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RIBA Journal

‘It’s the little things that count’: Duggan Morris Profile
01/10/11

Text: Eleanor Young

MARY DUGGAN NOTICES me eyeing up the brass handles. Solid, round and a lovely rich material, they are one of a few nods to warmth in Duggan and partner Joe Morris‘ beautiful but very restrained Peckham home. ’We specially spun those handles,'she says. They match the Vola brass taps, lights and, in fact, her gold globe earrings. They demonstrate the attention to details that marks out many of the projects the pair have designed as their highly successful young practice Duggan Morris Architects.

This ability to hone details still excites them. In their previous roles at AHMM (Morris) and Gollifer Langston (Duggan) both felt they ended up ‘rolling out buildings’. Their practice history partly explains why their portfolio includes several high end commercial clients and a smattering of school work as well as a stream of remarkable homes. It doesn’t explain the kitsch salt and pepper pot pigs that seem to have sneaked into their highly curated home. Nor the struggle to turn the brass handle. ‘If it had been for a client I’d have insisted on getting it right,’ says Duggan guiltily. 'But I didn’t do all the detailing and then took the contractor’s cheaper option, thinking we could get a bed with the saving ... 'This admission is a relief. Real and mundane compromises dog even this apparently blessed practice.

It’s hard to know from the outside: they have accomplished some really good designs seemingly against the odds, such as Yew Tree Lodge, a care home which is both elegant and refined, although only inherited from others post-planning. And the integrity of its designs is, perhaps unusually, matched by a strand of more commercial work that means it is not limited to applying its skills to small, esoteric interventions. Its first project was a £28 million masterplan for London’s Chelsea Harbour International Design Centre.

Duggan Morris is seen as a model to aim at by many emerging practices. In six years it has grown to its current 16 people, it appears on interesting competition shortlists alongside more established well thought-of practices (as part of a young team recently winning a huge project in Brent over Maccreanor Lavington and Alison Brooks). Those who know them see Morris and Duggan as a good pair, Morris someone people want to be around, funny and lively, good at doing; while Duggan is recommended as a ‘very bright’ designer, ‘more than 50% of the design talent of the practice’ by her Bartlett diploma tutor Niall McLaughlin. So perhaps they can maintain that fragile alchemy of performing well financially while maintaining a high design threshold. Their individual skills show in the way they organise their time, with Morris often on the road at meetings while Duggan stays close to designs -although both run the weekly project reviews (‘my favourite time,’ says Morris). Now is a critical period as they free themselves up to grow again with the move to a new office.

From the start they agreed not to wait for competitions to deliver work, and ruled out teaching. Initially they avoided domestic work too. But a few clients approached them, which they considered quite strategically: a home for Cathedral Group MD Richard Upton brought them closer to the developer and led to work masterplanning an old vinyl factory.
On Hampstead Lane, north London, they jumped at the chance of working on what they saw was potentially an award-winning house - intelligently they treat awards as part of their strategy for improving the sort of work they are offered. With architect-clients Graham Stirk (of Rogers Stirk Harbour+ Partners) and Morris‘ old AHMM colleague Susie Le Good the chances of pulling off something amazing must have seemed quite high. Hampstead Lane is now shortlisted for the Manser Medal. That project ran in parallel to work on their own house, King’s Grove, and shares polished concrete floors and the exposure of floor to ceiling glazing. Were lessons learnt on one applied to the other?’It is difficult to convince clients to buy less: says Morris. ‘Less furniture, fewer colours, fewer fittings; adds Duggan. ’You need to get to know a building and then buy things.' There is an openness at both houses that uses furniture to create liveable spaces.

They still take a selective approach to projects. ‘Projects have to have certain criteria,’ explains Morris robustly. ‘I said to someone recently, if your ambition is just to make money we ’re not interested.‘ Commercial projects sit within a certain market, he knows. ’But we always try to meet that challenge and design something that floats our boat. It is draining. We could say to clients we’ve ticked your boxes so off you go, but I don’t think we ever have.‘ This doesn’t mean they’ve not had impossible projects. They have found the demands of large scale residential schemes particularly disheartening. ’They ask you to do it for £120/ fr .__1Mn £110/ft‘ You’re thinking f*** ... You can do it. But it just perpetuates the problem: the idea that architects are not up to it, developers are greedy and you’re just rolling out the same old crap that gets worse and worse. They are value engineering before you start. Housing is the one sector we should all be able to design, as we live in it. But it all goes out the window when you are designing in a speculative market.’ Duggan and Morris are depressed by these attitudes but also perplexed that such clients would chose to work with them. ‘What do they think we’re giving them?’ asks Morris.

At the other end of the spectrum Duggan Morris has treasured the role of slowly and immersively working up a brief on its recent design for a 155om2 learning centre at South London and Maudsley Hospital, which goes on site this month. ‘There has been time to let the project develop naturally; explains Morris. So where does a successful practice go from here? Coming from the AHMM stable with a fair number of commercial clients, the bets might be on an ever-expanding practice. But ask them about their models and they cite Caruso St John (its Brick House shares an architectonic quality devoid of domestic softness, but a good foil for it). Sergison Bates also makes an appearance. Duggan is clear they will stop at 20 staff, though the new office layout is for 25. ’We don’t have the energy or mental capacity to grow much bigger. It’s not us and it’s not what we are interested in; she says. Morris sees the equation as more difficult. ‘You can’t really know, sometimes there are too many clients and projects and you have to grow.’

Duggan has started working on alternative projects. She is researching 100 designs that have influenced her (Louisiana, the Mosque of Djenne, Fukasawa’s Hiroshima chair and SOM’s Yale Archive building are on the list so far). With Matt Springett of MSA she hopes to set up a winter school of building -a real project that would include concept, delivery and time frame, dealing with many practical issues she and Morris feel are missing from architectural education. As they employ young architects they feel the pain of that learning process. Says Morris: ‘When you come out of part 2 you are 26, yet have only embryonic skills like model making. You lack the ability to research products and put them together or the skills to speak to people or write a letter.’ Duggan and Morris themselves have no such problems and perhaps their way of combining detail and commercial nous in the real world could offer a model for the next generation of practices. Whether others will be able to pull offVola taps and pig salt and pepper pots in style is another matter.•