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Very real architects

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I first came across Levitt Bernstein as one of those housing architects; worthy, but are tiled porches and Victorian lamps really architecture? The Royal Exchange Theatre, a spaceship invading the opulent decor of that monument to the cotton trade and Manchester School liberal economics, defied this easy categorisation. Clearly there was something more to this unexpectedly large practice which now has 75 people and seven equal directors.

The two Davids explain how this dual expertise in housing and arts projects developed. They met in Patrick Hodgkinson's office working on the Brunswick Centre: Bernstein after a childhood in Robert Moses' New York, studying in Cincinatti and an MArch with Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania; Levitt out of 'Leslie Martin's first year at Cambridge', in the Apostolic succession that passes through Sandy Wilson and Hodgkinson who had 'actually worked at Shelford Mill' with Sir Leslie. They 'worked together, were about to get laid off together and went to search for work . . . as a duo.' Round about 1966 they established a housing association, when 'you could set up an association and employ yourselves', and formally created their practice two years later.

Initially they 'did an awful lot that was not really architecture'. Meanwhile, Bernstein was teaching at the aa, across Bedford Square from their office. One day in the mid 1970s the theatre directors who created the Royal Exchange pitched up there and someone gave them Levitt Bernstein's name; four interviews and a proud exposition of some converted houses in Tottenham later ('is that really what we showed them?' Levitt quizzes Bernstein), they received the commission. 'It was not an easy job to get,' remembers Bernstein, and of course it was not so much the houses in North London that appealed to the Mancunians but belief in and practice of a process of dialogue with users.

That established their credentials in another sector, and the underlying validity of their approach. Culled from their experiences on the Brunswick Centre - 'a very radical and grand concept,' says Levitt; 'still very exciting' agrees Bernstein, Levitt's exposure to process and analysis through Cambridge contemporaries Lionel March and Christopher Alexander, and Bernstein's memories of Moses' complete disregard for anyone other than himself in achieving his grandiose urban developments, they try to understand a problem from its essence. Like a lot of architects, says Bernstein, 'we believe if there is a problem we should be there at the beginning to solve it in a rounded way.' Adds Levitt, 'we can't do anything without the wholehearted agreement of the client group . . .that's much more important than getting our rocks off architecturally'. So, if clients want a spaceship in a Victorian cotton exchange, they can have it. Or, if they want tiled porches and Victorian lamps, as at Hackney Wick, they can also have it. 'And the residents love it.'

After 30 years in social housing, adds Bernstein: 'The more subtle and complex the problem becomes . . . it's in our bones and we have a deep understanding of it.' Their knowledge puts them in a strong position to challenge the innate conservatism of its design. Modernism became associated with poverty and pitched roofs and tiles; and Victorian trappings with the prosperity of Thatcherism. They mention a new scheme in Hoxton, where tenure is equally divided between cost-rent and private. Both are equally and 'indisputably modern', says Levitt, 'so the tenants won't feel stigmatised in rented housing'.

Part of this change comes from cultural trends like those the Rowntree Foundation seeks to address with its caspar initiatives, the typical subject of which is a divorced 37-year-old man with two children not living with him who wants to dwell in the city centre. Levitt Bernstein didn't win the associated competition, but did develop a core for an apartment 'which has all the wires, pipes and kitchen fittings' and can go on the back of a lorry, for £11,000. 'Other clients,' says Levitt, 'are interested because it is lightweight and quick.' The Peabody Trust is another housing association they single out; most are 'more conservative than their tenants'.

One aspect, continues Levitt, of their long interactive involvement with public groups is that projects last a long time. 'We did the first masterplan for Stratford,' he says, 'and have been doing bits and pieces for the Theatre Royal for about 10 years.' Now, with lottery money, they are designing an arts centre with two new performance spaces alongside. 'It's interesting how the arts are becoming a catalyst,' that helps to generate mixed-use and effective regeneration, and, incidentally, to bring together the different facets of their work. They are writing their first brief for a comprehensive school as 'good housing but poor schools is solving only the half the problem.'

Partly to understand the mechanics of development, and to create a 'flywheel effect' to carry them through recessions, they founded Pilot Properties, which is now developing a 20ha site in Lancashire to include a hotel, petrol station and housing, although they regret that the 'county council didn't share our vision of living and working in the same place'. Others, including some at the top of government, do, however, and Levitt Bernstein is well placed to put ideas into action. Levitt Bernstein special starts on page 31

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