Mary Duggan and Joe Morris discuss the origins and development of a contempory brick language by their practice Duggan Morris Architects.
Text: John Ramshaw
Established in 2004 by Mary Duggan and Joe Morris, Duggan Morris Architects is an ambitious design-led practice that has already built an enviable reputation across a range of sectors and scales. It is perhaps unsurprising that brick has played a central role in many of its projects given the office has a strong interest in context and place, and has so far worked predominantly in London. But this is only part of the story. A strong desire to investigate and experiment with both the material and aesthetic properties of brick has given rise to a number of recurring themes and motifs. This emerging brick language is now being refined and developed through several high profile public and private commissions which are due to complete later this year.
‘We are not a brick-biased practice’, says Morris, somewhat defensively in answer to the question of why brick? ‘What we are interested in is the notion of context and programme. Brick is something that works with these notions; it is an intuitive response.’ Duggan enlarges upon this: ‘For us, the starting point is always: is this a building that should shout, or should it sit quietly in its surroundings?’
An example of the former is Curtain Row, a 2000 square metre office conversion and extension in east London (due July 2013). Partly infilling a street of Victorian and Georgian warehouses, the existing lower floors are made of brick, while the three new upper-storeys are clad with a corrugated and perforated steel mesh interspersed with large flush-faced bonded-glass window units. ‘What interested us was this “thread” of brick that runs from one end of the street to the other,’ explains Duggan. ‘Our solution was to put something very light and delicate on top. We also wanted to contrast the deep brick reveals of the existing structures with a facade that is almost flat. It’s a game of playing-off the brick and completely shifting the scale.’
By contrast, the architects‘ own house in King’s Grove, south London (2011) adopts a low key, almost stealth-like approach in response to its surroundings. Situated between two rows of terraced Victorian properties, the two-storey dwelling occupies the site of a former plaster-moulding workshop. Backland sites such as these were commonly used for dairies, laundry rooms and bathhouses i.n eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, explains Duggan. ’We could have made a case to build an alien object, given that the site is located away from the street. But we felt there was something rather vulgar in doing this. Instead, we decided on a simple brick construction. It isn’t intended to read as a piece of history, but as something that is camouflaged with its surroundings.'
Spanning between the existing brick boundary walls, the 140 square metre structure is ‘extruded’ from the ground with brick inner and outer leaves forming the cavity walls. ‘In some ways the decisions are made for you,’ says Morris. ‘Once you decide to extrude or redefine the boundary conditions you are setting them externally. It then seems an intuitive decision to double-skin the building in brick. It is also about the internal experience; we are reading the interior walls as if they are external facades. From inside everything you see is brick, so you really feel part of the site and context you are occupying. There is a particular perception with this site that you are the focus of everyone’s attention, so you don’t want to be seen as something that shouldn’t be there.’
Building with brick both internally and externally is an idea that the architect began experimenting with on Frobisher House in Hertfordshire (2009), and continued with Yew Tree Lodge, a £2.3m sheltered housing scheme in Hillingdon, west London (2009). On the latter, the brick envelope wraps into and through the main entrance space, complementing the clean, natural surfaces and warm tones of the other internal materials and finishes.
In common with King’s Grove, many of the interior spaces at Maudsley Learning, a £7m mental health support, training and development centre in south London (due June 2013), are lined in brick. The intention, explains Morris, is to provide an uplifting architectural experience through the combination of a very restrained material palette and rich internal spaces - in this case a stepped arrangement of floor plates-articulated by daylight.
In practical terms, achieving high quality fairfaced internal brickwork on a traditional building site and in the midst of other ‘wet’ trades, such as screed pouring and ceiling plastering, is not easy. But this is something the architect accepts with alacrity. ‘Inevitably there were spits and spatters when the contractor was polishing the concrete floor at King’s Grove’, says Morris, ‘but rather than try to remove every mark, we felt it was more interesting to leave these remnants as evidence of the construction process, Its a kind of poetic history.’ Similarly, the handcrafted nature of building with brick is also something that appeals to the practice. ‘The relationship of the builder to the project is something we really enjoy,’ comments Morris, ‘It is very Corbusian in some ways: mistakes happen despite meticulous detailing and setting out, and you have to make a judgment as to whether or not you are going to accept and embrace these slight idiosyncrasies. We were happy that was a certain patina on King’s Grove, which is about the craftsmanship of the bricklayers, the window installers, the concrete layers, and so forth.’
The Maudsley Learning project is further evidence of the value placed on handcrafting. Likened to a ‘woven basket,’ the envelope comprises an expressed pre-cast concrete exoskeleton infilled with full-height brick panels and concealed-frame window units. In reference to the brick panels, Morris says, ‘We considered the potential for modern methods of construction and prefabrication, but felt that the execution of bricklaying in a factory somehow pacifies the notion of craft and the relationship of the bricklayer to the brick. To us, large panels of prefabricated brick look somehow sterile, dulling the building down and removing its personality.’
As well as responding to the site and context, Duggan Morris' buildings often form a close relationship with the ground and sometimes even the sky. Frobisher House for example, is cut into its site -as opposed to sitting on top of it -with brick used as hard landscaping around the perimeter. Brick plinths laid in front and behind King’s Grove correspond to the size and shape of the window openings in the facades, reinforcing the notion of a solid form out of which elements are cut or chased. Brick also forms an important part of the landscape at Yew Tree Lodge, defining walkways, terraces and areas for contemplation.
At the Tybalds Estate, a major housing regeneration scheme in north London currently awaiting planning consent, brick is used to denote key semiprivate areas within the public realm. Maudsley Learning and Brentford Lock West both make use of different brick blends across their facades, with earthy reds and browns at the base, merging into lighter greys towards the top. ‘The red base comes from this idea of bleeding the brick out of the earth,’ explains Duggan. ‘Narratively, the red dissipates into grey, which is an analogy for the London sky.’
Common to each project, regardless of type, scale or contract value, are highly considered and rigorous brick details that result in an elegant, paired-back aesthetic. King’s Grove for example uses only full and half bricks, with a slim forn