Simon Conder: Small Works 1994-2003
At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 30 August
Simon Conder: Sensitivity and Invention L'Arca Edizioni, 2003. £16.99 (ISBN 8878381144)
Simon Conder's roll of projects will sound familiar to anyone who has tried to establish a practice in the past decade or so. There are the refurbished homes, the barn and warehouse conversions, speculative projects of uncertain programme, noodle bars and the odd rural structure. What distinguishes Conder from so many of his peers is an unusually painstaking attention to detail, and the inventiveness he displays within the narrow range he sets himself; and it is these features that turn generic experiences into generic propositions. Three themes in particular seem to define the work: the interplay between light and texture, the interior as cabinet, and the form of rural workplaces.
Eschewing, like all good Modernists, the possibility of ornament, Conder exploits light, and the way it picks out the texture of a surface, as a means of creating variety, of modulating space and form. This attribute of his work is perhaps most apparent in the domestic conversions, where the form itself is often of little interest and space may be restricted. Light often emanates from concealed sources, from recesses in the floor, or from translucent glass pods which lend alternative forms and textures to the essential orthogonality of domestic space - and, as often as not, turn out to contain showers.
These devices become a way of masking or enhancing the pragmatic features - such as level changes - which are inevitable in this sort of project, and might introduce an ethereal quality. Creative use of glass, as transparent, translucent or reflective, takes the play on texture and light into the realm of illusion and fantasy. In several of the apartments, or the addition of a glass-walled garden room to a typical, though fairly large, London terraced house, this approach relieves the banality of London's generic housing stock and adapts it to modern life.
Conder's way of treating interiors as cabinets of myriad shelves, cupboards and recesses takes his propensity for play between texture and light into a spatial dimension. It is perhaps most explicit in a studio in an industrial building for a photographer. In response to a need for flexibility, Conder designed two mobile 'boxes', one wet with WC, shower and kitchenette, and the other dry, with storage, and openable into a workstation. With three wet service-points and four with power, the boxes can be positioned in many different configurations.
Although mobile plywood units do not lend themselves to the same degree of precision as static fixtures in more permanent positions, they have some of the same qualities, with concealed lighting and detailing that makes much of the grain of plywood.
Other apartments contain such mobile storage units, but spatially the most compelling example of this theme is the reception at the Georgina von Etzdorf workshop in rural Wiltshire. Within a single volume, under a double-pitched roof, is a plywood-faced enclosure, which may lack the power of a timber-clad space like the atrium in Baumschlager + Eberle's Muncher Ruck offices in Munich, but still manages to calm, filter and layer the sequence of penetrating the building.
But, of the three themes, it is Conder's work on rural workspaces that probably has the most far-reaching implications for contemporary architecture. After the Etzdorf workshop of the early 1990s, he went on to design an industrial complex for small or start-up businesses in Suffolk, and another for the Duchy of Cornwall at Poundbury outside Dorchester.
The first two are relatively conventional in form - wide, double-pitched volumes, in scale with large agricultural buildings but detailed, angled and positioned with rather more care (though for very low budgets). At Poundbury, Conder introduced a more explicit element of sustainable design, organising the 8m square units around 'chimneys' that naturally ventilate and partially daylight the spaces. In this design, Conder establishes a series of formal principles which might be built in local materials and could form an edge between a settlement and landscape, a proposition that sounds eminently logical but whose evident potential has eluded too many planning authorities.
Unlike his eminent and recently deceased father Neville, to whose memory the exhibition is dedicated, Simon Conder has deliberately opted for a small practice, and the limitations in scale and number of projects this imposes. That certainly suits his architectural sensibilities, which lie firmly at the craft end of architecture, yet his invention and success in engaging with generic challenges gives the work a significance beyond its physical scope.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University