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A Public Approach

Building Design, 19 January 1990

by Clare Melhuish

'Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale have moved from domestic projects to larger more public schemes.'

'Hugh Culum and Richard Nightingale's recent selection by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as architects for the new British High Commission in Nairobi is a breakthrough for the seven-year-old practice.

'When they featured in the RIBA's "40 Under Forty" exhibition four years ago, small-scale domestic projects formed the mainstay of their work, together with competition entries such as Hong Kong Peak. But over the last year or so they have found themselves increasingly involved in larger, more public schemes, of which the Foreign Office commission is the latest and most prestigious, even if remote, in geographical terms, from the epicentre of architectural activity.

'Last summer the partners' work was included in an exhibition at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum in tribute to Colin St. John Wilson, on his departure as head of the architecture faculty there. they were one of six practices chosen to represent the contribution made by ex-students to the architectural world beyond Cambridge. The others were Christopher Alexander, Richard MacCormac and Spencer De Grey, of an older generation, and Alice Brown (now working with van Heyningen & Haward) and Eric Parry, among more recent graduates.

'Both Cullum and Nightingale spent time in Colin St. John Wilson's office in London, which is kept busy in the main by the vast British Library project, before launching out on their own, though Nightingale continued working at Wilson's for some time after setting up the practice.

'Now that they are based at an office in Judd Street, one is tempted to suggest they have hardly escaped the shadow of that giant structure fast-rising on the Euston Road, at the end of the street. But they put any speculation on that head to rest with mild assurance. they feel no sense of domination by the author of that building, their one-time teacher, nor by the architectural philosophy which has, to some extent, become identified with the Cambridge school under Wilson.

'If these influences have come through, they maintain, it is mostly in the method of working: a process of taking infinite pains over details - even when dealing with a project on the scale of the British Library. "Taking care, worrying"' as they put it. Nothing slick about it. Careful choice and subtle handling of materials, high quality craftsmanship, sophisticated construction details, and refined spatial disposition and play of light could be defined as hallmarks of the approach. But there are other influences besides the Cambridge background.

'Cullum is developing a thesis on the Piedmontese baroque, under the auspices of Cambridge, which speaks of interests and inclinations beyond mere brick and block. Both architects have had considerable experience of working in cultutral contexts quite divorced from the European preoccupation with academic and aesthetic issues - Cullum in Canada, Nightingale in East Africa, North America and Hong Kong - which perhaps accounts for a particular receptivity to the potential of the site and available materials, the basis of vernacular architecture.

'This experience may have been a contributory factor in their selection for the Nairobi commission. The practice had thrown together a small polo clubhouse, constructed in timber, when they were asked to work on a scheme for five large family houses for an inexperienced Indian developer. Interpretation of the unusually open brief was left very much in the hands of the architects, who found themselves almost at a loss with such generous spatial specifications to deal with. "It was an opportunity to indulge our fantasies," they comment, but at the same time they have had to take precise account of local climatic and site conditions. Each house is different, playing around a different theme, but all are closely related to the landscape. Hollow clay-pot screens are used for shading the interior from the bright sun, while the roofs are depressed, creating an unusual section, for sunbathing. The main structures are of stone, the local material.

'These are Western buildings for people with a Western way of life", but nevertheless, by virtue of their location, they demand a quite different approach from anything an architect might be asked to do in Britain. Cullum & Nightingale's work in London up till now has been about dealing with the constraints imposed by site, regulations and budget. They enjoy working in an urban environment, and although working abroad has had its advantages, there is always "the lack of an immediately intelligible cultural context" to deal with.

'Over the last few years the partners have been involved with a number of domestic projects for London clients. Clifton Hill is a house in St. John's Wood where they were asked to create a gallery in the roof space. English Heritage kept an eye on proceedings, anxious that there should be no harm done to the "gothicky" character of the villa and its neighbours: needlessly so, perhaps, for the new architecture actually takes its cue from the existing forms and ornament, with panelling in "heraldic colours", a canopy like a jousting tent over the exposed terrace, and a pair of the new roundel windows in the roof where visible to the road (these actually in deference to EH).

'At the same time, the architects succeeded in removing and remodelling the roof across the central axis, to provide a long light above, in addition to new windows at each end of the cross axis. The result is a spacious and well-lit roof-space suitable for gallery use, in what were once pokey servants' quarters.

'Bark Place, Bayswater, was a project for the construction of a garden room which involved installing a new staircase, internal balcony and kitchen. A high level of craftsmanship was required to deal with the precise detailing and splicing of different materials, and the structure of the staircase itself with treads suspended from a bow hand-rail, a small engineering feat. The effect of the completed project, with its exposed brick walls and glazed elevation, with additional lantern above, and views of sky and trees, is a blurring of inside and outside, of ideas of shelter and exposure, which creates a very special and unusual space.

'The preoccupation with space and light is well illustrated by the project for Richard Nightingale's own house in Hampstead. Constructed on a narrow infill site between large Victorian mansions, it has a diminutive look about it - in the way of any outhouse or conservatory - which belies the spaciousness of the interior. The space is free-flowing up and downstairs, but "dedicated", as the architects put it, in that each area has aprecise function attached to it, without actually being a "room". At the back, overlooking the garden, a complicated bay window, constructed by Cullum himself, allows maximum light into the interior, by means of undulating panes, and a skylight, raised on chrome steel brackets, permeates the house with light.

'Two recent commissions mark the beginning of a move into more public work, which the Nairobi project should consolidate. One is a new foyer for North Westminster School, involving the upgrading of the entrance to the 1959 "UnitZ»-style" block on piloti by the flyover to London's Westway.

'The headmaster believes not only that nothing should be viewed as too good for students, but that the refurbishment is important for the school's public image. The architects envisage a richly textured space, with a curved timber desk "like a ship's prow", and a slightly canted wall across the main entrance, containing a "mishmash matrix" of display cases. Tucked among the piloti to the right of the main entrance, the reception area will have a quality of construction and lighting intended to create a marked contrast with the institutional nature of the building.

'A commission to build a new workshop with performance capacities, storage space, and upgrading of the theatre, for the Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage, again involved the constraints of an existing building, an awkward site, and, in this case, particularly specific operational requirements.

'The technical issues involved in the refurbishment of the theatre, and the construction of a fly-tower, were quite new to the practice. In terms of spatial organisation they are aiming, as usual, to maximise the potential of the interior, with the option of connecting the new space with the theatre through central doors, and a gallery at mezzanine level, with a rehearsal room above.

'The architects face an unaccustomed requirement for minimum natural light, although the clients want to preserve some sense of the outside from within. They will be experimenting with different forms of artificial lighting appropriate for work and performance use. Finally, they hope to give this wing of the building a proper façade, with an entrance suitable for public use.

'So far, most of the practice's London work has been involved with alteration and refurbishment of buildings, requiring a flair for imaginative adjustment, careful insertion, and a readiness to work from the details up and outward, rather than losing the details to the general concept.

'The Foreign Office commission will pose new challenges - "it must work well at the strategic level, not rely on gimmicks", satisfying a highly complex brief. Somehow the many different departments must be unified to give a sense of one building, yet each element should have its own identity.

'Cullum & Nightingale seem slightly apprehensive at the task before them - "how to maintain attention to detail?" on such a large scale - but they, if anyone, seem unlikely to get swept off their feet by the challenge to create a showcase for British architecture.'