Despite achieving recognition across Europe for a number of award-winning cultural institutions — including a Swiss dance school and a home for the Szczecin Philharmonic — Barozzi Veiga’s pair of aluminium-clad artists’ ateliers for Design District will mark the practice’s first completed project in the UK. In a candid conversation taking in the transgression of ornament, Greenwich Peninsula topography and the importance of being a good family member, Veiga and Compton explore the complexities and ambition of building a new hub for London’s creative industries.
The conversation began with a look at some of the practice’s architectural drawings and models, recently acquired by the Pompidou Centre. Minimal, gestural, almost abstract exercises in mark making, these sketches suggest the energy and spirit of a building. As Veiga explained, they are a tool for thinking — expressing things that renders can’t. He also sees the act of sketching buildings post-construction as an important way of documenting what was happening in European architecture at a particular time.
Compton addressed Barozzi Veiga’s willingness to utilise texture and ornament in its exteriors, the latter being — as Veiga acknowledges — something of a ‘forbidden word’ in architecture. Nonetheless, the practice is not afraid to use ornament, so long as it has its function and is not merely a whim. ‘Ornament: why not?’ he declares.
One of the most ambitious aspects of Design District came in the initial stages, with each of the eight participating practices creating its pair of buildings with no knowledge of the structures that would sit beside them. The situation of ‘not knowing your neighbours,’ Veiga confides, was not without its stresses, as he’d normally consider context to be an architect’s most basic tool. ‘It helps you discover the unexpected,’ he explains.
In this case, the unexpected would not be revealed until later, so Barozzi Veiga instead employed a strategy of envisioning the atmosphere and character of a creative space in London. As with any
project, Veiga says, memories from initial site visits were an influence — at Greenwich Peninsula, it was about ‘being in the neighbourhood of water.’
More informative still were practical demands and restrictions, which the practice strategically used to its benefit. By drawing on the fundamentals of their profession: responding to the density of the site, getting the proportions right, allowing for plenty of natural light — the architects set about ‘composing a good background’ for artists and designers. ‘That’s architecture!’ as Veiga puts it.
Asked about how his relationships with buildings develop over time, Veiga spoke of learning to accept that a project no longer belongs to you once inhabited by its users. He appreciates that the creative practitioners who move into his Design District buildings will inevitably make the studios their own, much as the dance students did at Barozzi Veiga’s Tanzhaus Zürich.
Having experimented with models, renderings and materials to produce a design the practice felt created the best conditions for tenants, it made sense to simply replicate it — resulting in two structurally near-identical buildings. For the façade of each however, it became evident there was a need to react to the different conditions imposed by the masterplan.
Variation was achieved by way of polished aluminium claddings in two different hues. In the case of the building welcoming Design District visitors on the approach from North Greenwich Underground station, a reflective silver surface allows it to ‘disappear a little bit’ — a response to its role as a ‘member of an ensemble.’ For the building positioned at the far end of the site, the polished aluminium is black, giving it a quality much like a stage backdrop. With both buildings the aim was not to impose a ‘selfish’ vision but to be ‘a good family member’ and to provide ‘a good background for a day in the life of this neighbourhood.’