Responsibility towards cities, questioning conventional approaches to architecture and resisting the pursuit of newness. For many, Stephen Bates' provocative reflections draw on the very beginnings of Sergison Bates Architects, the London-based studio he co-founded more than twenty-five years ago. Since then, the studio has grown to include offices in Zurich and Brussels and has significantly expanded its scope – now designing prestigious cultural centers and transforming existing buildings, in addition to the residential projects that still form a large part of the studio’s work. In mid-March, Stephen Bates presented the fundamental ideas of his studio in the Urban Talks program.
For people who might be interested in watching the recording of your lecture—without giving too much away—what was your talk about?
Well, the title is Figures, Doors, and Passages, which comes from an important essay by Robin Evans, an English academic who wrote on the evolution of architectural ideas. I borrowed the title because I felt it described the atmosphere of the lecture, drawing attention to those transient spaces between things that I believe, particularly in European cities, are special, sometimes unique. I've already witnessed those passages and interconnections in the Old Town of Prague. The lecture talks about the importance of those types of spaces, understanding their gifts to the city. They're part of the private sphere of architecture, but they're offered to the city. And then, I relate and connect that idea of labyrinthine connectivity to the idea of the interior, the interior space of a building. I also refer to a few of our projects, concentrating on three specific projects. So the lecture is not our greatest hits. It's about ideas. I'm interested in sharing a way of looking at things because that means even if you don't like what we do, you could appreciate this way of thinking.
Passages are not a new idea. Do you often take inspiration from things that have been built before, from the history of architecture in your work?
Well, to think that anyone could say they could design new things without understanding the old seems preposterous to me, and actually, this obsession with newness is just a lie. I think it's going out of fashion fast. I'm afraid we're not advocates of that. We're interested in continuity, in how to extend and remake and give sustainability to the city that exists. That requires a level of mediation, not standing in opposition to but growing from. You need to look really, really carefully at what's there. But this is not advocating dated architecture, a fake romantic copy. We're still only interested in making contemporary architecture, but we're not interested in newness for the sake of being different, because it's a very irresponsible position, in my opinion. We build to last. We have to build really sustainably, which means we shouldn't mess about with short term thoughts, because new is only new for a short time. And then it's old. So it's a very unsustainable, silly idea.
Prague is an old town and it often grapples with what to do with its heritage, with old architecture that is not fit for today, due to their energy demands, if not for any other reason.. How do we reconcile the tension between getting rid of the old and keeping it or updating it for our life today?
You describe a situation which is a universal challenge. Firstly, it's imperative that we address ideas of reuse, build less and work more with what exists. Every city faces the challenge of what to do with buildings that don't meet the environmental, fiscal or building code requirements. We're involved in a lot of reuse projects, and our biggest project at the moment is the Kanal Museum of Modern Art in Brussels, which is reusing an existing building. And I must say that I find it really challenging and interesting because I think you have to be more than pragmatic. I believe that architecture should lead the reuse and sustainability debate, which means it's not a purely technical exercise. We still need to imbue ideas of architecture, ideas of cultural memory and the atmospheric aspects of architecture. I find it an interesting moment of friction. Looking at an old building can evoke strong feelings, maybe because you know it, the city knows it, or it sits beautifully in the space. On the one hand, you're trying to work with that. On the other hand, you have to give it a new life. I find that is an important responsibility we have – to add life to existing structure. There's no answer, there's no golden ticket, each project has its own specific demands, clients’ wishes, and the city’s aspirations, and there are building codes. And the big problem with the regulation is that it's always 10 or 15 years behind the debate. It requires a much more conservative attitude. Architecture has to lead the way, but unfortunately, it's always in a difficult position because it's ahead of the clients, it's often ahead of the city, and it's certainly ahead of building codes.
So how do you overcome this?
You hope you get and win the right types of projects with good clients. You can't have a good building without a good client, and clients have a big responsibility within this debate, it's not just us architects. Our job is a service job. But we have a view that perhaps is a bit unique within the many, many people that make a building. So I feel it's a very interesting state that we're in in the world and in relation to existing buildings. It's going to be really interesting to see how we deal with this possibility of so many contradictory situations. But that doesn't mean we don't do it. It's not really a question. Of course we have to do it. But how do we do that? That’s the question.
You've worked on a lot of various housing projects in different countries, in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the UK. Are there any common aspects of these projects? An idea of how housing should look in the 21st century?
Well, our practice started in housing, and although we now have more cultural projects, housing is still the core of our work. We have worked in many different countries and cities, so we have had to respond to a whole set of different legal, fiscal and planning circumstances. I would say that what's consistent is a methodology of the way we look at things. We're interested in challenging conventions to move the debate on housing forward. Since the 1970s, when real estate became a kind of primary driver, and housing became something to be traded, we see a slowdown in the evolution of housing ideas. Now developers build the same thing because they can sell it. And unlike other public sector areas, like care, there's a real lack of evolution. It's just the same old thing. We're really interested in trying to challenge that way of thinking.
And how do you go about that?
One of the things we have noticed is that, again, working with existing buildings opens up more possibilities. If you're building new social housing, for example, it's so codified, everything is specified and there's very little room to maneuver. But if you're working with an existing building, there are these bound conditions, and they don't meet the codes. And we've noticed that it gives greater opportunities for adjustments and variations.
One would think that there are more constraints in pre-existing buildings, no?
Well, funnily enough, it's the opposite. In most European cities working with affordable housing, almost everything is specified, and it's very difficult to question even the fundamental ideas of why you would need to sleep in one place and not another. Could we not design a collection of rooms that could be utilized differently? There's still this notion of a nuclear family; the world seems to think that we're still families with 2.5 children and a dog, when in fact, most of the countries in Europe now have more people living alone than ever. The familial structures completely changed from the past, and we're still making housing for families. In other words, we still have a big living room and tiny bedrooms. But more and more people, young people, are staying at home longer, and they're cramped up in their little bedrooms, which are their worlds. And there's this big living room that they don't want to be in. There's no growth, no evolution. I think we need to start recognizing the shifts in society and how housing can positively support those natural shifts that are there right in front of us if we look hard enough, as opposed to just doing the usual thing – nice big living room, tiny bedrooms, a corridor linking the two. It has certain advantages, but it also has great limitations.
Are the questions or issues you encounter similar in all the countries you have worked in?
Of course, the quality and the vision vary. It's not only country to country; it's often from one client to another. We are lucky that we work on good projects and with good clients. We feel quite privileged that we're working with very forward-thinking clients who are ready to have this discussion. But there are lots of reasons why it can't always be realized. You can't change the world in one project, but we look at a project for its opportunity, see what we can do and say: “It looks like we could push this idea or push that idea.” It's an evolving process. We have a project in Brussels, and I'll never forget the first presentation of the plans. We were very excited about the plans, but the developers were really shocked and forced us to change them. A few weeks later, I had a word with the chairman privately, and he said: “The thing is, your plans are ten years ahead. They are really exciting, and we can see it in theory, but there's no way we can build them and sell them now.” But we're interested in building to last, in the idea of permanence. And it's one of our readings for sustainable construction. A building has a responsibility to the city, and we're thinking more and more beyond the first use. You're given a brief and you have to meet that brief, yes, but when we're making decisions, we're thinking: “What if this was converted to an office building and vice versa?” I think that that shows itself in how we think about structure, in how the structure allows for the life of a building to evolve over time.
You do both: new builds and transformations. Which is more fun for you?
I'm fascinated with this idea of reuse; it's a huge responsibility. To me, it reaffirms the role of the architect, which is to unite the architecture of the city. I'm really not interested in an architect statement. I feel like our role is to nurture the city and give it a life beyond us.
I've noticed that you work with bricks in quite a few of your projects. Why is that?
Brickwork is an intrinsic part of our culture because, as founders, we come from London or England more generally. Most of London is built in brick, which provides a representational front. London and many parts of Belgium, where we also have a project office, have a tradition of brick. And there's a kind of instinctive identification with the material. I find it incredibly resilient and adaptable. If you imagine a very large building made of pieces which are anything but big, something very special happens. A brick is sized so a person can hold it in a single hand. And I find the small unit in relation to the big scale really special; I'm very interested in the human scale in architecture. When you plaster everything or use large prefabrication, you lose the scale of the human, of the hand. I find it important to convey the making of buildings by hand. It's partly a resistance to the modern techniques of construction that are almost completely mechanized. Brickwork is very rarely mechanized unless you work with things like prefabricated brick panels. Wherever possible, we still work with the old trades, and there are clever ways that we've devised that you can construct a building but allow the brickwork to follow because it's a slow process. But once it's done, it will probably be there longer than anything.
You've also worked on care and assisted living projects. How are they different from regular housing projects?
The care sector is very interesting, and countries have different economic approaches. So, for example, the majority of care buildings in Belgium are publicly owned and government-funded, but in the UK, the majority are private. What's interesting is that publicly funded projects tend to have more potential for evolution and expression. The great challenge of care is how to bring a lot of very different people together into a single environment. Just because you're old doesn't make you the same as that other old person; you're still you. Care projects also tend to bring many services together, so there's a service for early dementia, there's palliative care or daycare, and almost always they're combined to make them efficient. The problem with bringing all these services together is that the projects are usually quite large, so they inevitably have an institutional character, and yet you're trying to find the atmosphere of home, the atmosphere of a dwelling. It makes them different from housing projects because, in the end, it is a much more collective situation. We've built four care homes now, and another is in progress, and it really is an interesting area of research because the models for care are also changing.
Has this very specific work for care housing and assisted living influenced how you look at housing in general?
I suppose everything influences you, even when you’re just walking around. But one thing I would say is that on our first-ever care project, the two ladies who ran the charity taught us so much. We arrived with all these ideas about what architecture should be like: “Oh, the living spaces should face south, they should look at this beautiful landscape.” And the ladies said: “Stop right there. First of all, the elderly people actually want to look at the car park.” That's much more interesting for them because the landscape stays the same. Of course, it changes seasonally, but that's too long. A car park is great because you can see who's coming, who's visiting who. And the second thing was the south-facing living room. The ladies reminded us that many of the residents are wheeled into the living room in wheelchairs. They can't move, and if they're put in the sun, they overheat and can't do anything about it. Some of them can't even speak. So the best living room in a care home is north, looking at reflected sunlight. We learned so much from these ladies, and it turned everything, all these architectural rights, let's say, upside down.
You started your studio in 1996 in London, a very different place from the London we know today. What was that time like for you?
It felt really hard at the time, but now I'm quite romantic about it because those days were when a whole new art scene was taking off. I was at the Royal College of Art with Tracy Emin. At the time, it just felt like we were really struggling. We set up the studio during a recession. London was a broken city; Margaret Thatcher left a kind of mayhem behind. There was money around, and yet you could still squat. But when I look back, it was an exciting time and very formative because we were also greatly inspired by artists like Dan Graham and Gordon Matta-Clark, who were working with this broken city.
A new generation of artists emerged called Young British Artists, or YBAs. Was there anything similar in architecture?
Well, we were part of a group of people. One of the eldest of the group was Tony Fretton, who did the Lisson Gallery. It was such an important project which changed everything for us because it really looked to Europe. We met every Sunday for two years, and that's when we started to write. It was our way of working out who we were as architects. We developed a position through teaching as well as these meetings. Understanding that practice was a broad, holistic practice of writing, thinking, researching, and building. And building really carefully. We all had tiny projects but we made the most out of whatever project we got. Tony always used to say: “It doesn't matter. What matters is what you’re going to do with that project.” And I still tell my youngsters in the office that everything is an opportunity. You have to be appropriately ambitious, but it's still a big responsibility and an opportunity to make something better, whether it's a kitchen, a sign, or a pop-up restaurant.