Founded in 2011, the studio’s work explores the visceral experience of Architecture. They combine a collaborative Agile design management system with an artisanal approach to making. David Liddicoat & Sophie Goldhill were awarded an RIBA award and Manser Medal nomination for the hand-crafted Shadow House. A prestigious Stephen Lawrence Award shortlisting and a second RIBA award came for the kinetic ‘Ancient Party Barn’. Named as one of Wallpaper* Magazine’s ‘Future 30’, the practice was shortlisted for Building Design 2013 One-Off House Architect of the Year, Longlisted for Young Architect of the Year, featured in Elle Decoration architects directory and are to be included in the Architecture Foundation's “New Architects 3: A decade of New British Talent”. Liddicoat & Goldhill's work has been widely exhibited and published in the UK and abroad with several of their models selected for the architecture room of the Royal Academy of Arts. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn about David and Sophie's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
I can give you answers for both Sophie and I which I think is quite interesting because we came at it from completely different angles.
For as long as I can remember knowing what an architect was, I wanted to be one. I was the typical kid who loved drawing and making things out of Lego. I spent a lot of time drawing cars and boats and other stuff that moved, but the ultimate, most complex thing you can attempt to figure out - and try to communicate the most ideas through - are buildings.
Sophie on the other hand is a painter. She trained at Slade School of Fine Art, worked on massive canvases. She was fascinated by cranes, industrial machinery and structural components, which came from a completely aesthetic perspective. So I guess we meet in the middle.
The interesting thing about architecture is that you aren’t educated in it until you’re eighteen, and starting Architecture school is like jumping off a cliff. A lot of people come from an Art background like Sophie, but it’s also a very technocratic discipline. It’s such a long process and you don’t quite realize why it’s going to take so long when you start. But it becomes clear to you that there’s an awful lot to learn.
On discovering their voices as designers
The architects we learned the most from are designers like Louis Kahn or Carlo Scarpa - everything that we do boils down to handling the materials and understanding their haptic characteristics. Although we’re interested in modern methods of construction, we use them in an artisanal way. We use highly digitized processes like 3D printing or CNC construction to create something that’s very individual and crafted.
We both studied at the Royal College of Art under Nigel Coates, who taught interior design and architecture there. The attitude at the RCA was to go out there and make it by yourself. Whereas lots of Architecture schools engender a culture of getting a job and working for someone else for twenty years before establishing your own practice, everyone at the RCA - shoe designers, car designers, interaction designers - all had their own mission before they left college. So that gave us a kind of chutzpah to do something that was probably inadvisable actually (laughing). To grab opportunities and go for it.
On the process of starting their practice
We started in the middle of the crash - a crazy time to get into the construction industry. There was so little work in London and the practices we were working for were struggling. But we realized that the residential sector particularly in London was strangely resilient. Particularly there was an opportunity in bespoke micro-houses on tight urban sites. So we built one for ourselves and a number for clients. Since then, as the tide has risen financially the scale of our works has increased dramatically. We are fascinated by the private house. It’s a typology that crushes all of the technical problems of a big building into one tiny, neat package. We’re really driven by that challenge.
On the evolution of the practice
There are two main areas of evolution. One of them is making: we’re taking on more and more of the processes of construction. So we’re effectively contractors - carrying out building work and fabricating bits of lighting and furniture.
The second thing is implementation of agile management for the design process, which is something you don’t tend to see in architecture firms. It’s an iterative, nonlinear design method, which could be seen as alien to architecture which is traditionally such a linear industry.
We’ve worked really hard to allow the agile process to draw and communicate with clients and builders in much more efficient way, with a highly enriched end product.
On the practice’s unique approach to design
Irrespective of the project, whether it’s a tiny, low-budget house, or a 10 million pound extension to a very handsome house, or a private gallery, we always focus on texture: this comes from Sophie’s painter’s sensibility.
We always talk about exciting the full gamut of senses in a building. One problem we find actually with CAD and digital representation with 3D Studio Max or something like that is that you can end up with this incredibly glossy, formal object.
You can forget the different aromas you could get from leather or reclaimed wood when it’s warmed by sunlight. You can forget that different textures and temperatures make up the full experience of the building. Buildings should look and feel a lot better in the flesh than it does in the photograph - this is the really hard way round.
We’re always thinking about how to modify the physical experience of being in a building to define the spaces. Because we tend to work on projects with restrictive budgets, we have to use quite raw materials. You may not have the money to build a structure and then dress it in something expensive, so we create impact through strong, tactile materials. You don’t tend to see too many white boxes designed by our studio.
On projects that represent this approach
One project that immediately comes to mind is one we completed earlier this year for a couple - one a fashion designer, the other a digital designer - the Ancient Party Barn.
This was an existing threshing barn set in the Kent countryside. It was a challenging location in that it’s in a protected area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is a listed building, and a very visible, historic structure. The local authorities didn’t want the building modified too heavily.
Meanwhile our clients, who are simultaneously tech visionaries and collectors of vintage artifacts, gave us a really contrasting brief. They wanted the building to be very low-energy, and to support an ecosystem of internet-connected devices (the internet of things). Meanwhile they wanted to retain all of the texture of the historic timberwork and use eclectic old materials salvaged from Swedish junkyards!
Our response was to create a variety of kinetic mechanisms that allow this building to shut down and look just like a typical barn, but then, when you throw a switch, the whole things open up.
The staircase represents my earlier comments about texture and an artisanal approach to modern construction. It required some clever engineering, CNC machining and some tricky grasshopper work to determine how the bricks are going to fit into the chimney, which also functions as a column.
The other project I would highlight was our first project, which we built with our own hands in Camden. It’s an ultra low-budget private two-bedroom house. I have to mention that Sophie carried all of the bricks onto site here (laughing) - she would be annoyed if I didn’t mention that. This is a great example of the way that you have to use raw materials to provide the effect that you want to achieve on a lower budget. These glazed engineering bricks we found in Holland were like 50p each. We were looking for the cheapest most powerful materials we could find and then we just left them in their raw state - an amazing contrast with the very refined joinery.
On their design process
We work in a reciprocal process between Vectorworks, Rhino, hand sketching and physical models. Rhino is at the center. The agile system means don’t tend to produce lots of measured drawings. We keep on designing up to the moment we decide to build it and the design gets frozen and goes out. When we present to clients we often use physical models because they want to see the entire model and get an unexpected view. We found that with pre-rendered views, you always pick the view six feet to the left of where the client actually wants to look. With a private house, there are so many facets they want to look at. Every room is critical in a house. Being able to investigate it yourself is key.
On the next challenges the practice will take on in the next five years
We sell some of our completed works, and we want to take on more of the creation of architecture as a product, rather than as a consultation service. We want to do more of the furniture and manufacturing aspects. Anything we can take in-house - like CNC or even metalworking once that becomes more affordable would be amazing to take on. We spend a lot of time chasing around looking for niche suppliers, so if you could start building those pieces yourself that would make an enormous difference to our process.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
There’s a huge split in the industry between giant, commercial, highly mechanized design factories that just pump out buildings. And then there’s a tiny, artisanal world. I think at the moment BIM is the tool of choice for the commercial side, and doesn’t really work at the bespoke level.
I suppose that the challenge that’s going to face London in the next few years is a huge population explosion. Property prices are insane, the whole city feels on fire - it’s fascinating. There’s going to be a really interesting re-examination of the suburbs. People like us building in little backyard sites and filling in all the gaps left in London are not going to be able to find any more of those gaps soon. They’re beginning to evaporate. There are obviously major projects happening on brownfield sites and old industrial sites but there is a major outflow of people into the suburbs as well. There’s this whole slew of interesting things happening out in the coastal towns where artists are moving.
On advice he would give his younger self
Can you ask me again in ten years? (Laughing). Some of the guys who have worked for us have worked actually physically on-site. I think that would be a pretty interesting thing to do. The other thing I would recommend to myself would be to spend more time traveling to the more architecturally challenging places to go and see. For example I would have loved to visit Yemen to visit Sana’a. David Adjaye recently published a book on the amazing architecture of West Africa. At Cambridge we visited places like Rome and the great cities of Europe; Sophie learned from visiting houses in Arizona, a very refined Western architecture. I think it would be incredibly educational to go further and look at more exotic influences.