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The Librarians

15 Dec 2005

An exceptionally good building by anyone’s standards, the project had the added virtue of having been procured under the Private Finance Initiative and therefore a gift to proponents of this highly controversial way of financing buildings.

The political value in this respect was confirmed when it received Prime Minister’s Award for Architecture in the same week that the winner of the other, more widely published prize was announced. The less comfortable aspect of the practice’s achievement is its avowed intention – as highlighted by Peter Carolin in Bennetts Associates – Four Commentaries – to eschew the process in the future since the economic consequences of trying to achieve a fine, workable and innovative building in this way are apparently too great to warrant repetition. Yet despite this, Carolin and his fellow essayists are able to draw out the Central Library’s many merits and demonstrate the extent of Bennetts Associates’ determination and skill in its delivery.

It is a skill that has been honed in the 18 years of the practice’s existence, a coming of age marked in 2005 with a major exhibition at the RIBA. The accompanying publication reveals another intriguing fact: many of the beautifully resolved projects included within its pages were produced under Design & Build contracts. Bennetts Associates, however, has refined its working methods to embrace issues considered anathema by many fellow architects and it is the practice’s love of process that sings through in all of its work to date.

Brighton Central Library is only one of several genuinely seminal projects the practice has produced in its relatively short existence, with headquarter buildings for Powergen and Wessex Water widely considered to be two of the most important new office developments to be completed in the last 20 years. The latter project achieved the highest ever BREEAM rating for this particular building type, and lodged the sustainability agenda firmly in the consciousness of commercial clients in the UK.

Indeed, environmental sensibility has become something of a talisman for the practice, a fundamental component in the rigorous analysis and development it applies to each brief and its delivery the logical outcome of an extraordinarily holistic design methodology.
What makes the work of Bennetts Associates so interesting is this connection between process and outcome, a methodology that is not only consistent in its ability to achieve a high level of build quality, but one that ensures complete integration – and articulation – of structure, services, construction and form. For once, the architectural references offered are believable, and several mentions are made in the publication of Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn and Kevin Roche and the lessons learned from examination of their projects.

This is not to suggest that Bennetts’ work is derivative of these architects or some reworking of old-style modernism – far from it. The practice is refreshingly honest about the type of architecture that has influenced its thinking over the years, but this – along with the analytical design rigour –has been combined with “the empirical logic of environmental engineering” to produce a distinctive approach in which formal architectural responses are avoided for as long as possible in the search for the most appropriate solution.

Scotland has already seen several examples of the Bennetts method in action – two of the best projects completed within Richard Meier’s master plan at Edinburgh Park are the John Menzies building and BT’s Scottish headquarters, both of which display the practice’s integrated approach to structure, lighting and environmental servicing. At Loch Lomond, the steel and glass Gateway and Orientation Centre is a study in understatement alongside the commercial curve of the Lomond Shores retail development and Drumkinnon Tower. All three also demonstrate the practice’s long standing interest and commitment to unifying art and architecture, not only within its buildings but also in the public realm beyond.

This last area is an increasingly important aspect of the practice’s work and, in London especially, its larger master planning and urban design initiatives have provided a template for further collaborations with artists. The newest project under way in Edinburgh will provide accommodation for three University departments on its site at Potterrow. Here, Bennetts are collaborating with Reiach and Hall. The urban response indicated in the planning of this project is particularly interesting and likely to bring new life to a location that for too long has been blighted by the institution’s failed development plans of the 1970s.

Missing from the book is Bennetts’ competition scheme from the early 1990s for the Standard Life building on Lothian Road. The project probably came too early for a city still coming to terms with the role of the modern within a World Heritage Site, but its place in the practice’s oeuvre should not be dismissed, since it too demonstrated the critical role of architecture in the design of work spaces and that the sustainability agenda could be consistent with design at the highest level.

With work as understated as this, the publication merits several readings. It is equally valuable not only to understand the practice’s approach and its delight in collaborative work, but also as an introduction to current thinking in contemporary office design and as a primer for those interested in achieving sustainable design solutions without straw bales.

There is no question that Bennetts Associates’ rigorous approach to design is diametrically opposite to that taken to produce this year’s Stirling Prize winner, but with the practice’s transparency of process and consistent delivery of quality there can be little surprise that many of its commissions have come from project managers, engineers and contractors.

When the next generation of buildings is complete another book will be necessary, but in the meantime the practice might consider setting down in detail its design process and approach to sustainability as a primer for students. Other architects, too, could even learn a thing or two to their not inconsiderable advantage.

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