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August 28, 2018

Architecture’s rising stars: in conversation with IF_DO

IF_DO has drawn growing attention since winning last year’s Dulwich Picture Gallery pavilion design competition at the London Festival of Architecture. Co-founder and director Thomas Bryans lets Ross Davies in on what makes the practice tick – projects ‘that make a real difference’.

By Ross Davies

It is a rare thing for three people who met at freshers’ week to remain good friends 15 years later, let alone business partners.

But Thomas Bryans, Sarah Castle and Al Scott, co-directors and co-founders of the IF_DO architecture practice, represent an exception to the rule. The trio have come a long way since their campus days at the University of Edinburgh, as Bryans notes in an interview at the company’s office, situated in a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey, South London.

Since its launch in 2014, IF_DO’s profile has steadily risen, culminating last year with winning the commission to design Dulwich Pavilion in a competition for the London Festival of Architecture. Having employed its first full-time employee in February 2017, the group now has a team of nine on its books.

According to the group’s manifesto, it is “dedicated to creating projects with a positive impact on users, the environment and the surrounding community”. Here, Bryans expands upon on the practice’s other guiding principles and reveals some of the latest projects on the agenda.

Ross Davies: So, let’s go back to the beginning. The three founders of IF_DO first met at university, right?

Thomas Bryans: We met on our first day of architecture school, aged 18, at Edinburgh. we did projects together as students, which worked reasonably well, I guess. We didn’t fall out; we produced something we were all happy with, which we got reasonable marks for.

So we were always very good friends, and we stayed in touch, even though we all went our separate ways after leaving Edinburgh. Having all worked in different places all over the world, it just so happened that we were all back in London, working for relatively small firms.

This was back in early 2014, when none of us had any kind of dependencies. Financially, it felt like a good moment to take that leap, which we all knew we wanted to. We met for a pizza in Islington in a dodgy Italian restaurant, and we talked about the principles of a practice that we’d all like to run. Before we talked about anything else really, we knew what we wanted the practice to do.

Even though we didn’t have any clients, it felt right professionally and personally.

RD: What I gleaned from the manifesto on your website is that humanity and society are essentially at the heart of the projects you take on. Is that accurate?

TB: Yes, I think that’s right.  For us, humanity is what defines good architecture.

But I don’t think that’s universal, sadly. So, when looking at spaces that everyone can enjoy and everyone feels welcome in in our cities today…it’s not universally true, which I find shocking. It’s shocking when it’s actually become radical to say we should design our cities for people to feel welcome in.

RD: Are you focussed primarily on urban design then?

TB: No. Actually, for the first couple of years, when we were focussed on developing a portfolio, a lot of the stuff we did was quite rural. Today, we’ve got more of a nice balance, I guess. Ideally, we would be doing more interesting, mixed-use urban projects, where you can impact upon the lives of a significant number of people.

RD: Where did the name come from?

TB: Names matter, and there is often a big difference between practices that are named after the founder and practices that have a more generic name; it seems that the trend is moving away from the former. Architecture is a collaborative effort – it has to be. It’s never one genius architect. That idea is a really outdated one.

So that was the starting point. In terms of how we got to IF_DO, it took months of discussion and a very long WhatsApp group before we decided on that name. We realised it was the perfect summation of what the process of architecture should be. It should be questioning, thinking, testing potential. And then there’s the action, the doing, the creating. Those two two-letter words say a lot.

RD: What are the practice’s major architectural influences? I also thought I detected the influence of Buckminster Fuller’s spaceship earth concept in your manifesto.

TB: Yeah, I think that’s about big-picture thinking, which we do a lot of, but we work on an intimate scale as well. Other guys? I think John Soane is amazing, in term of the spaces, the light and the intrigue that he creates.

And needless to say, there are a lot of British modernists who are not necessarily liked by the public, but loved by some architects.

RD: Last year, you won the commission to design Dulwich Pavilion in a competition for the London Festival of Architecture. How big a moment was that for you?

TB: It’s hard to express how significant that was. It was huge. It did feel like validation. We had had a few great opportunities, before that – such as the commission to design a new sixth form centre for St Teresa’s School – but some of those early projects were coming to an end and we really need to replace them.

Everything felt a bit wobbly for a while, but then Dulwich happened, and it made it clear to us that we were going to be okay.  We knew how important that was in terms of the profile it was going to potentially give us and the types of project that didn’t exist before that competition came along. An amazing opportunity.

RD: How many projects have you completed thus far?

TB: That’s a difficult one. We are completing a lot at the moment; we’ve got three finished projects being photographed next week. There’s a handful of small residential ones as well. I’d say we’ve completed around ten projects.

RD: What sort of project excites you most?

TB: At the risk of sounding cliched, projects that can make the most impact. Whether that’s social impact in terms of housing or communities, or environmental impact, that’s what we want to do. We want to work on projects that make a real difference.

RD: What are you working on currently?

TB: We are working on a couple of big houses, which are nice things to do for the architectural recognition they give you. We’ve also submitted planning application for an intervention in London County Hall. We are probably going to do a series of interventions into that, which is fantastic in terms of the architectural history and lineage of that building. So to have that sort of opportunity is quite exciting.

RD: In which direction would you like the practice to grow?

TB: That’s a big question. I think it goes back to the type of projects that we want to be doing. We try to be quite careful in terms of the work we take on and how we present ourselves so that we can get more of the work that we want.

There’s a real trend among lots of practices of doing residential extensions, but that’s never been something we’ve wanted to do. We’ve turned a lot of that away because we’d prefer to hold out for the bigger projects.

That’s not to say we don’t do smaller work – on the contrary, we do all the time, because we quite enjoy it when it’s for the right people and they’ve got interesting ambitions – but the likes of community work, social housing and cultural projects are really what we want to be doing.

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