ideas and take people beyond their perceptions of what is possible, as well as reminding them of what is impossible

Ben Morris recognises that his immodest claims may make him sound pretentious to the uninitiated but, nonetheless, he believes that his company, Vector Special Projects, has 'changed the face of architecture'. When you are in the middle of his office, surrounded by new inventions, prototype designs and working scale models, it is a believable claim.

Even more so when you examine his rapidly expanding portfolio of projects.

Morris is the man who has made ETFE foil roof covering into a sexy business. Look at the defining character of the Eden Project or Magna Science Adventure Centre; the 'cladding' material is Morris' handiwork.

But it is not just the immediate aesthetic which is so different; were it not for his technical research and development of the product, those structures would not have been possible.

His enjoyment comes from pushing the boundaries of materials. After all, he says, the objective of architecture is to define spaces and enclose people, and 'this material allows us to create almost invisible spaces;

defined, but almost imperceptibly so'. It is the extension of this search for lightness and efficiency that exercises him, but he has other ambitions as well.

Trained as a craft potter when he left school, Morris says he has always 'collected skills'. After an arts foundation course at Hornsey College of Art, he toyed with fine art and architecture, plumping for architecture because his family told him there was more money in it. But demoralised with the architectural teaching at Oxford Polytechnic, he quit after two years to go back to painting and sculpture, making money on the side as a shopfitter (working 24-hour shifts to earn standard, double and triple time rates of pay).

Returning to college, he achieved a first degree at North London Polytechnic and spent his year out at Pentagram and doing a voluntary service placement in Zimbabwe.

One year after independence, he was teaching children and ZAPU war veterans in Matabeleland but left a few years before the massacres.

Returning to the East End, he qualified, and with four other partners set up an architectural practice called Community Land Use, specialising in youth centres, community halls and other local statefunded facilities. But even though he learnt a great deal about running jobs, understanding contracts and organising projects, he tired of the 'bureaucracy of the grant application' and went to work for Sheppard Robson. It was here that, by chance, he began his long-term commitment to light structures.

Sheppard Robson's design for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital - described by Morris as 'an extremely innovative building which marked Thatcher's 'green' NHS credentials' - used a relatively unknown material to create the biggest naturally ventilated atrium in the world. The material, ETFE (first used in the UK at CentreParcs in 1983) was still regarded as cutting edge. Morris decided to follow up with a phone call to the German supplier Stefan Lehnert, and the rest is history.

Before long, Morris and Lehnert had formed a partnership, with Morris running the UK side of the business from a mobile phone in Sheppard Robson's office and a computer in his front room. He remembers the days when his friends thought he had become a yuppie because he was always talking on a chunky first-generation mobile phone, running jobs all over the country, using his own crew of installers, and doing the drawings at night. When Vector had 'enough work to feed me', he employed two others and quit his real day job.

Some 10 years later, he has a client list of some of the most prestigious architects and engineers in the world.His varied experiences have given him a resolute perspective on how jobs should be run. He swears by face-to-face meetings where possible, sitting down with a sketch pad to explain his material and to explore its potential.

Architecture, he argues, is a very contradictory industry; full of tensions and specific interests wanting to pull together but often pulling apart. So are the tensions exacerbated by specialist consultants like himself? Surprisingly, he sees himself as a generalist rather than a specialist, and totally refutes the notion that anyone should sit outside the dialogue. He argues that he is in the business of 'selling intelligence'. His knowledge can be inputted into a scheme proposal to reduce the material used, and hence the cost, while still making it profitable for all the parties.

His objective is to take people beyond their perceptions of what is possible, as well as reminding them of what is impossible. In this way, 'meetings become more than just the sum of their parts, they become inventive'.He says: 'What people wanted to do 30 years ago, but couldn't because of the limitations in materials, is now possible. We can span greater distances, with fractions of the amount of material and embodied energy.'

Buckminster Fuller's concept of 'ephemeralisation', doing more with less - with the objective of doing yet more - is implicit in all that Morris does. A modernday, engineer-inventor, with a keen sense of design, infectious enthusiasm and a constant experimentation with materials, Morris' studios are full of hi-tech prototypes, fabricated extrusions, computer models as well as some Heath Robinson try-outs.

Having provided the know-how for the material for the last 10 years, there is now growing pressure on him to maintain his market dominance. Fortunately, as a committed believer in his product, Morris still has the most intelligence to sell.

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