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the big picture

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Burrell Foley Fischer has established a niche market in the design of performance and cinema venues, applying a rigorous and principled approach to fulfil its belief in architecture's wider social responsibility by austin williams. photograph by guy jorda

When the Coen Brothers start to make a movie they storyboard the entire film - sketching every scene, camera angle and dialogue. This enables everyone on set to know exactly how the thing will look on completion. Very rarely does the end result deviate from the original concept. This is a unique approach among film-makers.

When David Puttnam, chairman of the Arts Lottery Board, was asked about Burrell Foley Fischer's Harbour Lights Cinema in Southampton, he said: 'I saw it when it was an artist's impression . . . and I saw it completed and I think it's every bit as beautiful as the original artist's impression - that really doesn't usually happen.'

The performing arts centre at Frensham Heights School in Surrey shows the same meticulousness (see pages 28 to 34), and it is the practice's rigorous approach to both design and the business of architecture that provides an insight into its success.

Based in a tightly packed office near London's King's Cross Station, Burrell Foley Fischer combines three distinct talents into a whole - which it acknowledges is greater than the sum of its parts. All partners research and teach and this academic understanding informs the work of the practice.

John Burrell, the strong silent type, is an expert in urban design strategies and the impact of architecture on the built environment. He has published widely and is interested 'in the broader picture'. Burrell ensures that the team develops the skills to design contemporary buildings contextually.

He has, he says, 'a conceptual approach to sites'.

Impish and jovial, Mark Foley concentrates on the performing arts, with particular reference to theatre.He studied at Newcastle University and, after 'living with a dancer for 11 years', says that he became aware of the benefit of incorporating a dancer's perception in his design parameters. Foley was 'astounded that noone had considered such a key user of theatre spaces before', and started to develop commissions from this standpoint. The partnership which formed between Burrell and Foley, 18 years ago, created a niche market for their combined specialism.

Stefanie Fischer, stern and voluble, joined the practice in the first year of its existence and became a partner in 1985. She specialises in film and media, complementing the other two partners' interests.

She is consultant to the British Film Institute, among others, and is particularly interested in 'how cinema, in its widest sense, can be made more viable'.

The practice sets great store by researching, analysing and understanding the forms of public architecture that have gone before.

The 'fundamental principle' on which it operates is the 'reinforcement of a positive contribution to the public realm'. This is certainly a challenge to cinema designs. An examination of its work at the Riverside Studios in west London and Stratford Picture House shows how iconography, urban memory and strong design concepts help to banish the anonymous black box presenting a negative face to the world. 'The emergence of the multiplex, ' Fischer says, 'has contributed to the vitality and economies of cities.'

The partners are reflexive, learning from their own past experiences and projects.

Acknowledging that society is not static, they continuously 'strive to understand how people use and relate to buildings'.

Fischer describes them as a 'very principled and discerning practice' which gets quiet satisfaction from 'doing something that has quality and value'. The tendency for budgets to be squeezed, while not something to be pleased about, gives the partners time to sit back and reflect. Rather than slash and burn to reduce the budget arbitrarily, Burrell Foley Fischer engages in an intellectual rationalisation and sees it as part of the learning experience.

Whatever the budget, the ability to 'deliver on time and quality, requires really high office efficiency'. The 'tightly knit' office regime is mirrored in the management of the design team overall.

Fischer explains: 'We originate strong design concepts and know that it is critical to convey our meaning to everyone involved in the process: from the design team to contractors; from the client to the end users.'

Notwithstanding the practice's rigorous approach, the partners still rely on a 'common sense feel' or 'instinctive' response to projects, and enjoy the chance to experiment. With schemes ranging from £50,000 to £50 million, and about 18 live projects on the go at any one time, they still can't wait for the next project. 'Whatever job we get next, ' says Foley, 'it will be tackled in much the same way, but with an eye to even more refinement.'

'In the next 10 years, ' he continues, 'we aim to develop a strong concept as an appropriate response to a given problem.'

They firmly believe that any architecture in situ has a 'wider social responsibility' than just as a users' forum.

The future direction will almost certainly be dictated by changing technology, but this unknown only makes them more excited.

As Lizzie Franke, director of the Cannes Film Festival, told the festival audience last year, cinema can still be about passion, the ideas that stimulate us and force us to confront our world. In this respect at least, Burrell Foley Fischer has certainly learned a lot from the object of its study.

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