Meet Tom Emerson, 6a architects

with Jemima Burrill, curator and cultural consultant to NOW Gallery

The Meet the Design District Architects series has rapidly become a favourite lunchtime event for those interested in the built environment. For this edition — the third in the series — we’re introduced to Tom Emerson, one half of the founding team behind 6a architects.

A strategy of searching for clues in history and culture has led to 6a’s Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald being described as “architect detectives.” Since establishing their practise in 2001, the duo have been responsible for numerous award-winning buildings, many of which were explored in detail during this expansive discussion.

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With his passion for storytelling and broad range of cultural references, it was hardly surprising Emerson began the talk not with architecture, but cinema; showing clips from Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). In the film, the director’s alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, attempts to navigate a newly constructed cityscape, seemingly at odds with its slick, machine-for-living design. Tati’s films are often interpreted as anti-modernist, but Emerson offered an alternative reading — the hapless Hulot, he felt, was ‘happy to be lost in the modern world.’

Playtime is one of Emerson’s favourites, and although not a direct inspiration on 6a’s acclaimed MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, the architect presented some interesting and entertaining comparisons — editing together his own footage with scenes from the film.

For Design District, 6a have created twin buildings. Besides colour scheme differences and slight variations in the core, the structures are virtually identical. In detailing some of the many reasons for this, Emerson began with an irreverent one — a question two disparate designs would’ve raised: if one were better than the other, ‘then surely, shouldn’t you just do the better one twice?’

Raising such a question was by no means a rebuke to Design District’s ambitious scheme, devised to result in something more akin to a traditional palimpsestic urban landscape, with all its architectural diversity. As Emerson explained, with seven other highly respected practices involved, variety was inevitable and ‘not really needed from us.’

A more serious reason for the repetition was 6a’s interest in its role in the story of industrial and working architecture — something you might find in the design of warehouses, for example. And then, more pragmatically, there was the fact it meant greater scrutiny could be given to fewer design decisions, thereby creating precise, carefully conceived details that might be reused.

Inspiration also came from the strict regulatory parameters of HNNA’s master plan (discussed in last week’s session), something Emerson described as ‘playing with a contemporary commercial vernacular…the stuff that's normally suppressed: fire escape signs, ducts, rainwater pipes, grills…’

The reasoning behind the buildings’ distinguishing sloped facades was also addressed. When the architects realised a straight extrusion would exceed the floor space required by the brief, they began gradually tilting the buildings until arriving at ‘the perfect moment in the Excel spreadsheet of efficiency.’

The conversation turned to Raven Row gallery, a project that threaded together stories, history and archival finds — a good example of why Emerson and Macdonald have been described as “master weavers.” As Emerson explained: ‘Everything that happened to London happened to these buildings.’ The design for photographer Jurgen Teller’s studio involved another kind of weaving — grafting the new building onto a partially ruined dividing wall that might typically have been demolished. Teller was keen to avoid this, declaring such an act ‘unneighbourly.’

Emerson spoke highly of Teller as a client, especially appreciating the way he ‘misused everything’ once the building was finished. Evidence of this was provided by an image of the photographer reappropriating a rainbutt, wearing nothing but a German flag wig.

The talk concluded with a look at the engagement between architecture and landscape, including 6a’s work with artist Gabriel Orozco in creating the garden at South London Gallery. We were also introduced to a 1945 book the practice often turns to: London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter. A plate from the book showed a wild garden of weeds colonising the ruins of the bombed-out city— a phenomenon Emerson perhaps sees as a metaphor for his own profession.

The next Meet the Design District Architects will be on Friday, 03 July with Oliver Schulze, founding partner at Schulze+Grassov. Book now or view our archives here