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New practice EBBA: ‘A culture of low bidding is devaluing the profession’

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The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at those who have recently decided to go it alone

Practice name: EBBA architects

Based: Bethnal Green London

Founded: 2017

Main people: Benni Allan

Where have you come from?
Benni graduated from the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2014 and later worked with Niall McLaughlin Architects on residential, educational and cultural projects in Oxford and Cambridge, before setting up the studio in the summer of 2017.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for? 
A range of scales and types which is very rewarding and at the same time keeps us on our toes. We’ve been fortunate to do some really interesting work within the arts, fashion and cultural sectors, including set design for the likes of Adidas, Erdem and Ports 1961, as well as exhibition and installations at galleries such as Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery, Bold Tendencies and just recently at a new art institution in Hong Kong.

We’re currently working together with John Pawson and Es Devlin on the restoration of St Johns church in Hackney as part of the interpretation and signage design team, alongside other projects including a photographer’s studio, some cultural work, a private residential project and a pre-school nursery.

 The studio is interested in working across these sectors, bringing intelligent and meaningful design to different challenges and contexts. The work we would like to do is a mix between cultural and public work combined with housing and education.

Tenders and frameworks have become increasingly difficult for small practices

At the moment we are lucky that the work has been generated through informal discussions and referrals, but inevitably as we look for bigger work we will have to start competing through tender and framework processes. Unfortunately, that process has become increasingly difficult for small practices and it seems as though the need to collaborate is vital to get into certain sectors. We truly enjoy that element of collaboration and the opportunities it offers. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can start working on slightly larger projects.

What are your ambitions?
We see ourselves as design and research-led, and enjoy the playful aspect of the studio environment where making and experimentation is used as a way of developing our projects.

This is difficult to retain if you grow too large, and you ultimately end up taking on projects just to pay your overheads. Id like to find a way of growing sustainably and to explore means of delivering buildings in a more flexible way on a project-by-project basis. As the world moves towards this kind of lifestyle we should be thinking more inventively how to make it work in practice. It will be interesting to see how to retain an engaged and inspired culture within the office if we do head that way.

While we are interested in critical thinking and making great architecture, we’d like to strike the balance between innovation and functionality. Great buildings should be available to everyone.

Luxury is more about space and exuberance rather than grandeur

We truly believe that good design doesn’t have to come at a price and that luxury is more about space and exuberance rather than grandeur. Our ambition is to question the way buildings are made and represented, particularly when it comes to housing, which is an area we are starting to work in.

There are great examples of people already trying to do this, such as Pocket Living, BxB, the Naked House and the likes of Duncan Blackmore, Crispin Kelly and Martyn Evans, who are all doing amazing jobs.

It would be great to be recognised for helping to further the profession of architecture in general and to show clients, councils and the people commissioning buildings that good design is vital for a sustainable and prosperous built environment. In a way we are already doing this through teaching and roles with the Architecture Foundation and through the RIBA Ambassadors programme. But we would like to do more.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
Knowing how to judge the natural momentum (and sometimes unforeseen delays) on a project. As a studio we value every project we work on and get so involved that it’s often quite tough to see a project stop or when a competition doesn’t quite end up working out - that’s always difficult. However, as we have grown we have learnt to deal with those times when work is slow and used it as an opportunity to do something new. We are quite pleased that through that process we have generated more work.

Open contest are almost impossible for small practices, leading to lots of abortive and unpaid work

On a broader level, the challenge for the profession is competing for work through tendering and open competitions, which as mentioned above, is becoming almost impossible for small practices, leading to lots of abortive and worst, unpaid work. This kind of competitive environment is also creating a culture of low bidding which is devaluing the profession and in return will have an effect on the quality of the product.

The best piece of advice I received was that ‘you should always strive to do the best possible job you can do, no matter what the scale’. At the end of the day, you are judged by the work you produce, and we like to think its been well received so far.

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
Whenever I think of significant buildings I am always drawn to galleries, museums and large public buildings due to the prominence they have in the city and the value they can bring to society. These buildings, especially today, have become places for civic life and have helped to inspire people like the church once did. I’m particularly interested in schemes that have had to deal with a rich historic fabric, yet have found ways to transform spaces into something completely different. I can think of a few examples by David Chipperfield, 6a architects and Caruso St John that are noteworthy.

However, one that stands out in my mind is the renovation and extension to Manchester’s Whitworth gallery by MUMA (pictured below). The project has been dealt with in a sympathetic and at the same time quite bold way, adding lots more space in a series of very considered moves, and creating new spatial relationships with the site; some that are open to the trees and others that create intimate courtyard-like areas that have a real presence.

The Whitworth by MUMA

The Whitworth by MUMA

Source: Alan Williams

The Whitworth by MUMA

Although I was born and brought up in Spain, a lot of my family originate from Manchester. Every time I visit them I try to fit in a quick trip to the Whitworth.

How are you marketing yourselves?
Instagram has been a great way for us to connect with people who are interested in the things we are doing. We’ve only just really started our account since but it’s helped to share some of the projects we are involved with and will serve as our preferred platform.

We’ve also created a new website, which is intended to be open-ended and to be part of an on-going project. In our visual world today, its difficult to keep people focused for a long period of time and therefore the new site was designed to add some playfulness while being very stripped back to showcase the work in the best possible way.

Website address: www.eb-ba.co

Email: info@eb-ba.co 

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