Architects’ Journal ‘In Practice’

Foster

Architects’ Journal ‘In Practice’

Timothy Soar has an unerring eye”, says Norman Foster. “His photographs speak with more eloquence than any words can summon.” I would leave it there, and simply tell you to get to London, if you are able to, and see Architects in Practice, a gloriously revealing exhibition of Soar’s superb portraits of contemporary British architects at work in their studios.

But please indulge me, if only a little, for these photographs are not just a visual treat; and they are far more than straightforward, set-piece portraits, or beautifully lit records of architects’ studios. What they reveal – artfully and with a benign eye – is the image architects wish to present of themselves and of their craft, to the world. The results are touching, impressive, occasionally inspiring and, often, rather funny.

I love the picture of Bob Allies and Graham Morrison sitting together in a monastic and even sepulchral corner of their busy office in Southwark. Although Allies and Morrison are one of Britain’s most prolific practices with an enormous number of office blocks on their books, this image shows how Bob and Graham wish, somehow, to remain the detached and gentlemanly scholars they once were before the work came flooding in. Fine fellows still despite worldly acclaim, nevertheless Messrs Allies and Morrison lead what is, by British architectural standards, a medium-sized business corporation. Soar’s image brushes this aspect of their successful professional life under the carpet (if there is a carpet, that is; architects aren’t too keen on them).

Norman Foster is portrayed primus inter pares, in the highly organised yet clearly super-busy atmosphere of his office in Battersea. It all looks very multimedia and, quite evidently, there’s a great deal of important stuff going on. Which there is. The Foster office is indeed a complex, thrumming machine plugged in to the world, if not, as yet, the solar system. But that’s probably just a matter of time. And space.

Here’s Richard MacCormac, a charming, loquacious fellow with a professorial knowledge of architectural history and theory as well as a long track record of designing imaginative and highly individualistic buildings. He sits in Soar’s image, thinking: a representation of how we imagine the architect-as-artist at work; the studio behind him calls to mind one of Piranesi’s labyrinthine etchings.

Burd Haward are young architects, husband and wife as so many are, looking for all the world like a Hollywood ideal. Haward is even called Buddy. This could easily be a still from a contemporary movie. Curiously, the practice’s work is quiet, thoughtful and sober, unlike, very unlike, Hollywood’s idea of what an architect does; well, have you seen The Fountainhead starring Gary Cooper as a stand-in for Frank Lloyd Wright?

Very young architects, whose practices are named after airline tickets or the numbers you find stamped inside fridges and dishwashers, are, perhaps inevitably, a little self-conscious when it comes to projecting their image. Soar captures members of dRMM, a successful and inventive young practice, on what looks to be the set of a call centre crossed with a trendy ad agency, while Surface have chosen to be photographed not in the daylight architects yearn for in their buildings, but in stygian gloom. This, I suppose, is an architectural joke; it makes for a great picture.

One of the most touching of Soar’s photos, though, is of Martin Ebert, working, as so many British architects out of the limelight do, in solitary splendour. I do not know if Ebert works in a big practice, or alone, but I like the image, so very evocative of the one-man band hard at work.

One thing you will note: every office is as clean as a Bauhaus dream; I look at my piled-high desk at the Guardian, or my study at home (like a library after a dog-fight), and wonder how architects manage to work so hard and yet so very tidily. You get the feeling that they will shape a perfect world for you, too; which is why we can’t help liking them and admiring the best – those who really do try against the odds to create at least a dream of a better world in concrete, steel, bricks and stone.

Norman Foster is right and wrong; Tim Soar’s portraits are in one way beyond words, and yet there is so very much to say about them. I wonder what you think?

Jonathan Glancey, writing in The Guardian