Bureau de Change was founded by architects Katerina Dionysopoulou and Billy Mavropoulos. Its work is a direct product of the founders’ upbringing, passions and experiences — combining the pragmatism and formality of their architectural training with a desire to bring a sense of theatre, playfulness and innovation to the design of spaces, products and environments. The result is a studio where rigorous thinking and analysis are brought to life through prototyping, testing and making. Recent projects have used bespoke cast brickwork, woven furniture and rapid prototyping to form sculptural surfaces. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Billy’s and Katerina’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming architects
Katerina: When I was eleven, my dream was to become a Chemist, but as this was my father’s profession, he discouraged me from pursuing this. There wasn’t an epiphany moment when I decided I wanted to become an architect. It was an intuitive direction, as I always had an interest in design, and particularly spaces. Even as a child, I remember thinking about how a space could have been approached differently.
Billy: Ironically, I studied Chemistry to begin with, but similarly abandoned this career path to pursue architecture. As my mother had a fascination with architecture and interior design, our house was always filled with magazines and reference books. Flicking through these at a young age piqued an interest, which has never gone away.
On discovering their voices as designers
Katerina: Our approach is a balance of pragmatism with a desire to bring about an unexpected outcome — one which has undoubtedly been influenced by our backgrounds and professional experience.
We originally met when we worked for Foster + Partners, which was an education in design and communication. We learned how to use the spatial diagram to create highly practical, efficient and beautiful spaces, whilst also selling the idea effectively under the umbrella of a brand. I then worked for Thomas Heatherwick, which was a very different experience. Projects there are approached in a less ‘architectural’ way, with a process that focuses on the idea, the use of materials and the insistence that every outcome should achieve something innovative.
Billy: The Royal College of Art was a great school for me because we were given the opportunity to work with the ‘non-architectural’ departments. This was stage when I became influenced by other disciplines and processes — a real contrast from Fosters, but a complementary experience.
On starting their own practice
Katerina: We’d been flirting with the idea for a while before we started the business. Working together at Fosters gave us a mutual platform to discuss and develop ideas. We’ve always had similar outlooks and a very natural communication.
Billy: I started working as a consultant immediately after finishing at the RCA. I loved the diversity of projects and clients, which come with this way of working, and I knew that I wanted to continue on this path. We had been discussing setting up the business, and as chance would have it, a project came up, which set the ball rolling. The site consisted of two adjacent houses in West London, which the client wanted to merge and extend. The rarity of having two properties to work with, side by side in London, meant this project jumped out as a unique opportunity.
On their design approach
Katerina: We approach projects in a holistic way, using materials, textures and colours to define the atmospheric experience of a space. We tend to establish one element as a focal point, bringing about a sense of surprise and creating an identity for the project. It acts as a pillar to complement quieter spaces, whose atmospheres are based on a more temperate use of materials.
The spatial diagram is a natural starting point, but we combine this with a great deal of research, in order to sediment the concept. Whatever the scale of the project, we are drawn towards the historical context of the site or the subject of the brief. Imbuing something new with nuances of its past, brings about a human scale immediacy.
Billy: We’re also fascinated by fabrication processes and how these can be used to create unexpected outcomes. In all of our projects there are one or two elements in which making is crucial to the overall concept.
On projects that best represent this approach
Katerina: We’re working on a staircase that is part of a narrow house, to which we added a basement level. As a four storey dwelling, the space that is going to be used most is the staircase. We wanted to carve out a surprise at core of the house, which makes an atmospheric experience of using the stairs. Its shaft is clad in copper, reflecting warmth into the surrounding spaces. We have broken the risers into three copper clad ribbons, splaying these back one behind the other. This contributes to the fluidity of the space, creating more space for your foot and a pleated spiral effect, which climbs the stairs with you.
Billy: The house in North Carolina is a good example too. We wanted to explore the characteristic wooden cabins in this mountainous area, but do something different with their components. Familiar wooden beams radiate from a central point set back from the front façade, spreading outwards like a fan across the footprint of the building. The beams create a dramatic roof profile and different dynamic in each space, also accompanying you as you pass through the radial layout of the house. The rest of the building remains humble and minimal, allowing the personality of the client to take the lead.
On running their practice
Billy: Kat and I work on the design together in all of the projects. But normally, the client interface on a single project is handled by one or the other of us.
Katerina: In terms of the practical structure of the studio, Billy’s more involved in the financial, business and contractual side of things. I tend to handle the people and operational side, but all decisions are made together.
Billy: It’s happened naturally this way — there are no distinct roles really, and if one of us is not in the office then we destroy their holiday (laughs).
Katerina: We also have people in the team who aren’t necessarily architects — we’ve got an accessory designer, product designer, stage designer, and other members of the team whose backgrounds encompass fashion and architecture. We always try to involve them in the research process because they have a completely different perspective. What they come up with is always interesting and quite unexpected.
On their aspirations for the business
Billy: To build a strong team and find the right people to work on the right things. We’re aiming, not only for projects to grow in scale, but to develop the business within a broad range of sectors. We have worked on residential, commercial and cultural projects, and whilst we aspire to work on some areas more than others, we don’t want to focus solely on one of these.
Katerina: Yes, there’s a real benefit to working on a diverse range of projects, in terms of developing a holistic approach. This is something we wish to continue. The design of one project can inform the method by which another, in a different area, is approached. For example, designing a house, with the needs and lifestyle of a single client in mind, can positively influence the way in which you consider the end user of a more commercial space.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Billy: The usage of spaces is becoming increasingly blurred. For example, people are working much more remotely and flexibly. We’re actually doing two new office buildings in London, which have highlighted the fact that people want an office that feels more intimate and human — beyond the fun Google office environment into a space more like someone’s home. You can even see this in the collections of furniture manufacturers, who are all introducing office chairs that could sit as comfortably in a dining room.
Katerina: In general, there’s also a tendency towards craftsmanship and making, possibly owing to the emphasis on digital technology as a method of design and fabrication over the last decade. Buildings are becoming more textured and intricate, with an appreciation for the hand-crafted.
Billy: Yes, traditional processes and materials bring a more intimate texture to the built environment. The interesting moment is where technology and tradition meet to create something unexpected — where there is evidence of an industrially produced material being hand processed. There’s something nice about the imperfections created by hand. A series of repeated elements with one a little off kilter, for example.
Katerina: Museum curation and exhibition design also seem to be developing in a new way because of digital technology. This has afforded a more visitor led and interactive exploration of collections, one which the tech savvy have come to expect. Collections can be explored on screen and in the flesh, categorised by colour and texture and giving the visitor the opportunity to curate their own experience. Now, you arrive at a museum and you’ve already seen 100 pictures of it, so you go there for something more. The institutions who embrace this will be the places you want to visit.
On advice they would give their younger selves
Katerina: Before you start your own practice you need to work for somebody else, in order to understand how things work. You need to be humble, absorb information and listen. You must be patient, because the process of career progression in architecture is lengthy — I find that patience and an ability to listen are becoming rarer amongst the younger generation.
Billy: Before you set up on your own, working for both big practices and small practices are hugely advantageous. Both scales give you a different kind of knowledge and experience — in a large practice you see the workings of a big business; on the smaller scale you get hands-on experience and an insight into the day-to-day reality and struggle of setting up a company.
Katerina: Collaboration is essential — this is as true of running a business as it is on a project by project basis. As a studio we view the bouncing back and forth of ideas as a crucial part of the process. We bring in new people to work with on every project, whose skills and knowledge provide an extended perspective. For example, on North Carolina, we worked with engineers who I knew through my previous practice. Their input was invaluable, from helping us address challenges, to working closely with fabricators.
Billy: Yes, architecture has to be a result of a collaborative effort. It can’t be done by one person. It touches upon so many skills that it’s impossible for one person to excel at all of them. It’s about bringing in the right people, to do the right things, at the right time.