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Q&A with Small Projects winners Carmody Groarke

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Carmody Groarke founders Andy Groarke and Kevin Carmody talk to the AJ about what it means to win the Small Projects Prize 2015

What does winning the AJ Small Projects Award mean for you and your practice?
We are very proud that this temporary project has been recognised with the Small Projects Award as a building that can make a difference to people’s lives and that architecture can be realised in unconventional ways. 

The project has a similar aesthetic to the Filling Station, was this your intention?
The project intentionally uses several ‘ready-mades’ in its composition and construction. The scalloped fibre-glass screens were one such ‘ready-made’ in that they were originally developed for our Filling Station project in King’s Cross and all the new screens were cast from the original bespoke former at very low cost indeed. The very strong, lightweight material supported by scaffolding formed an efficient enclosure and created important sense of privacy from the rest of the busy hospital campus and car park. At the same time the fibre-glass wall gives a coherent identity to the overall building which contains various provisional structures within its boundary. 

The London Dresser – which was shortlisted for a small project award 2 years ago – has been reused in the scheme. Where did the decision for this come from?
We had enormous pressures on the budget to achieve the amount of accommodation the client needed to provide the right patterns of care. We began looking at site cabins as ‘ready-made’ buildings to improvise - we have ended up using six such structures - although we were always looking for a way of making a dramatic panoramic view of the Wirral landscape as a therapeutic connection to nature on the site. The London Dresser, with its 10m long window was perfect for this, and when we found it was for sale in the AJ classified pages it was irresistible not to use it in some way for the centrepiece of the project. 

The judges said your scheme offered a ‘new take on vintage through reusing and recycling’ – is this a new architectural aesthetic? Is it what you intended?
I wouldn’t say it is an intentionally new aesthetic for its own sake - buildings have to make sense to users on their own terms without having explanations why certain decisions have been made. Hopefully the project, which is borne out of a necessity to be resourceful within very limited means, achieves spaces which are both uplifting and comfortable in an improvised and unselfconscious way. Hopefully, the building will continue to be improvised by its users over its lifespan, in ways that can provide the very best care.

What were your design concepts for the scheme?
Creating architecture that has a strong visual and physical connection to nature and provides rooms for therapeutic cancer care that are based on domestic atmosphere rather than the clinical environments of hospital wards.

Did you draw inspiration from any of the other Maggie’s Centres in your design?
All of the Maggie’s Centres seem to have common elements which are based around empathy for the visitor: the kitchen as an informal meeting space (particularly around the kitchen table); quiet corners to be by oneself; and a very un-institutional atmosphere.

Its temporary purpose is very specific to the needs of this place

It is the first temporary Maggie’s Centre – will we start to see more temporary centres in the future?
Its temporary purpose is very specific to the needs of this place. The original brief for the Clatterbridge project was based on Maggie’s intention to provide care for the Merseyside region until a permanent Centre is completed in Liverpool City Centre in around seven years time.

Where there any particular challenges on the project?
With the view that all available funds should be conserved for the permanent building in Liverpool, a building of any description was going to be better than no building. So we had to begin from the point of view that the more space we could deliver for a very limited budget, the more care could be provided for visitors. This forced us to be very strict with ourselves about using anything other than porta-cabins and scaffolding - and yet people react very emotionally to these very raw building methods so we had to mediate them with other (thrifty) materials.

Your practice does a lot of temporary schemes, how do these differ from work on permanent buildings?
The lifespan of projects is an interesting dilemma to us - a pavilion or exhibition which may only be around for a few weeks has different responsibilities to its time, place and users than say for example a permanent museum or memorial. They are inevitably built in different ways and are at the mercy of different pressures including weathering, use and misuse.

How important is the client in the success of a small project?
Obviously Maggie’s are a very engaged and experienced expert-client and we have learned a lot from working with them. It has been interesting to see how both client and architect have had to be improvising in their traditional roles and work together very closely to build within so many constraints.

Small projects teach us the importance of being improvisational

Why are small projects important for architectural practice?
Projects of all scales are influenced by the experience gained of working on small projects and even larger projects have their own small projects embedded within them. Small projects teach us about the importance of being improvisational to situations and circumstances as well as force us to keep close to the craft of making architecture.

Are they still as important as you progress and grow as a practice?
You never know what ideas or opportunities may be revealed by working on smaller scale projects so we place great emphasis on their importance within the studio for learning and experimenting.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
A very broad mixture of projects in design stages and site stages. Projects on site include: the Windermere Steamboat Museum; several private houses; a visitor pavilion for Waddesdon Manor; a temporary art gallery for White Cube at Glyndebourne and an exhibition design for Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy of Arts. Projects in development include: a new build cultural foundation in East London; a rare books library for the Royal Horticultural Society and a temporary pavilion for the British Council at the Guadalajara Book Fair later this year.

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