DISCUSSION : RIBA Somerset Annual Lecture; Mary Duggan on ‘Sense + Place’

On the evening of the 4thof September I visited a lecture organised by the RIBA Somerset branch. Mary Duggan of Mary Duggan Architects (2017) and co-founder of Duggan Morris Architects (2004) presented a lecture entitled ‘Sense + Place.’ It was a thought provoking talk where Mary considered her feelings about the architectural profession and key ideas which permeate through her work.

The lecture was split into themes that focus Mary’s thoughts about architecture to help to understand and develop a narrative within her practice. The lecture began with a personal reflection on her career and how creating Mary Duggan Architects has given her a chance to redefine her work. “I have an opportunity, outside the profession of architecture, to consider my role and what I really think architecture is about.” 

A slight note of frustration with the current status of architects could be felt as she spoke. She expressed the desire to create conversations with clients about architecture rather than being confined to conversations about commercially driven numbers and figures. This would allow the architect to propose a solution they intuitively know is right, rather than being limited to proving to developers, or banks, or property managers, that a particular scheme doesn’t work.

This frustration is something I have also felt, even during my part one and part two practice experience. The role of the architect has changed from being the master builder to somehow being required to prove worth and ability. My research ‘Cedric Price – Events in Time’ was motivated by this frustration, since Price was an architect intent on changing the profession. Although very different architects, some of Price’s ideas about architecture resonated in Mary’s lecture- particularly the themes of process and time.

Mary Duggan presented the Duggan Morris Curtain Road project in Shoreditch. The question of heritage and conservation arose for a building which was relatively low grade. Despite this, the planners wanted to retain the urban block. The result was the preservation of a piece of the original façade which enabled the new development to be free from any historical references to the street. The issue of heritage in the UK has always been controversial within architecture. Mary explained, “one thing I have always struggled with is this notion that the answer to an architectural problem lies in something that has already been built.” It is important to understand what has been built before, but historical typologies were created in historical contexts, therefore, despite the wish to preserve and reference these buildings, they cannot be the answer to the requirements of the modern world. In the Curtain Road project, preservation frees up the rest of the design and is therefore a compromise that pays off and allows this alien form to feel like it has dropped out of the sky.

One of the most interesting parts of the Curtain Road project, and why I have drawn a connection between the work of Mary Duggan and Cedric Price, is the idea of a ‘mean-while’ project. Due to issues occurring on site that delayed construction, the architects were aware of the impact of stagnant construction sites on the city scape and the people who encounter them daily. Tim Etchells installed an art installation in the window of part of the building that was water tight and thus helped to animate that space. “I’m not saying that the vision of the construction has to be in any way beautiful but rather that there’s an understanding of time and process in architecture.” Cedric Price believed architecture is a process not a product. With his work on Inter-Action Centre, Price wanted to animate and bring life to the ‘building’ before it was completed. Usually time in architecture is associated with how quickly buildings can be erected. Time is a process and stretches out before, during and after construction. Mary highlights this also, explaining, “you may have a job in the city for three years, and within that time frame you walk past this one building that happens to be a building site.” Buildings have an impact on people whether they are incomplete, complete, derelict or crumbling down. Realising this, by creating an ‘event’ of the building during all stages of its life, ensures the architectural intervention has a positive impact on people and the urban fabric.

Mary Duggan has begun an artist residency in her practice. The idea is to encourage interdisciplinary conversations, whether it is about materials, craft or the process of making. Looking outside the profession for discussions and inspiration contributes to enriching projects and how we think about architecture. “We think a lot about what the start point of the building might be. We talk very early on about whether we are going to cast something… or is this a very lightweight building that starts with an idea about structure and idea about shape.” As a practice which uses models as a key development and design tool, learning techniques for using materials and textures and thinking about how time may affect or change the quality of a material, is a discussion which occurs early on.

Mary discusses the proposal for the Performing Arts Department in a school. Using façade studies, texture is created on the external wall which the children walk past to get to and from the building. I can imagine young kids walking past the wall, running their fingers along the reliefs each day. Familiarity and identification is also a theme Mary discussed. Using local materials helps to ground buildings in place; however, texture, light and material quality can also create a sense of belonging. Successful public buildings are those that people identify with. Mary uses the example of autistic children. Designing for special needs is a huge topic that many building designs neglect, doing only the minimum according to building regulations. Architecture finds its worth when everyone can enjoy it with ease- and this isn’t a particularly easy thing to do as the designer- to see through the eyes of the many different users to create spaces which belong to them. This is why we love certain buildings and, maybe, why we like to preserve buildings, because good design creates places that mean something to us.

As a lecturer, Mary took me on a journey with her as she pondered her frustrations and as she thoughtfully considered those ideas that created successful projects. Her words enabled me to reflect myself, reflect on her words, and reflect on what makes me truly enjoy architecture.




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