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The inspector and the missing colleague: a mortar mystery

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As a teacher and a practising architect C J Lim has a foot in both the conceptual and the practical world. While happy to experiment with ideas and solutions he is looking forward to actually running a project by mark david thomas. photograph by shaun blo

'I am an architect who just happens to find himself teaching!' This straightforward and modest account is deceptive if you do not know that the architect is C J Lim - the committed teacher who wants to build buildings; the conceptual architect who feels teaching is his downfall.

'At times teaching does not allow me to face the gritty reality of architecture,' he says. Lim feels strongly that it is a 'difficult balance' being an architect and an educator, 'you have to be able to switch channels constantly.' He believes you have to be creative, strategic and constructive as an educator; while you have to be practical as an architect.

Despite this, Lim is content with the arrangement for the time being and his quality as an educator at the Bartlett is manifest in his students' achievements. Over the last five years the riba President's Medals in Education have consistently been awarded to his students. He claims: 'This is as good as it gets, it won't get any better.'

Lim the architect, with his practice Studio 8 Architects (a loose collective of colleagues and students), has won international recognition for numerous successful competition entries, including the winning design for the ucl Cultural Centre in 1995. But ironically, none of the winning entries have come to fruition.

Brought up in Malaysia, Lim moved to the uk in his teens and rushed through A-levels in a year at a Harrogate boarding school. He says that this transition, which saw him embark on studies at the Architectural Association at the age of eighteen, came as a complete culture shock.

But the attitude at the time in the aa was 'anything goes' and this, coupled with exposure to the 'diversity of ideas', kept the young Lim interested in architecture. He describes his time at the aa as inspiring. He was at a truly international school with no barriers between different studies and peoples; a hotbed of architectural discussion and challenging critique. He believes he learned as much from his contemporaries as from his tutors, seizing the belief that 'architecture is about life, more than it is about building'.

The early influences of the aa in the 1980s were the catalyst for the development of Lim's characteristic exploded drawings. He graduated under Christine Hawley and Peter Cook, to whom he says he owes a great deal of what he knows. He also cites Hawley as his mentor in terms of his teaching career (he now teaches with her at the Bartlett).

After gaining his diploma in 1987, Lim worked for Eva Jiricna and the more mainstream practices of Rock Townsend and Sidell Gibson. He was aware that he 'needed that kind of balance'. The aa in Lim's time was very good at fashioning students into liberal thinkers, and supportive of the (mostly theoretical) avant-garde ideas, but there was not much of the practical side of practising architecture, the 'real world', of job-running, management and personal skills.

With Jiricna he began to work on small detailed projects which made him realise that detail was much more frightening than finishing a school project on time. This is where Lim acquired the rigour that informs his drawings and projects.

It was during his time in practice that Lim also made what he describes as, cameo appearances' with Cook, Hawley and Zaha Hadid. Suffering growing boredom, he started teaching part-time at the University of East London and the aa. He then moved to teach at the Bartlett and North London in 1994, at the same time as setting up his own practice and starting to enter competitions. He uses these competitions to test his ideas, as he feels not all his solutions need to be taken as far as buildings. He enjoys looking at possibilities, having the optimistic attitude that 'anything is possible' and that there might be 'something new around the corner'. He is critical of his own work, which often means re-working projects for his own documentation and archives.

His latest venture found him on a short-list of four to design a bakery and grocery store in London for an Italian food company, after which the client will be setting up a chain. On discovering the identities of the other short-listed architects, Lim confesses to being 'slightly cynical': they were established firms which had built much more than he had. He felt he had little chance of getting the job. As a result he says that he did not put a great deal of labour into the final presentation. Despite this, it was Lim's ideas that won the praise of the client. Enthusiastic with the result, Lim describes it as 'a small project ... a real project, with the opportunity of actually running the job'.

Does Lim contradict himself with his work? He wants to build, but as yet has done little. He realises clients need to be pleased, yet admits that his drawings are 'self indulgent'. His works range from the fanciful - a guesthouse that can only exist in zero gravity - to the realised, such as a Chinese restaurant that has been built. However, Lim's work offers layer upon layer, the inquisitive paradox of the practical, coupled with a wilfully indulgent and often naive disregard for the limits of modern technology.

At times, Lim says he feels like a goldfish in a bowl. 'I have these distorted views and situations in my head'. He believes there should be 'a more conceptual world', where architecture plays a central role in developing lifestyle, where a 'morphing' process occurs, where architecture does not sit still nor look backward.

It is other people's perception of architecture that blinds the majority to Lim's work. He has never conformed to the conventional conception of architecture. His stance is firm: he will not compromise his beliefs if he knows he is not suited to the situation. Is this the position that all designers should take or is it only for the brave? As we head into a new millennium, we just may be able to see C J Lim's sculptural creations as 'real'. But will his built designs fulfil his expectations and theories?

Mark David Thomas' interview with C J Lim was the winning entry in an interviewing competition for students at Birmingham School of Architecture, sponsored by The Architects' Journal.

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