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'I want this to be the best studio in the world'

How does a tiny architecture practice take on the might of Foster's? Leo Benedictus visits Make to find out

Monday May 2, 2005
The Guardian

Products of the rumpus room ... Make's designs for London's Elephant and Castle area

Like a chef's breakfast or a barber's hair, one can read a lot from an architect's office. The workspace at Make, Ken Shuttleworth's boutique practice in central London, is part fish tank, part primary school. From the street, you see two enormous plate-glass windows, behind which are a pair of medium-sized rooms filled with cardboard visions of the future. On the right is the workshop, where everybody sits high up at elevated benches, an ingenious adjustment that makes it possible to talk to seated colleagues face to face. On the left is what they call the rumpus room, although on the day I visit, it surely contains too many models, tiny chairs and clients having meetings to leave much room for any actual rumpus.

Shuttleworth started Make, almost reluctantly, in January 2004. He had been at the Foster's partnership for 30 years, where he came up with the voluptuous designs for the Greater London Authority's new HQ and the Swiss Re tower. He began to get noticed. Two articles - one in Building magazine, one in the Guardian - got Shuttleworth thinking. Maybe he should get out and do something else? And maybe, in his mid-50s, this was his last chance?
Even then, the idea of starting his own practice did not come immediately. At first Shuttleworth spoke to Robin Partington, another Foster's alumnus, about joining him at Hamilton Associates. But in the end, it was only the profusion of other options that convinced him to turn everybody down. "I got lots of calls from architects offering me a position," he says, in his quiet, unassuming way. "So I thought, 'Well I might as well give it a go on my own because if it all goes pear-shaped at least I can get another job.'"

Having made his decision and resigned from Foster's, Shuttleworth's vision for the new company came together very easily. Over Christmas 2003, he spent two weeks writing down exactly what he wanted Make to be. In essence, it's a limited company owned by its employees; Shuttleworth holds no shares himself, and there is no hierarchy of job titles: everyone is a "partner". "John Lewis, in a way, is the model for it," he says. "I wanted an office where it was very dynamic, where you share the profits with everybody around, you try and give credit to people who do the work, you try and make sure everybody is happy, you don't shout at anybody and you're nice to everybody. It was a very clear vision."

It is tempting to wonder if all this was a reaction to Norman Foster's way of doing things. Shuttleworth says it isn't, but he accepts that there are a lot of frustrated architects out there. "When people come here for interviews, you ask, 'Why do you want to leave?' And they say, 'Well, you're not appreciated. I can't stand being shouted at, I have to work all night and no one says thank you, I have to work all weekend and no one says anything.' Some of them feel persecuted, in a way - these are people from lots of offices."

As a result, as Make has taken on new business, its staff has swollen, in 15 months, from one to 40 - half of whom have come from Foster's. Soon they will be looking for a bigger office, he says. But not too big. The plan is to keep the headcount at around 60 (Foster's has more than 600), which Shuttleworth reckons is the maximum size of a practice before it succumbs to corporate bureaucracy and departmental bickering.

No matter how hard I probe, Shuttleworth insists he feels no animosity towards Foster's practice, saying that he left on very good terms with "a very nice letter from Norman", which he now shows to students at his lectures. Not everyone is so sanguine, however.

With a chuckle, John Prevec tells me about the sweet moment when he discovered that Make's building on the Edinburgh waterfront would be stealing the view from a neighbouring Foster's project. Prevec is in charge of Make's highest profile job: a complete overhaul of the Elephant and Castle district of south London, on which he began working at Foster's before moving to Make, for whom he secured the next phase of work. "I found it enormously satisfying to have won a project against my former employer," he says, enormously satisfied.

So many people have swapped sides that a real edge does now exist between some people within the two practices, says Prevec. "One or two [of the Foster's people] are really bitter," he confides. "Some of the more senior guys are fine about it, but a few of the younger partners - people my age, around 40 or 45 - have been really weird." He is quick to point out that he greatly enjoyed his 10 years with Make's rival, but that the decision to leave was not difficult. "This was a massive great big door and it was wide open," he says. "Foster's was Norman's practice - 600 people, but it was his and only his. That's how he sees it."

Shuttleworth's intention with Make was to do only interesting work, and as Sean Affleck, another former Foster's man, gives me a guided tour of the perimeter of the workshop, I can see he meant it. Affleck shows me a private house they have designed to go in the middle of a river, a giant carbon-fibre spike that turns out to be a quieter, more efficient wind turbine, and an ingenious remodelling of a knackered tower block on London's south bank, designed to make a feature of its peculiarly patterned stress points. There is grand work, like the Vortex tower (on which Affleck's lips are sealed), and budget work, like the Dartford dojo (of which more later), but every piece revolutionises the way we think about something or other. It is the kind of architecture that makes people become architects in the first place.

And Affleck is excited by all of it. He delivers a panegyric on the heat-balancing powers of exposed concrete, before interrupting himself to discuss the cleverness of making bedroom windows from horizontal slits and then moves on to the problems with building tetrahedrons on an ice shelf. We discover, on one of the charts along the way, that someone got their millimetres mixed up with their metres. Affleck corrects it with his pencil. "Sorry if I'm rabbiting," he says, after 40 minutes of unbroken enthusiasm.

This is the nice thing about Make. Architects are supposed to be very cool, but in Make's office, as in their designs, nothing is distant or austere. The furniture looks expensive, and there are a lot of tieless white shirts, but there is also a geeky intensity about the place, a simple enthusiasm for arranging walls and solving problems that is very endearing.

And with this enthusiasm goes great ambition. "I want it to be the best studio in the world, producing the best architecture," Shuttleworth says, suddenly puffed-up and forth right, when I ask about his goals for the company. His ambition will face its next great test in December, the tough deadline for the complete construction of Make's first new building, the Dartford dojo.

The new home for Dartford's highly successful judo club is a relatively small project in the hands of one of Make's younger architects, Matt White. His brief was to make it cheap and practical, while reflecting the sport's high ideals of gentle combat. I meet White in the rumpus room. He is 32, but looks younger. Casually, he manhandles a well-loved model of his building on to the table and begins to explain. He points at north and south, sweeping an ink-stained hand around the edges to indicate the Bluewater shopping centre and the M25. "At the moment there's a bowls club there full of old people," he says, indicating the bottom of the model. "Very sweet. Packed with them."

The building is a simple, shallow cuboid, but it is cleverer than it looks. Its flat roof is angled in such a way that all rainwater will be funneled towards a square spout, which also serves as a kind of awning over the entrance. At the tip of the awning is a wire mesh, which gives shade to the foyer and guides the flow of water down into a soakaway. At the bottom of the mesh is a large piece of chalk, a nod to the chalk pit on which the area sits. "It's a gesture, but it's a relevant gesture," says White.

In fact, it is more than that. "Over the lifetime of the building," says White, "the water coming down here is going to erode that chalk, slowly, but it will erode it - thus demonstrating the principle of softness overcoming hardness. It's a bit hackneyed, and you wouldn't get it unless someone told you. But the idea is that Alan, the coach, can describe that to his students and use it as an educational tool."

On entering the finished building, you will be able to see the judo mats through glass trophy cases in the wall, but you won't be able to get on to the mat without first going through a changing room - a reminder to take off your shoes. Mindful of the fact that finishing touches are the first thing to be dropped when the money is tight, White has also laid out the interior so that you can't see any doors when you first walk inside. "It may sound like a small thing," he explains, "but what it means is that your eye only sees simple things - a simple wood floor, simple white walls, that's it. All the noticeboards will be kept round the corner. All you'll see is light and shade: forms. So even if they put in a panel door from B&Q round there, it's not going to ruin it."

When the tour of the model is over, the club's coach, Alan Roberts, arrives for another consultation with White. Roberts, a late-middle-aged man in tracksuit and tinted glasses, is clearly excited by the project. "It's going to be the envy of everybody when it's built," he says. "I keep telling people about it, but until it's there I don't think they realise how significant it's going to be." Forty people, and counting, will hope it becomes very significant indeed.

His doing a stirling job and I hope his success continues. The work his doing in Birmingham is top notch, The Cube, Digbeth, Library - his also redesigning Rogers City Park Gate scheme and the NEC's makeover. Exciting times for MAKE and Ken by the seems of things.

Second Citizen
16,929 Posts
I like Spiracle - not too sure about Kite though.

Make are a very interesting practice, and nothing seems too big or small for them, and they manage to capture the imagination of so many clients.

Pity it isa very London-focussed article, considering the company doesn't have that bias.
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