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Sense of identity

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Birds Portchmouth Russum has earned many admirers for its idiosyncratic approach to architecture. On the following pages we look at its ten years of work. by Kenneth Powell

Birds Portchmouth Russum, the London-based firm which celebrates its tenth anniverary this year, is a practice with a mission: to create buildings which are striking, even beautiful, and whose contribution to their environments results in something greater than the sum of the parts. Partner Mike Russum evokes the old Arts and Crafts credo in his belief that enjoyment (perhaps joy) should be derived from the creation of architecture which makes this possible.

bpr's work, not least the spectacular drawings it generates, has been providing enjoyment for the practice's many admirers for years. More recently the practice has become seriously into cad, producing characteristically idiosyncratic designs and images with the help of Paul Crawley. bpr does not produce run-of-the-mill work: everything it does is special, which makes the fact that very few of its projects have yet been built all the more surprising. (The partnership was formed in 1989 when Andrew Birds, Richard Portchmouth and Mike Russum, all then working for James Stirling, won the competition for a new car-park in Chichester - the building was completed in 1991.) Like Hadid, Libeskind, and Future Systems, however - all in the ranks of the great unbuilt until relatively recently - bpr does not warm to compromise, especially if it means bowing to preconceptions of 'sensitivity' or 'good taste'. Jim Stirling, indeed, taught his followers to regard 'tasteful' as an insult.

On one level, bpr is part of the scuola di Stirling - its partners loved the man and his approach to architecture. Yet bpr has equally created a way of doing things which is all its own and which projects a vision of the future as well as a reading of history. 'Every project tells a story,' says Portchmouth. 'Most architects are concerned with how a project can be achieved: we ask why!'

The last thing you would expect from bpr is a hymn to technology or technique. The means are taken for granted, understood and used with ingenuity - what matters is the end. Not so many years ago, a preoccupation with place and history and an interest in metaphor and narrative were seen as purely Post-Modernist traits, but all have now become part of the mainstream of architectural discourse, influencing even the British High-Tech masters. For bpr, these issues are not interesting diversions, but fundamental to all that the office does and to its conviction that architecture can be both modern and 'functional' (whatever that means) and also rich in meaning, memory and poetry. There is also an underlying belief in the symbiotic relationship between art and architecture - the practice has an on-going collaborative relationship with New York-based architect/artist Karl Jensen. Birds cites the unbuilt runner-up scheme for the Imperial War Museum, Manchester, as an illustration of the significance of memory in bpr's work - 'not just the obvious things, but a deep exploration of the history of a site, a search for lost meaning'. The scheme proposed the creation of a new landscape, not simply an object-building, in the shattered post-industrial landscape a few miles from the city centre.

At Stonehenge, where bpr was shortlisted in the visitor-centre competition of 1992, the practice's idea of 'a journey back into the memories of the forest' produced a partly subterranean building which was itself a clearing in a wood. The scheme vividly reflects bpr's concern with place-making and can be read on many levels, as a commentary on the prehistoric landscape, for example, as well as a very practical approach to handling hordes of visitors - and their cars - and reasserting the dignity of the monument itself.

bpr seeks to transcend, rather than to undervalue, the practicalities of a brief. 'What we do is greater than the sum of the parts - there is something beyond a list of components,' says Birds. The 'something' is the prevailing idea - the myth, it might be called - which clearly underlies every project and is related to themes of memory and history.

Not that bpr is historicist. Replicating the past is relatively simple. Understanding it and making it meaningful for the future is a greater challenge. The scheme for a cafe at Somerset House draws on historic images of the building - which was largely built as government offices - as a riverside palazzo redolent of Venice. Now Somerset House is to be a place for the public: why should there not be an element of pleasure, something ephemeral, even a little frivolous, in a monumental context? bpr's fabric- covered pavilions were one of its most memorable inventions, in which technology, history, myth, and sheer inventiveness fused. The pavilions would have been a striking intervention. Though not obviously 'contextual', in the conventional sense, they seem a natural addition to the great river terrace.

Not doing the obvious is a basic article of belief at bpr. The Chichester car-park contains parking decks, but also marks the edge of the city, defining a historic point of entry and extending the surviving city walls. bpr's bridges, like those of Santiago Calatrava, are no more the easiest way of crossing a divide than was Tower Bridge a century ago. Hadrian's Bridge at Carlisle is 'a route with events', with a kink in the middle which encourages the walker to linger, enjoy the view and maybe wonder what is being celebrated (the border between England and Scotland, in fact).

The same thought was given to the design of a bridge in a less exalted location - its function to link two halves of a school in Newham separated by a busy road. The most obvious solution would be a simple tube, a grim tunnel, with no views out. bpr rejected the obvious and offered something to make the route from one class to another enjoyable and thought-provoking. 'We never have preconceptions with any project,' says Portchmouth. 'We always start from scratch.' Every scheme is about intensifying - in some cases creating - a sense of place and identity.

It is this element in the practice's work which is so pertinent today, particularly in Britain, where Post-Modernism has run its course, historicism is back in the margin, and grand, sometimes empty, gestures dominate. How do you reinforce a sense of identity in a city like Leicester? bpr offered a new public space there at a knockdown price of £1.25 million, by using simple components to allow the life of the city to recolonise the space. Croydon's reputation as nowhere-town has fuelled recent efforts to inject a sense of place there. The discovery that Croydon had a monumental ring of buildings - multi-storey car-parks - inviting extended use was the key to bpr's brilliant proposal to colonise their roofs with inflatable structures, housing clubs, cinemas, sports halls and other attractions which foster activity in the town after hours. These 'Pleasuredromes' are linked by a brightly-lit linear park around the central area. The proposal builds on what exists and on Croydon's existing image, but transforms both. Where there is a grim spot - for example, the A13 in East London, you find bpr at work, inspired and eager to work miracles.

bpr's architecture is about the art of transformation. It is founded on a visionary and imaginative power which is rare today, yet is equally highly practical and down-to-earth. For all the proliferation of costly Lottery projects, some of them doomed to rapid obsolescence, much of urban Britain remains an insensate, uncivilised and even inhuman mess. Capability Brown got his name by seeing the 'capabilities' of a natural landscape. bpr has an equal knack when it comes to the landscape of humanity.

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