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CSJ at 25: Adam Caruso and Peter St John talk to Rory Olcayto

Caruso St John
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Whisperers? Postmodernists? Haughty Helveticans? Who are Caruso St John? And what has ice hockey got to do with it?

‘You know, the Swiss league is improving. And they’re in the World Cup now. Not as good as Canada, but they’re getting better and better.’ Adam Caruso – a proud Canadian and one half of Caruso St John – is talking ice hockey.

I know, weird. It’s not what I was expecting, either. I thought any conversation with Britain’s most influential architects would more likely centre upon the intricacies of the Flemish competition system or insights to be gained from repeated readings of Adolf Loos’s 1898 essay ‘The Principle of Cladding’, a favourite text of both Caruso and his partner, Peter St John.

But this isn’t some random chat we’ve alighted upon. There is always a reason with Caruso St John. Ice hockey is on the menu today because the celebrated practice is currently working on a 12,000-seat arena for the Zürich Lions, its biggest-ever project.

‘It’s nice that Adam is quite a good player,’ adds St John. Indeed, but who’d have thought it? In the invited contest it no doubt gave them an edge over their competitors, including their friend, David Chipperfield. ‘It’s a very elegant diagram,’ says Caruso. ‘And it has beautiful cladd-‘. Before he can finish his sentence, St John cuts in: ‘We hope,’ he says, laughing. ‘Yes. We hope!’ agrees Caruso, grinning brightly. ‘It’s at stage D now and hopefully it will carry on.’

After 25 years in business together it’s fair to say they speak as one, yet this exchange is typical. Caruso is a straight-talking, witty, loud-ish North American, like a TedTalking guru with a million YouTube hits – ‘You tell us what you want us to talk about and we’ll talk about it,’ he tells me when I arrive at the practice’s Hackney studio. St John’s more of a handbrake, in conversation at least. On occasions he’ll pull back from the discussion and attempt to reset it, unhappy at the direction it’s taking. He has a methodical, careful manner that feels faultlessly English in the same way that Billy Connolly feels faultlessly Glaswegian.

Caruso St John

Caruso St John

Swiss role

Clearly these differences underpin their success: after just ten years of practice Caruso St John was vying for the Stirling Prize (for the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2000), while, over the course of the next 12 months, three European projects will complete and it is hoped two more will take off, a rich complement to the three British ones that wrapped up this month.

Given their solidly intellectual, stubbornly tectonic approach, this is a hugely impressive achievement. (Their closest British contemporaries in this respect would be the now-defunct FAT). Today, they employ more than 40 people in their London and Zürich studios.

Yet their buildings – and motivations – remain controversial, inspiring admiration and suspicion in equal measure, much as their adopted second home, Switzerland, does in the mind of the average Briton. I mean, they use scissors to cut the lawns there, don’t they?

Zürich is as expensive as London, but a third of the housing is built by the city, a third is built by co-ops

For Caruso, however, Switzerland’s appeal – he has an apartment in Zürich and teaches at ETH – has nothing to do with its perceived hauteur and everything to do with its civic culture. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘Zürich is almost as expensive as London, but a third of the housing is built by the city, a third is built by co-ops and a third is private. And to buy housing in Switzerland you have to be resident there. The Swiss know that if they want their free market economy to work, one of the things that the state has to control is housing. It’s not a left-wing country and it’s not a country where money doesn’t talk. What’s happening in London is completely unsustainable. But what the hell can architects do? It’s a political thing. It’s politics.’

It’s a point Caruso St John has made before: that architecture is an artistic, not a political discipline. Are they letting themselves off the hook?‘Architecture is often an instrument for politics,’ says Caruso, ‘but I don’t think it leads politics except in some very strange totalitarian situations, perhaps.’

Later, discussing this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist, Caruso tells me he thinks Níall McLaughlin’s Peabody scheme is ‘really, really good, but is not going to solve the housing problem’. Still, he has no comforting words for architects engaged in private housing schemes, the likes of which have been targeted by campaigners as social cleansing. ‘Architects are complicit in what’s happening with housing,’ he says. ‘We personally aren’t, because we’re not involved with private developers [in the UK], although we have one coming at the end of this week who is involved – so who knows?’

Caruso St John

Caruso St John

London calling

London, however, remains their true home. It is where they met, after all. St John, a Bartlett and AA graduate with stints working at Richard Rogers and Dixon Jones, met Caruso at Arup Associates, where they sought each other’s company as relief from the projects they were working on.

Caruso, an architecture graduate of McGill University in Montreal after a first stab at medicine then art history, worked for Ian Ritchie before he joined Arup. Interestingly both worked under Florian Beigel before their paths converged.

London Met’s decision to sell the CASS is tragic – the school is a special place

‘We do have an interest in architectural culture here,’ says St John. ‘Although we have many criticisms, too. London Met’s decision to consolidate its campus and sell the CASS is tragic. I teach there, and the school itself is a special place, a special environment. It’s a very depressing step because it’s a sign of the CASS not being valued enough. The point is that they’ve just settled into this building, it’s in a wonderful location…’ he tails off, clearly saddened.

What about the new generation of emerging talent in London, which has rejected starchitect culture? ‘There’s always hope,’ says Caruso. ‘Every generation has architects who are really interesting and are trying to do interesting work. One of the founders of Assemble works in our office, and what they do is terrific, but it is also a reflection of a desperate situation. Young architects who should be designing nursery schools and elementary schools and small housing projects, which in Switzerland is exactly what architects of their age do, don’t have a hope in hell in London. So they make this alternative form of practice - and I think what they’re doing is very serious - but when they’re competing with architects who actually have paid staff and overheads and stuff, there is a kind of professional ambiguity in their position.’

Their advice to young architects is simple: Look for competitions that have good people on the juries – it’s what they did – and: ‘Be serious. Make sure every single piece of work you do is serious.’ Serious, but not humourless. Caruso in particular delights in contradictions that arise from working in different cultures. ‘Our building in France, the Lycée Hôtelier de Lille, is, we think, really French, although the French think it’s really English,’ he chuckles.

Caruso St John

Caruso St John

Kicking Koolhaas

Looking back over their own work, they recall a definitive shift in emphasis following their success in securing an honourable mention in the Yokohama Ferry terminal competition in 1995. That project had a Rem Koolhaas feel. ‘We eventually abandoned the Koolhaas direction - we shook it off,’ says Caruso. ‘Yet I had been a world expert on Koolhaas,’ he laughs. ‘It was a kind of exorcism.’

We’re not the kind of partners where one person does one type of work and the other does another

Instead, they followed the impulses first explored in a house built for one of St John’s relatives. ‘There was a moment when we had to decide,’ adds St John. Their interest in Venturi and the Smithsons grew. ‘We were pleasantly shocked by the Sugden House, the Smithsons’ second try,’ says Caruso. ‘We visited it during the Lincolnshire project,’ adds St John. The shift was ultimately a subtle one: Like Koolhaas, they wanted to maintain a critical position. Unlike him, they were interested in the vernacular - and context. And, again unlike Koolhaas, they didn’t want, they say, to be ‘part of the mainstream’. Still, Caruso cheerfully admits: ‘Architects should talk about their influences more. I mean, why pretend?’

In the care they take in making, in the casual honesty they bring to interviews, in their tenacious maintenance of an architectural vision, Caruso St John stand apart. And in the uncanny influence they wield over architectural culture they are peerless: masonry, heaviness, decoration, context - all the things they dwell upon - inform what their contemporaries are concerned with today. It is also unusual to have two partners quite so hand-in-glove on every project. ‘We’re not the kind of partners where one person does one type of work in the practice and the other does another,’ says Caruso. And which other practice working in the UK today has its two principals so firmly engaged in teaching? ‘For a long time we taught together and it was a way of working out how we ought to do architecture,’ says St John.

With this in mind, how do Caruso St John think architecture should be done today, when the spaces we inhabit are increasingly virtual and defined by information exchange? ‘The real becomes more valuable, doesn’t it?’ says Caruso. ‘It isn’t certain whether the things we make are new or old. You might have to look twice, and maybe there’s a kind of mixed message from it which feels interesting and rich - it’s not a straightforward image.’

This makes me wonder: did they consider the Mackintosh rebuild competition? ‘We thought very seriously about entering but you needed an accredited conservation architect on your team,’ says Caruso. ‘Most of the conservation projects that we’ve done, we did ourselves; but we’re not accredited. We would have liked to have done it.’ Many others would have liked that too, I tell them, as our two-hour slot draws to a close.

Caruso St John

Caruso St John

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Lovely article, which captures both Adam and Peter's office banter and ideas. But please note this correction: Their first attempt at the Stirling Prize in 1999 was for the Walsall Art Gallery, which Alun Jones and I worked on as Project Architects. The Brick House won London Building of the Year Award and was a finalist in 2006.
    - Laurie Hallows (Director, Allies and Morrison)

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