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New Architects

Building, 11 October 1991

by Colin Davies

'With Canadian and Kenyan backgrounds and a Cambridge connection, Cullum and Nightingale can't be cubbyholed. Colin Davies finds that they'll go far - if they don't post anything.'

'Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale were both brought up abroad. Cullum is the son of an architect in Newfoundland; Nightingale the son of a farmer in Kenya. They are, however, as English as can be. Educated at Marlborough and Rugby respectively, they came together at the Cambridge School of Architecture, then headed by British Library designer Colin St John Wilson. After qualifying, Cullum stayed on to do a PhD while Nightingale travelled the world from Berlin to Hong Kong, including China and India. Both worked for a time in St John Wilson's office.

'Their early collaborations included a detailed and serious entry for the Hong Kong Peak competition in 1983, the winning of which was to launch the career of that queen of Deconstructivist architecture, Zaha Hadid. The Cullum and Nightingale entry, however, did not impress the judges, or so they thought. Later they found out that it had been lost in the post.

'Despite this inauspicious start to their partnership, they struggled on, prepared to take on anything from minimal domestic conversions in London to a polo club room near Nairobi that cost less than £1000. The London - Nairobi connection eventually - proved to be a fruitful source of work, but first they gained some practical experience on a number of small jobs, including Richard Nightingale's own house, a travel agency in the City and a house extension in Bayswater. The partners also undertook a little property development, renovating two Georgian houses in St Pancras and converting the basements for use as their offce.

'The big break came in 1989 when they were invited by the Foreign Offce to take part in a limited competition for the design of the new British High Commission in Nairobi. The other entrants were Denton Scott and Troughton McAslan. Cullum and Nightingale won the competition with a subtle and complex design which combines the three main elements of the brief - VIP accomrnodation, commercial wing and consulate - in a composition which the designers liken to an English country house. This job is now out to tender, production information having been prepared by a local architect. The arrangement seems to have worked well, and Cullum and Nightingale are confident that the completed building will be a faithful interpretation of their detailed design.

'Other jobs in Kenya include a set of five luxury houses now under construction on a coffee plantation outside Nairobi. Though the development is speculative, each house has been designed for an imaginary client and has its own character.

'Meanwhile, back in London Cullum and Nightingale have built up continuing relationships with two educational institutions, North Westminster Community School and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Built projects include a temporary classroom for NorthWestminster, designed andbuilt in three months, and a new backstage sets workshop for the Central School.

'The practice now has a total staff of six, including a secretary, and is equipped for CAD. With its overseas connections and institutional clients, it has managed to avoid the worst effects of the recession, though according to the partners it has never had more than three months' guaranteed work.

Design philosophy

'Cullum and Nightingale's architecture is distinctive, but difficult to characterise. None of the usual convenient labels applies. It is modern, but not quite Modernist; it is complex and allusive but too restrained to be described as Post-Modernist; it expresses structure and construction clearly and unambiguously but it certainly isn't Hi-Tec. It hasClassical poise and proportion but does not use any of the conventions of Classical ornament; it makes use of natural materials and traditional forms but it isn't romantic or folksy.

'So where is it coming from? There seem to be two main influences, and both are connected with the Cambridge School of Architecture, where the partners studied between 1973 and 1979. The years are important, for it was in 1978 that two architects, Dalibor Vesely and Peter Carl, came to the school and began to change the direction of the teaching.

'Previously there had been a recognisable Cambridge design tradition, represented most clearly by two long-serving heads of the school, Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson. Martin had been the chief architect of the LCC inthe 1950s, and in the 1960s designed a number of important university buildings which combined European Modernism with the English Arts and Crafts tradition. St John Wilson worked with Martin, inherited the headship of the school from him and went on to make his name by designing the massive British Library project, the first phase of which is now nearing completion in St Pancras. Other architects often associated with this Cambridge tradition include Ted Cullinan, who taught there in the 1960s, and RIBA president Richard MacCormac.

'This was the tradition to which Cullum and Nightingale were exposed in their early student years. The emphasis was on functional clarity and the manipulation of space. St John Wilson, for whom both partners worked for a time after qualifying, is an erudite and cultured designer and no mere technician, but nevertheless the educational emphasis was on the design technique. Then, in l978, the Czech Dalibor Vesely arrived at the school and introduced a new intellectual component. The emphasis was shifted away from technique towards the less tangible historical, cultural and philosophical aspects of the art of architecture.

Inspirational

'According to Cullum, the effect was confusing but inspiring. "In the fifth year, Dalibor Vesely and Peter Carl descended on us and there were great rumblings because nobody understood anything they were talking about. Until then the emphasis had all been on manipulating sections, efficient planning, systems of construction and so on. Dalibor and Peter introduced issues that we had been completely unaware of. It was unfamiliar territory but it was very exciting, and that's why I went back to do a PhD."

'It is impossible to sum up Vesely's theoretical position in a few words. Sufffice it to say that it relies on a particular interpretation of the central part that architecture has played in the development of Western culture. A thorough knowledge and understanding of the architecture of the past is a prerequisite, but it has to be much more than just a familiarity with the canon of great buildings. One might expect Cullum's enthusiasm for the Baroque architecture of Borromini and Guarini, for example, to lead him to design in a flamboyant Classical style. But in fact he despises the current Classical revival represented by architects like Quinlan Terry and has no time for the various Post Modernist reinterpretations of Classicism.

'For Cullum and Nightingale it is the relationship between architecture and the deeper cultural undercurrents of society that is important, not the superficial appearance of buildings. For this reason the Modernist tradition commands more of their respect and the Martin/St John Wilson branch of Modernism in particular remains a strong influence.

'Despite the philosophical Cambridge grounding, Cullum and Nightingale's architecture is eminently practical and buildable. Ever since his school days, Cullum has been a maker of models and a designer of nonarchitectural artefacts like boats and go-carts. When Nightingale built his own house a few years ago, Cullum made all the joinery and the complicated lead flashings for the roof were assembled on Nightingale's living-room floor. The craft of building is an important part of their architecture. What they find less satisfying is the quasi-legal aspect of contracting - all those specifications and drawings which are prepared solely for the purpose of defining (and avoiding) responsibility. Both partners cherish the hope of setting up a building firm, a group of trusted craftsmen who they could work with directly and creatively.

'Complexity and continuity are the keynotes of their approach to design. They prefer to work with a client over a long period so as to gain a deeper understanding of the culture and needs of the users and find a natural expression of these needs in architecture. In view of this, it is not surprising that their major clients are public institutions like the Foreign Office, the Central School of Speech and Drama and North Westminster School rather than commercial developers, though this is not a deliberate policy or a matter of principle. They are not selling a particular style or way of working, but rather offering an attitude of responsiveness.

'"A single-minded devotion to for example, some particular constructional technique does not necessarily have anything to do with the task in hand - the brief and the users," says Nightingale. "Adhering to a dogma, we feel, is not the way to go about solving a particular problem. There is no special value in a building being extraordinary. We would rather build good ordinary buildings than extraordinary buildings that attract attention for a brief moment. Perhaps it is this that makes our architecture difficult to pigeonhole."

'"In any case, " adds Cullum candidly, "we haven't built all that much so we don't have a ready formula at our fingertips."'