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Manser Medal introduction

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Joe Morris, judge and former winner introduces this year’s Manser Medal

It is a commonly held view that the bedrock of the architectural profession is the design of projects for domestic clients. It is also a truism that the domestic sector is a nursery, or test bed, for young or emerging practices. After a cursory scan of the 2012 AJ Small Projects Awards shortlist, I approximate that the majority of projects are domestic (63 per cent), by practices of fewer than 10 employees (58 per cent), and in existence for less than eight years (58 per cent).

However, it is also true that the one-off house often represents the pinnacle of an architect’s career. An obvious (groan) point of reference is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, conceived in his 60s, and recognised in 1991 by a national survey of the American Institute of Architects as ‘the best all-time work of American architecture’.

This indicates the potential importance of the one-off house, which I strongly believe can transcend its typology to impart a wider, positive influence upon our attitude and approach to architecture: a relationship that is evidently reciprocal. As a practice, we have resisted viewing the domestic market as a major source of business activity, instead seeking work in a range of construction sectors perceived as having greater scale, complexity and thus social significance than the one-off house.

That said, our three most recently completed houses have each received RIBA Awards, one the Stephen Lawrence Prize (2012), another, Hampstead Lane (pictured), the Manser Medal (2011), and the third a nomination for the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture ‘Mies van der Rohe’ Award (2013). All had contract values in the region of £500,000.

Perhaps it is because of our work in the arts, public realm and education sectors that our projects for residential clients have been so warmly regarded. This is not the normal ‘feeder’ scenario we have come to expect, where the architect designs a kitchen extension which leads to a magical commission for a gallery. Instead, our successful projects are defined through the principles of good architectural practice; choreographing context and programme, specificity as well as the generic, issues of cost efficiency and innovation, modern methods of construction as well as craft, sustainability, ecology, complex planning policy, and the legal pitfalls of light and boundary ownership; all this regardless of typology. As a judge for the 2013 Manser Medal, I have been considering what relevance the medal has to the profession.

According to the RIBA website, its objective has always been to encourage innovation in house design, to show how social and technological ambitions can be met by intelligent design, and to produce exemplars to be taken up by the wider house-building industry.

However, I am compelled to consider the house not in isolation, but as one contributing typology to our urban landscape. As such I believe we are under a moral obligation to adhere to sustainable values, to create buildings which have a long life and loose fit, and which are able to accommodate evolving uses for changing patterns of life and need.

To paraphrase Adolf Loos, the good house develops style and grows with its inhabitants, the style of the house being the style of the family, not the architect. In his collected essays, Ornament and Crime, Loos proffered that ornament does not increase the pleasures of life: ‘If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I will choose one that is completely plain and not a piece which is covered over and over with decoration’. An interesting point of reflection for all involved in construction, not just volume house builders.

Joe Morris is a director of Duggan Morris Architects and a 2013 Manser Medal judge

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