Studio E is a practice with broad horizons, high ambitions and a fervent commitment to research and innovation. Its foundation - Studio E celebrates its fourth birthday next month - came about through 'a combination of circumstance and empathy'. The diverse interests of the three founding directors - Cezary Bednarski, Andrzej Kuszell and David Lloyd Jones - underpin a remarkably wide range of projects in Britain and abroad, though the practice is, its founders insist, a true partnership where every job is a team effort. With a dozen staff and a new director, Ian Hossack, recently appointed, Studio E is certainly growing - its turnover last year was nearly half a million pounds, three times that of the previous year. Growth is good news for everyone in the office, but it is tied to a clear set of goals which reflect a consistent philosophy of architecture and design.
The origins of Studio E lie in the 'Polish connection' and a studio in Kensal Road. Cezary Bednarski came to Britain from Poland in 1981, working initially for Nicholas Grimshaw. The recession of the early 1990s saw the practice in which he was then a partner wind up. With his native Poland 'opening up' after the collapse of communism, Bednarski had the idea of forming an Anglo-Polish practice and rang up a number of Polish architects working in London. A conversation with Andrzej Kuszell's father (who came to Britain during the Second World War and was later an associate of Denys Lasdun) led to a meeting with Kuszell, then a partner in Farmer & Dark. Out of this meeting came Arca 91, an informal consortium - including major firms like Ove Arup and yrme - intended to 'crack Poland'. Studio E itself was formed when David Lloyd Jones, who had already quit rmjm (where he was design director) and had been sharing the Kensal Road office with Bednarski, joined Kuszell and Bednarski, working from a riverside office in Hammersmith.
The circumstances which produced the practice may have been unusual, but the empathy is genuine. Each partner pursues his own interests while contributing to a common fund of knowledge and expertise. Both Kuszell and Lloyd Jones brought with them valuable commissions - for Haileybury College (see pages 33-40) and for Lansdown Estates at Milton Park, Abingdon, respectively. Lloyd Jones's interest in environmentally sound, low-energy design - reflected in the mould-breaking nfu building he designed with rmjm and in his forthcoming major book on the subject - has made a strong impression on Studio E's overall thinking. 'We're not rigid about ecological issues,' says Lloyd Jones, distancing himself from the 'hair-shirt brigade'. But Studio E - the 'E' signifies ecology among other things - is 'very serious' about the environment and about the appropriate use of materials. Lloyd Jones is also heavily involved in arts projects - he designed the demountable auditorium for the Garsington Opera and the conversion of a Regency orangery as a temporary home for the new Grange Park Opera.
Cezary Bednarski is certainly the most ardent globetrotter among the partners. A Rome Scholarship led to some useful connections in Italy and to a project for temporary 'hotel bridges' for the Millennium celebrations in Rome. Bednarski's wife is Cuban and he holds a visiting chair at Havana University. Working in Poland from Britain proved more intractable than he originally imagined, but there is at least one potential job there and Bednarski is the prime mover in projects in Portugal, Albania, Egypt and Russia. Like many other practices today, Studio E is determinedly proactive, both at home and abroad. Bednarski is well known as a bridge designer. 'We've designed 23 bridges,' he says, a little ruefully. 'And not one has yet been built.' But it has now been confirmed that the two bridges proposed for the Medway at Maidstone and another at Carlisle will be constructed, following the grant of Millennium Lottery cash. Where the Lottery is concerned, Studio E has proved a winner - all the projects in which it has been involved so far have won funding.
Few practices of equivalent size can match the breadth of Studio E's portfolio, yet there is vexation in the office that it is not being given a crack at some really big jobs. 'There seems to be a belief in Britain that big jobs need to be done by big firms,' says Bednarksi. 'We believe that a moderately sized studio, as part of a network of collaborators, can take on virtually anything.' If Studio E has a role model, it is the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, whose understanding of materials, interest in environmental issues, concern for place and history and sheer verve as a designer places it apart from most of its contemporaries.
Piano is a name: Studio E sounds like a concept. The public image of the practice doesn't yet reflect its achievements. It did not feature, for example, in the recent Architecture Foundation practice directory, though much larger and longer-established firms were included. The omission was, in the case of Studio E, surprising. In just four years, the practice has built up an enviable list of clients and a solid professional reputation. Yet you get the impression that it has great reserves of ideas and imagination. Studio E has the potential to become a player on the world scene.