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pair of aces

Nancy Cogswell and Jonathan Manser have been together for only a year - as professional partners, that is - but already they seem like a very seasoned team. After three years working with Trevor Horne, Cogswell joined the Manser Practice as a partner early in 1999. 'We met through our accountant,, Cogswell recalls, 'who thought that we could work well together.' The prediction turned out to be correct. Jonathan Manser, son of practice founder and past riba president Michael Manser, is passionately wedded to the design side of the business. Nancy Cogswell admits that she really enjoys running the financial side - 'ensuring that an effective process underpins the quality of the product', as she puts it. Even so, it has been 'a year of readjustment' for both. The office, with over 25 staff, is busy. 'It could well expand to 45 or 50,' says Manser, 'but there is a steady core of a dozen or so people, 'the family' as I think of them, which is crucial to its success'. The 'family' includes fellow directors Andy Rogers and Barry Mullin - the latter ran the Great Eastern Hotel project (see page 20).

Michael Manser set up the firm in 1961, after quitting Norman & Dawbarn. He rapidly established a reputation for uncompromisingly modern work, not least the pioneering series of steel houses he designed. Manser remains chairman of the practice, though he is no longer a shareholder. 'My father is very good at keeping our name in circulation,' says his son. 'He's well respected, he's got very shrewd judgment and is still very much a part of the operation. He's always keen on new ideas and new ways of doing things.' Jonathan Manser joined the firm twelve years ago. Schooled at Cambridge, after an instructive year spent at Foster Associates at the time of the Willis Faber project - 'my task was mostly filing!' - he gained his diploma at the South Bank. Manser subsequently worked for rhwl, with the Nottingham concert hall as a major job, moving on to Chapman Taylor in the early 80s before establishing his own practice. Finally, he 'bowed to the inevitable' and joined his father's firm.

'I'm proud that we've always stayed modern in our loyalties, with no compromises,' says Jonathan Manser. 'Product matters a lot more than process for us. It's the architect's job to defend the essentials - to get buildings right, as well as built.' One of the landmarks in the practice's history is the hotel it designed at Heathrow - originally developed by baa, and completed in 1990, but later sold to Hilton. There was some wry amusement in the office when plans by the Manser Practice to extend the building were rejected on the grounds that they would spoil its appearance. It took much effort to gain consent - only to see the project progressed by another practice. 'It's some comfort, I guess, that they've now got a Manser Suite!' says Jonathan Manser.

'We are well-known for hotels,' says Manser, 'which is good, but we're keen to keep a balance of work.' Manser Associates is currently working with Eric Kuhne on a hotel at Bluewater and completing a radical reconstruction of a 1960s hotel in Jersey. Then there is the Great Eastern, a project which has taken five years to complete. Jonathan Manser brought together the building, then very rundown, and the potential users - 'a good example of how we make jobs'.

One of the Manser Practice's loyal clients has been London Transport, which brought the practice in to refurbish its listed Charles Holden headquarters at 55 Broadway. 'Quite a lot of the work we do for them is unspectacular, almost invisible,' says Manser. For the Jubilee Line Extension, for example, the office's contribution was limited to relatively modest alterations to Green Park station. But the firm's transport connections - it was responsible for the elegant terminal building at Southampton airport - have helped it win jobs like the three Thames piers it is currently completing and the series of ferry terminals, economical but stylish, which have transformed passenger perceptions of the sea route to Ireland.

'We're happy to do small jobs, as well as big ones,' says Nancy Cogswell. Trained at the aa, Cogswell has worked in Canada, the usa and Switzerland, but spent a long stint at Fitzroy Robinson where, with former colleague John Robertson (now of Hurley Robertson), she sought to infuse new design ideals and business systems into an old-established commercial office. It was, in the end, a thankless task. Cogswell relishes the straightforwardness of the Manser tradition, which has never strayed into the idea of 'styling' buildings. She cites the High Commission building in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, now out to tender, which will be shared by a number of eu countries, as an expression of that tradition, suitably updated to embrace twenty-first century ideas of appropriateness and ecology.

Diversity, Cogswell and Manser insist, is the essence of the practice - having a wide variety of jobs keeps the place lively. There is an office project in Ashford for Julian Barwick, for example, and a radical conversion of an old power station in Jersey. Years ago, Michael Manser was the hammer of the conservationists, arguing that saving too many old buildings was a symptom of lack of confidence in the present and future. Today the Manser Practice is as much involved in conservation and rehabilitation as any other practice of its sort - the Great Eastern Hotel is just one spectacular example. The Manser Practice is a good example of a practice which has not only survived the semi-retirement of its founder, but which has acquired a new energy and sense of purpose which seems in tune with its original 1960s ideals.

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