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Relax, then do it

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How did a plain-speaking, self-effacing Modernist such as Matthew Lloyd end up designing the new headquarters for the Prince's Foundation? Perhaps it is because he describes most of his projects as barns by tom dyckhoff. photograph by guy jordan

There is no messing about with Matthew Lloyd.

He might not have the sales pitch of many architects, but his candour makes you want to buy whatever he is offering. And that, he says, is 'straight architecture. We don't do twiddles.' He likes plain, functional, almost Miesian architecture - 'plan-driven', he insists.

Something, no doubt, like his studio in the Hangar, a gigantic old shed in Shoreditch, east London. It is neat, white, clean and light, as well as comfy and casual.

He does not mind admitting that he was not driven to train at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt by a passion for the school. 'No, I was following a girlfriend. I really couldn't have given a toss where I went to, and wasn't that caught up with architecture. Of course, it fell to pieces in five minutes. But, you know, you knuckle down.'He set up his practice in 1990, two years after leaving Heriot Watt, 'just to get on with things'. But in the middle of the recession? 'Well, it was tough. But I was sensible about it. I didn't mind doing years and years of small projects for two or three thousand pounds. Kitchens? Did dozens of them.

Did the whole working out of the front room thing, too. Even when I moved to a unit in Spitalfields Market, it was hardly luxurious. Didn't even have a loo. Had to go in the market instead.'

Lloyd beavered away on lots of smallish projects in the East End, from houses to the Spitalfields Opera House, which sprang up miraculously amid the iron columns of the market. It's gone now, because of 'greedy developers', he says. 'We're going for a record.

We've only been going for 10 years and we've already had two buildings demolished, ' he adds with some pride. He's not really what you might call a commercial architect, although he produces speedy, economical buildings. 'It's just that we always end up doing more social architecture rather than political. I don't think developers would ever choose us.'

He is equally level-headed about his practice, which he runs with his 'life partner' Pat. 'If you're too hungry for work you can't relax into it. If you're a little less bothered, a little, 'well, if this one falls through there's others we're working on', it gives you more courage to experiment.'

The practice has proved itself adept at conversion ('though more new-build wouldn't come amiss'), with projects such as the Harrow Club, a community centre in a former church. 'But even when we do smaller work we throw everything into it. If we hadn't done Harrow we couldn't have had the confidence to do something as big as the Prince's Foundation.'

How strange that this plain-dealing man should design the new headquarters of the Prince's Foundation (formerly the Prince of Wales' Institute of Architecture), which for more than a decade was renowned as a courtly nest of spindoctoring and back-stabbing.And how ironic that the Prince of Wales should employ such a selfconsciously 'honest' Modernist. Of course, stripped of the politics, there is a lot of common ground between the vernacular architecture championed by the Prince and the Miesian Modernism of the likes of Lloyd. But the other explanation is the man who recognised this.

Adrian Gale, the foundation's director in the late '90s, invited Lloyd (who taught under Gale at Plymouth) to help find a new site for the rebranded institute and then asked him to refurbish it.

Lloyd does not care much for the political symbolism of the move from stuccoed Nash villa overlooking Regent's Park to former fur warehouse in hip Shoreditch.'I just thought we were incredibly lucky to find it, ' he says. Indeed. One of the last empty warehouses in Shoreditch (and on Charlotte Road, the hippest street in hipsville), it would soon have been snapped up by 'greedy developers'. He is typically self-effacing about the smart, clean interior he has given the Foundation - 'We worked with them as we would any client.' No interference from the palace? 'I wouldn't call it interference.

There are some materials, some details we wouldn't naturally have used [such as the handmade bricks, the slightly old-fashioned doors] but the palace was intent on handling the materials.'

Thankfully, though, not a bit of 'style'. And no classical columns. 'Oh no, no. We don't do style. We like things simple. We don't really do details, either. I often talk about our buildings as vessels, like a boat or a cup. You make it of one material, one surface.' He also compares his buildings to barns. He points to his models. 'That's a barn, that's a barn, that's a shoe-box with holes cut in it, that's a barn, we work in a barn.' This single-skin approach is best shown in the homeless shelter he built at Brick Lane, wrapped under a brick shield 'like a fortress, it's important to give this vulnerable group some kind of security'.

Behind the skin you see what he calls the 'rhetoric', that which deviates from strict function.

In Brick Lane this means metal weavers' attics, elegant, slender deck-access balconies in the inner courtyard, and a studied arrangement of solids and voids, all small things that usually get knocked off first in budget projects for the most vulnerable.

He wriggles a bit to talk about the rhetoric, the look. But it is there. All the more so when his imagination, and the budget, soar a little. His entry for the mid-'90s New British Architects show at the Architecture Foundation was a beautiful-looking house clad in plywood weatherboarding with an elegant interplay of windows that makes you think instantly of Walsall New Art Gallery ('though we were there a few years before. Not that I'm bitter, ' he jokes), or some of the domestic work of the Smithsons. 'Maybe. I just think it's another barn.'

Modesty will get you everywhere, I hope.

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