It is cheating to muck around with algorithms: Caruso St. John celebrate their trad influences.

Adam Caruso and Peter St.John sprang to prominence in the mid 1990s with their competition-winning entry for Walsall’s new art gallery in the English Midlands. It was a rare opportunity for a young practice – established only in 1990, after both had worked for Florian Beigel and Arup Associates – which had previously been known mainly for domestic work. With their reputation at stake, Caruso St. John resolved to concentrate wholly on that one £23m project, which meant that there was the inevitable slump in workload after it was completed at the start of 2000. That period of calm did not last long. In last autumn’s exhibition at the Architectural Association, intriguingly titled “Cover Versions” they had almost too much work to choose from.

The crucial follow-up commission was entirely different: the careful enhancement of the Barbican’s concert hall, home of the London Symphony Orchestra. Where Walsall had been about building from scratch and standing proud, the Barbican job was more a case of invisible mending, of working with acoustics and services consultants. As a consequence, just about the only architectural interventions apparent to the public are their sound-reflecting devices in iridescent Rimex stainless steel. As at Walsall with its sumptuously austere palette of pale terracotta, concrete and timber, materiality came to the fore.

Ever since, the commissions have flowed. A building in the Walsall mould is their forthcoming Centre for Contemporary Art in Nottingham. More of a Barbican kind of job is their work in and around the dining hall at Downing College, Cambridge, where they tread lightly between the Greek Revival of William Wilkins and the late 1960s response to that by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis. And their early stripped-to-basics residential work finds its echo in the recently-completed Brick House in Westbourne Grove: inspired infill, a building with virtually no elevations that is nonetheless architecture of the highest order.

More adaptive and accretive architecture is apparent in their new classroom blocks at Denys Lasdun’s Hallfield School in Paddington. Here the architects’ ego has mostly been suppressed. They do the difficult thing of picking up on the original aesthetic while avoiding the twin pitfalls of either slavish reproduction or facile pastiche. You can perhaps fault their contribution for lacking the delicacy of the Lasdun original – these are tough, no-nonsense new buildings – but these are different times, with very different and much more demanding building regulations, particularly when it comes to the thermal performance of walls and roofs. There is, however, a clear deference to Lasdun. This is one idea of what constitutes a “cover version”.

In other projects, an interesting thing has started to happen to Caruso St. John’s architecture. Put crudely, they have rediscovered ornament, something very apparent in their polychromatic-masonry designs for an extension to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, exhibited in the British pavilion at the last Venice architecture biennale. Of course this was no Damascene conversion – the historic and textural interest has always been there – and of course they were and are not alone. Everyone from Herzog and de Meuron to Foreign Office Architects by way of Future Systems and FAT seem to have been playing around with the idea of ornament. What sets Caruso St. John apart, perhaps, is the way they openly acknowledge their debts to their forbears.

Hence the title of their exhibition. “Cover Versions” presented a firm of broadly modernist architects which is willing to place itself in an historical continuum – especially but not exclusively the Arts and Crafts tradition. True, plenty of architects cite influences. Plenty like to ignore the relatively recent past, and instead point to the wonders of engineering or nature or art or swimwear. In contrast, Caruso St. John name names: the names of other architects. In the show, clusters of their work were organised around reference material – much of it gleaned from the RIBA’s drawings collection – by some of those who have been this way before: among them Louis Sullivan, Philip Webb, Owen Jones and Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame.

These days the practice is a fair-sized business with an international client list. A commission for a low-density landscaped estate of 500 homes near Bordeaux gives something of the flavour. Despite always working with relatively small numbers of staff – Walsall was designed from an office of just six, which fell to three immediately afterwards – they are today up to 20. They are proud – and possibly unique – never to have had a bank overdraft. Now, they can pick and choose both their work and their staff. They get 20 job applications a week on average. But they are not keen on expansion for the sake of it, though there is a big-office structure in the making. A third partner, Rod Heyes, and four associates – Tim Collett, Stephanie Webb, David Kohn and Adam Khan – mean that the founding partners don’t have to handle all the clients and do all the working drawings themselves as they used to.

The way Caruso puts it – he’s the one who does most of the talking, with Peter St. John providing occasional counterpoint – “We can’t have more work – we can only have bigger work. We have too many projects in the office. It’s a strain.” For Peter St. John, the ones who struck the right balance are the likes of Lasdun, Alvaro Siza (a great hero) and Peter Zumthor, all architects who work or worked at their own pace rather than having the pace dictated by endless economic expansion. “It’s also about quality of life,” observes St. John. “We both have children, life is short – we can only do a certain number of things.”

Their studio is a spacious converted white-painted 1930s deep-plan industrial building, originally a cotton factory for the Coates company, not far from the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and just round the corner from the surreal “Blue House” of FAT’s Sean Griffiths. There seems plenty of room for them all by the space standards of most practices but they have just taken on the floor below to park all their bikes and build a bigger model workshop.

We gather round the cluttered meeting table, and Caruso pulls down drawings and working models to explain the layout of the AA exhibition. You might not, at first glance, associate their Brick House with the work of the Arts and Crafts master Philip Webb, but he is the pin-up they want to acknowledge. Photos and study models of Brick House – an infill project with a noble, raw, irregularly-domed main space – form part of the display, but so too do working drawings for it, interspersed with Webb’s working drawings for Standen, his virtuoso freestyle
house of 1891-4, and the earlier Clouds house in Wiltshire, freer still. The link here is an extraordinary level of attention to detail. Caruso assures me that every single brick in Brick House was drawn in its rightful place. How he can do this and still turn a profit baffles me.

“Who knew more about architecture than Webb?” asks Caruso. “He was a great architect. It’s to do with construction, and the way that construction holds cultural information. That was something that was central to his practice, and it’s something we’re very interested in. Looking at his drawings, it’s amazing. They seem very familiar. Every single thing was drawn, unlike Lutyens. Standen has 150 working drawings, which was a lot for those days.”

Similarly an assonance is declared between the decorative stone screens of the Museum of Childhood job – there will be a full-scale prototype – and a richly ornamental façade detail of both Adler and Sullivan’s 1894-5 Guaranty building in Buffalo, and plates from Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Likewise an Olmsted landscape is put in the context of the rus-in-urbe designs of Hallfield School and the Bordeaux housing. Such comparisons might seem invidious – how dare these boys set themselves alongside the masters? – but that is not the intention. The problems of architecture never change much. In the early 21st rather than the late 19th century, Caruso St. John are looking at the way people succeeded in the past, and see nothing wrong with coming up with their own versions of the classics.

Ornament plays a key role in their design for the £11m Centre for Contemporary Art to be built on a steeply sloping site in Nottingham’s Lacemarket area, which will combine galleries for visual and performance art. Inside, the deep slender roof beams recall Sverre Fehn’s Nordic pavilion in the Venice Biennale gardens, but it is the exterior that will provoke comment. Nottingham’s lace was largely machine-made, and this replicability forms the basis of a “textile façade”. A sample of lace will be scanned, turned into a 3D computer model, and moulded into the pigmented precast concrete panels forming the elevations of the centre. “With this technology,” observes Caruso, “you can do very intricate ornament again.” Sullivan and Wright live on. As does Berlage – his Holland House, right behind Foster’s Gherkin in the City of London is “a constant reference”. Caruso St. John regard this kind of thing as real ornament. For them, it is cheating to muck around with algorithms and mapping programs to generate façade details, as some modish architects do. “Why go to that kind of incredible contrivance to get an articulation which in the end is always very reduced?” ponders Caruso.

So: it’s tradition all the way. “We’re trying to start to express more formally the idea that interpretation is a very powerful thing. Interpretation of tradition has always been how you made art and architecture,” he says. “It’s only really since the 1950s that this idea of pure invention intruded. And it’s only got really silly in the last 20 years or so. If you make pure invention, how can it possibly have any density, compared with something that has hundreds or thousands of years feeding into it? So in a way we are trying to celebrate the eclecticism of our current work, but we’re also trying to make explicit connections.”

Caruso St. John is in a sense unashamedly elitist. They aim to do high architecture, they say. There is not much commercial work, though an accomplished speculative office block for developer Argent at King’s Cross is still pending. They are obviously known for arts spaces, and have a seam of work in private outlets such as London’s Gagosian and Stephen Friedman galleries. They increasingly find themselves on illustrious international shortlists: now they select only those competitions where the shortlists really are realistically short. A competition entry was in the office the day I visited, almost ready for dispatch: the Herning Kunstmuseum in Denmark, which has the world’s largest collection of Piero Manzoni. Unusually, the new building is to be for music as well as contemporary art.

They didn’t win that one, but they won another that was in progress at the same time. This is to be a big concert hall and museum (officially “centre for tourism and culture”) in Ascona, Switzerland, where they rework the Baroque idea of a city “crown” building. Typically, the competition description gets right down to materials. It is to be cast in a white concrete rich in marble aggregate and with “a fine vertical tooling of the surface”. They have worked outside Britain before, but this is their first large overseas commission for a public building. They beat both Zaha Hadid and Peter Markli.

So the projects continue to roll out. A Damien Hirst museum in Lambeth, carved out of a block of buildings the artist owns there, looks promising. They are working with the Spike Island community of artists in their 1960s tea factory in Bristol. And so on. This is by any standards interesting, varied work – around half of it involving listed buildings.

They work closely together: this is not one of your bilaterally split firms where partners jealously guard their own jobs. “It’s slightly unusual, our practice,” Peter St. John concedes. “It is a collaboration of designers rather than a partnership. That came from the very earliest days, collaborating as teachers. It’s continued as a conversation during the long-term progress of our practice. I might bring something that I’m interested in, so might Adam, and what has to happen is that we collectively sort it and arrange it and re-present it. We decide together what’s interesting and appropriate.”

And that might well mean turning work down. They return to their heroes: Zumthor, Siza, Lasdun. What’s the point of endless expansion, huge offices? “It’s globalisation, and it’s terrible for architecture,” says Caruso. To which St. John quietly adds: “You don’t have to do very many good buildings to have a satisfying career. We’ve got to the point now where we feel we have the ability to build complicated buildings really well. It would be so satisfying to be working at a much bigger scale.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. This is an updated full-length version of the article originally published in reduced form on 6.10.05 in the Architects Journal, London.


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