The first time Niall McLaughlin was interviewed by an architectural journalist he was working from his small Notting Hill flat. Before the interviewer arrived he crammed all of his possessions into the bedroom to leave the minimalist, tidy environment he thought would be expected of him. The impression was only spoiled when the journalist asked to use the phone - which was, of course, in the bedroom. These days he's much more at ease - his office is now above, rather than in, his flat, and his possessions sit comfortably in the room. It must be all the media attention: last year alone he was featured in the Architecture Foundation's guide to young architectural practices, had his projects published in the Architectural Review, Sunday Times, AJ, and Country Life. And he won the Young Architect of the Year award.
Born in 1962, McLaughlin doesn't fit in with the usual definition of youthful. 'As I walked past a table at the Young Architect ceremony to get my award, somebody shouted out, 'You're not young,'' he recalls. Fortunately for architects in their thirties, the definition of 'young' seems to be changing. The award last year was open to those aged 35 or under, but a forthcoming ar competition puts the limit at 45. 'It seems that when footballers retire architects are blooming. I suppose this reflects the experience of practice. Although I began, and completed, my architectural education as early as it was possible to do, at 35 I am only just moving away from small projects and interiors.'
One reason for his current position in the media spotlight is his winning of the competition to design a bandstand for the Modernist classic the De La Warr pavilion, as part of the 10-year refurbishment project by John McAslan and Partners. Designs are not even at the drawing-board stage, but he hopes to 'do something that reflects our time. At the moment it is about processes rather than the finished product'.
This approach reflects the dedication to the almost instinctive process of designing a building for its environment, based on the history of the site, exactly tuned to facets of a client's nature, evident in all his work. Projects don't have to be large to inspire him. For one client he built a wall of epns, in the shape of stretcher-bond brickwork, on to a light box. During the day it reflects the garden, and at night appears as a ladder of light. It gradually tarnishes over the course of a year, so each Easter the family ritually cleans it with Duraglit. Such simplicity thus celebrates the garden, representing both diurnal and annual cycles.
The project he finds most pleasing to look back on is a simple window for a house in Wandsworth, with a seat inside and out, and a canopy into which a tree will grow. 'It's the one project I look back on and not wish I'd done anything differently. It doesn't have to be anything but a window - it's in possession of, and appropriate to, itself.'
He claims not to be able to look at a project for about two years after completing it, but after that he is keen to find out how it's doing. He visits the apartment he designed in Notting Hill (aj 13.4.95) about once a week, having made friends with the owner through the job. 'I like seeing how a project is used, how it's part of the occupier's experience.'
He finds it difficult to choose a favourite project, as he claims not to have quite worked out what his architecture is like. 'Each of my projects is different, as they all have a narrative. I don't think there's any such thing as the perfect building, though it's a romantic idea. On the one hand there's a way of making architecture - with construction, space, and light - as abstractions only expressible as architecture. On the other hand, architecture can be seen as a narrative.' The only building he feels to have come close to being the synthesis of the two is Ronchamp ('sorry it's so obvious').
One of the aspects of being an architect he enjoys is the opportunity to immerse himself in different worlds, and the way they juxtapose. For a while he worked on a Carmelite monastery and a leisure club swimming pool in the same area. 'It was very strange going from the holy, intense, all-male environment of the monastery, where the concern was about the spirit, to the loud, exuberant, all-female swimming pool, which was all about the body.'
Each project requires a different way of working. For example, for a house in Knightsbridge, beset by planning problems, the practice produced over 250 drawings, whereas for the 'shack' - a lovingly crafted photographer's hide-cum-sauna, designed for the singular purpose of photographing dragonflies - no drawings were used at all: it was priced up based on a photocollage, and built based on large models kept on site. McLaughlin tends to work with the same builders, who he consults on both aesthetics and construction, and sees all projects as essentially a collaboration.
The current project most exciting him is a house on a steeply sloping woodland site so perfect, that 'all that's missing is the waterfall'. The house, in Jacob's Ladder, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Chilterns, will be a very simple timber box on stilts, with the only thing sticking out a cantilevered one-lane-wide swimming pool in a glass box, in which the swimmer feels as though he or she is suspended in the woods. 'It's the same principle as the window, turned into a whole house,' says McLaughlin. 'The house will be tucked into a fold of the hill, making it look and feel like a natural part of the woodland. As the owner wants to develop the forest, the house, occupier and landscape can develop together.'
As for the future, he is more interested in the idea of having a practice than doing a building. 'I don't like the idea that one can be recognised by a building. I don't want to be like the mentor in The Fountainhead who, with his dying breath as he speeds in an ambulance through the city, points out all the buildings he's designed. Although I'm fond of my buildings, I'm more interested in the process of designing, the process of craft and getting it right. That indefinable quality that makes something perfect. That's the most important thing.' With that attitude, the De La Warr Pavilion is in for a treat.