Architecture

From pop-ups to pavilions, a British–Australian duo is scooping up prizes and changing the face of London. By Fleur Watson.

Architects Carmody and Groarke work outside the box

Carmody Groarke’s Studio East Dining (2010) on the roof of an active building site in East London.
Credit: Carmody Groarke - Photography by Christian Richters

Kevin Carmody and Andrew Groarke met while working for the English architect David Chipperfield, undertaking what Carmody described as a “true apprenticeship”. Chipperfield’s strong formal architecture as seen in projects such as Berlin’s Neues Museum (1997-2009) and The Hepworth Wakefield gallery (2003-2011) proved a pivotal influence in viewing architecture as a public, civic pursuit. During evenings and on weekends, Carmody and Groarke worked on competitions and private commissions refining what Carmody describes as the “devices and tools that you use in developing ideas”. They also discovered that their backgrounds at the periphery provided a charged context for discussion with differing observations about place, environment and emotional connection to landscape.

There is a well-worn tradition of young Australian architects and designers leaving to seek out experiences from another place. Most are yearning to witness the very architecture they have studied, referenced and yet never actually seen. Others are seeking to benchmark themselves against those they have been told are among the best. Some return quickly, having sharpened their eye from a distance for the local condition, to shake the cultural cringe and contribute rich ideas and experiences into the local culture. Others choose to stay, refining their skills within large-scale international practices that frequent the pages of global design publications. And more rarely – through determination, ambition and sheer hard work – a young architect breaks through and against the odds establishes their own practice far from their local context. 

Carmody is one such architect. Along with partner and fellow “outsider” Groarke, Carmody – originally from Canberra and finishing his studies in Melbourne – is forging a significant reputation with London-based practice Carmody Groarke. 

The hard work paid off. The pair won five of the six competitions they entered within the first 12 months, fast-tracking their plan to set up their own office. Alongside the competitions, early projects came in the form of temporal projects and collaborations with artists, curators and restaurateurs. As Carmody explains: “We had to invent mechanisms to make projects. Competitions provided one strategy and the other was to work in the periphery of what architects usually do – making temporary projects.” 

Operating from the fringe, Carmody and Groarke quickly built their practice from fragments of commissions – exhibition designs, a memorial, temporary pavilions. Released from the relative “weightiness” of the time and budget inherent within the traditional building process, the opportunity lay not in the type of project but in the care and concern to embed architectural ideas where it seemed unlikely for architecture to exist.

Projects such as Blind Light (2007) with Antony Gormley at the Hayward Gallery or The Double Club with Carsten Höller are typical of their “architecture as background” ideology, where as an architectural collaborator they sought to understand the chemistry that an artist brings to their work, and which, in turn, gave them a different perspective on how people use space. Also explored through a series of exhibition design projects – including Surreal House for the Barbican (2010) – is an investigation into the power of making ideological connections between objects through careful composition and the framing of foreground and background.

However, it is in the series of recent temporal pavilion projects that the practice has demonstrated its tenacity and skill turning impossible briefs and tight budgets into award-winning pieces of architecture. The conversion of a derelict petrol station in Kings Cross into a temporary event space and diner called The Filling Station (2010) won the practice the RIBA Regional and Small Project awards, transforming the site by wrapping it within a 200-metre-long fibreglass protective screen that responded to the existing structures and connected it to Regent’s Canal. 

Studio East Dining (2010) took a similarly ambitious approach to create a temporary restaurant built in only 10 days on the rooftop of a live construction project in East London. Built using leftover building materials and with a lifespan of only three weeks, the pavilion provided extraordinary views over the active site for the London Olympic Games. 

The project shifts the focus from “object as architecture” to one of carefully composed interior space. As Carmody describes, the intent was a deliberate rejection of the expansive views in order to control the interior experience: “The worst thing about eating in a restaurant with a view is that the intimacy of sharing a meal with someone is lost because you’re always looking out. So instead we composed a series of interior spaces designed around tables that broke down the expansiveness to a series of framed, controlled vignettes.” There is a singularity and restraint in materiality; however, it is not a minimal space. Here, there is a richness achieved through precise yet robust detailing with prefabricated and ordinary materials composed with respect and craft. The project won the prestigious Architectural Review Award for Emerging Architecture in 2010. 

A similar strategy is tested and refined with a commission for the newest iteration of the Maggie’s cancer caring centres, just outside Liverpool in the Wirral district. The centres are named in tribute of Maggie Keswick Jencks – designer, author and wife of architect and critic Charles Jencks – who died in 1995 of cancer after writing a series of papers documenting her experiences that provided the “blueprint” for the caring centres. Previous centres have been designed by well-known architects such as Frank Gehry (Dundee, 2003) and Zaha Hadid (Fife, 2006), with an overarching brief to provide a “haven” or non-institutional, domestic-scaled spaces as a place of respite for cancer patients receiving palliative care. 

The Carmody Groarke-designed Maggie’s centre marks the first “temporary” centre, with a projected lifespan of five years, while a new facility is built in central Liverpool. The current site sits adjacent to the existing hospital on the edge of a car park and is bordered by a heavily wooded landscape. Carmody Groarke’s first move was to do a study of this local landscape discovering that with sensitive clearing of the thick undergrowth, the site would reveal an epic view across the Wirral. 

Drawing on their opportunistic skills, the practice also sought out a series of “architectural ready-mades” that work alongside existing parts that could be manipulated into the project, securing a large-scale portacabin that was originally used in the London Olympics, complete with 10-metre-long window. Along with a series of smaller portacabins and by reusing the fibreglass moulding from the earlier The Filling Station project to provide a device for enclosure, the architects composed the interior with kitchen, meeting spaces and a series of contemplative rooms with private pocket gardens arranged around this newly framed, epic view. 

Now eight years on from its foundation, the practice has grown substantially with competition wins resulting in a series of permanent built works. Most recently completed is a new gallery for the Royal Institute of British Architects. Within its Grade II-listed Portland Place site, the design is conceived as a sensitive insertion into the main cruciform entrance of the 1930s Art Deco building by infilling a series of previously underutilised rooms and a light well. Referencing the original intent of the building, which was designed with a series of 12 connections from one space to another, the Carmody Groarke scheme links together the previously hidden spaces and reconnects the gallery spaces with the famed Jarvis Hall through references to the original richness of materiality and scale. The result is that, for the first time, the RIBA has a flexible and climate-controlled exhibition space to display their archival collection, including original works from Andrea Palladio, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Soane, among others. 

With this collection of projects, Carmody and Groarke articulate their architectural position – one that is embedded in ideas that seem deeply unfashionable among their post-digital contemporaries. They describe their architecture as being comfortable in the background and generated by emotive responses to light, landscape and movement through space. It is an architecture manifested through particular care to the interior and often as a temporal response to a “host” building – part scenography, part framed connections, part considered material composition. It is also a position that has seen these “outsiders” slip quietly into the very epicentre of British architecture almost unnoticed. Almost.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "Outside the box". Subscribe here.

Fleur Watson
is a curator for RMIT Design Hub and a former editor of Monument magazine.