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Many small things add up to something significant

Paul Finch

Paul Finch reflects on 21 years of the Small Projects Awards

Can it really be 21 years since we launched AJ Small Project Awards? Awards weren’t quite as ubiquitous then as they are today, and this seemed quite a daring venture, rather different to the grand programmes of the RIBA and other institutions.

It made sense because of the structure of the profession with, then as now, the vast proportion of practices five people or fewer, and therefore much more likely to be engaged with the world of small projects. (The interest in the small could get slightly out of hand: I recall one former AJ editor saying the reason the magazine cover had featured a kiosk at Grimshaw’s Euroterminal at Waterloo was because many subscribers could design a kiosk, whereas few would be able to design an entire station.)

Actually designing a kiosk is not an easy task, and not one generally given to architects, though Westminster Council once commissioned Cedric Price to do something new and snazzy for Berwick Street Market. The rather fine prototype sat in the Building Centre for some time, but was never put into full-scale production, the stallholders favouring their existing (and free) scruffier objects.

As Price showed, there need be no lack of aspiration in respect of small projects. They are frequently what get an architect or young practice started on a long career which may conclude with a huge project. Not always the case, as the Alsop & Lyall competition win in Marseilles proved all those years ago, and slightly later Foreign Office Architects in Yokohama, possibly the biggest projects those architects will ever have been involved with.

Architects can be as careful with the pennies as they are wrongly assumed to be profligate with the pounds

However, small projects can be iconic in their own way – one thinks of the shops by David Chipperfield and Eva Jiricna and, indeed, Hans Hollein. When we launched our awards in 1995 this raised a question as to whether size should be defined by area/volume, or cost. In the end we opted for cost as the criterion, because we wanted to celebrate economy of approach rather than impact achieved through expenditure. I can think of a winter garden in Chelsea where, it is said, the fee generated per square metre easily outgunned any other project by the architect involved, because an immensely wealthy client was concerned about plants, not his wallet.

Over the years, the cost limit has of course increased, but there is always a pleasing wealth of really cheap projects for the judges to review, a reminder that, when it comes to money, architects can be as careful with the pennies as they are wrongly assumed to be profligate with the pounds. With very limited budgets, it is the cost strategy which wins plaudits – along of course, with the quality of design. From observation the best line to pursue is to be as stingy as possibly with minor stuff and reserve any relatively big spend for a key element in the project. Spreading the stinginess equally rarely looks good.

I may be wrong, but I don’t see much evidence of cost strategy being taught in our schools of architecture. But it should. And it can be fun. I recall judging a Bartlett competition organised by Kevin Rowbotham, with prize money donated by the late, great Clyde Malby, to produce the ‘Cheap Project’. Students could choose any building type they liked, but had to design (with bills of quantities as evidence) something that could not be made cheaper.

One team included Justine Frischmann, later to achieve fame as lead singer of Elastica. She gave me her T-shirt as part of the presentation. Alas, I had to give it back, but the memory lingers.


Readers' comments (2)

  • 'Many small things add up to something significant' calls to mind the AJ's recent news item - 'Developers selected for huge TfL property framework'.
    Given the massive and increasingly destabilising problem of young Londoners being unable to afford the ballooning cost of housing, I wonder if TfL might see their way to releasing at reasonable prices the huge number of 'leftover' small and more difficult to develop plots - those places unattractive to their big framework partners - to enable young up and coming practices to tackle small housing projects to enable young people escape from joining the homeless and disillusioned?
    I wonder if TfL - having become embroiled in the controversy surrounding their support for that irresistibly vital piece of infrastructure, the Garden Bridge, might see the opportunity to redeem themselves (somewhat) by helping to address the housing problem?
    The Mayor and his team might benefit from visiting the current exhibition at the AA on the small projects of - and inspired by - Walter Segal, and the current development on another backland site in Lewisham.
    Perhaps the 'great & the good' of our architectural profession who've been so ready to applaud the Garden Bridge might consider a TfL small housing projects initiative just as worthy of support?

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  • I think this is a great idea -- small plot development is a perfect example of how aggregated small things mean something significant, a bit like self-builders in terms of combined output being one of the biggest housing producers in the country.

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