As workplaces go, it's hard to imagine anywhere more cheery than Proctor Matthews' offices. 'It's a fantastic atmosphere when it's buzzing,' says Andrew Matthews - and, frankly, it's just as well, because everybody seems to spend an awful lot of time at work. 'We had to tell one of our associates to go on holiday because he was working too hard,' says Stephen Proctor. They are eager to stress that the long hours are a purely voluntary expression of the staff's commitment, and to distance themselves from 'the real slave-driving practices'. But both Proctor and Matthews are clearly driven by a strong work ethic.
Both spent long hours at the drawing board while undergraduates at Sheffield University. They went their separate ways for Part II, with Proctor returning to Sheffield after a year out at bdp Sheffield, and Matthews going to Cambridge having spent his year out at Levitt Bernstein. But the working relationship flourished, and they have fond memories of 'rattling backwards and forwards on the train doing various competitions . . . working at weekends and getting in lots of trouble with our respective girlfriends'. Neither of them have ever doubted that architecture is what they wanted to do.
Well, not recently anyway. Both have architect fathers, and so were introduced to the subject at an early age - not a wholly pleasurable experience. Matthews remembers strolling round Leicester suburbs, 'looking at every modern building I could find, and that put me off architecture', while Proctor recalls being 'dragged screaming and kicking round the Unite in Marseilles when I was four'. Both fathers advised their sons against careers in architecture, but have proved immensely supportive since. In the early days of the practice, says Matthews, 'we were basically phoning and saying 'What do we do next?''.
Another key influence was Reg Ward, a former chief executive of the lddc, where Proctor spent 18 months working as an urban designer. The two of them would often be working late at night, and when Ward became chief executive of keel, a consortium of developers involved with the Channel Tunnel, he retained Proctor and Matthews to do studies of parcels of land which became available as the project got under way. 'He set us up in a corner of his office, and said, 'have a couple of desks, have a couple of phones, use my secretary. I'll give you as much work as I can, and you'll just have to carry on',' Matthews recalls. For the first five years or so, the newly established practice of Proctor Matthews subsisted on urban design and small projects.
When the commissions did come, they tended to be in housing - which seems to have taken them rather by surprise. As Proctor puts it, 'We never really wanted to do residential work, because in this country it is often so impoverished.' Nevertheless, they have shown themselves adept at 'squeezing every last bit of design out of the brief' - a skill which they attribute to their fathers. 'They are both practising in the provinces (Proctor senior is in Derbyshire while Matthews senior is in Leicestershire), and they have had to take the attitude that you never turn work away, and you make the most of what you get,' says Proctor. 'That's quite important to us. Setting up in recession, you work with what you've got.' They have thrown themselves into housing design, picking up several awards on the way.
In the process they have leant how to handle consultation, which Matthews says is 'very time-consuming - but once you know how to do it, it often informs the design'. The trick, apparently is asking the right questions. 'Going in with a blank canvas is a complete disaster. People have no idea what they can expect. When we were doing Stonebridge (see page 47) the residents were looking at some of the options and saying, 'My god, we can't really have something like that, can we?'' They have also established a reputation for unlocking difficult sites, which has made them popular with developers.
The enthusiasm with which they approach every commission is beginning to pay off. They now have an impressive and much-praised built portfolio. Proctor and Matthews still spend hours at the drawing board - 'we both work on everything, I think what clients like about our methodology is that they can talk to either of us about every project', says Proctor - although they no longer feel they have to spend all their time at work. After all, says Matthews, 'we have families now'. The double-act continues outside the office: 'We socialise together. We're godparents to each other's kids,' says Proctor. They also teach together, and are currently running a joint unit at the University of Brighton.
There are now 13 members of staff - including Reg Ward's former secretary, Christine Lifford, who is now the office manager. Projects are getting bigger (see pages 42-50), invitations to participate in invited competitions are more frequent, the list of awards is getting longer, and there is more foreign work. But, says Matthews, they still face the problem that 'nobody will commission you to do a building type which you haven't done before'. 'We'd love to do cultural buildings,' says Proctor. Matthews agrees. 'We're waiting for that one big break'.