Indifference towards the main streams of contemporary architecture, inexistent interest in becoming iconically recognizable, or mediately successful, and strong autobiographical connotations are the core of the architecture designed by Sergison Bates.
Observing their works, it’s clear that what they do derives from an autobiographical evolution of their own culture. The British tradition, along with their deep interest in the evolution of European cities through centuries and their deep interest for the everyday life of people has had a fundamental influence on them.
Architects such as Alison and Peter Smithsons or Robert Adam (the Chandos House in London most of all) have left in them a profound sense of belonging to the history of a place.
Their work can be described as really tridimensional in the sense of trying to create consistency in every single square metre of a project, keeping in mind the most important factor: time.
Time is the other version of space, the other side of the leaf. Every construction, after the effective materials, is made of time, which works as a secret agent in the architectural field and remains often uncontrollable and unpredictable. Time is something untouchable that makes places change and plays probably the most important role in architecture. The purpose of Sergison Bates is to design spaces that can welcome time and, with it, changes.
Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates established their studio first in London in 1996 and then in Zürich in 2010. Both of them are active participants in universities all over the world as in the professional field and their work shows the perfect match between practice and theory.
“My lecture is intended as an outline of my active and theoretical participation in architecture. It has autobiographical dimension offered to you as an insight into the evolution of a position of a person as an architect or a teacher.”
In these few words of Stephen Bates said at the beginning of the conference “On Continuity“, at Harvard Architecture School in 2014, we can clearly understand how much a life of a person is important to the development of a figure such as the architect. The unconscious influence every single event has on our life leads to unexpected results and, in the case of Sergison and Bates, it results as a devotion towards the “model” of the European city and how it was born. They put a lot of effort into the demonstration of the importance of relationships between the individual and the community, they design single houses, apartments, social centres that have the purpose of gathering people for mutual benefit and support. They also have great respect for multiple layers that history leaves to us as traces of the past, considering their role in continuity with the past.
Continuity, in this case, doesn’t signify a linear cause-effect system, but rather an interpretation of time, vehiculated through the culture of the individual, in which the past continues to exist in the present and the present is therefore determined by it. This kind of relationship between architecture and history of architecture is well expressed by Sergison Bates works.
“Victim of the recession, mantle of economic recovery, tool of political maneuvering, always the subject of the vagaries of the local situation, protective neighbours, outdated planning policies and the unending amount of regulations. But amidst all that there it is, the built space, the room, the wall, the space between. These are the components to be utilized in those never-ending questions, such as what should the character of this room be? How should it feel? How do we form a window? How do we use the ground floor? How do we renew our thinking about the collective?”
The new building faces the city directly with material, weight and space. Its presence alters the past with something new and here we find the responsibility of the architect: to replace the value of the land in which he is intervening on, but only after having recognized what that value is, through guidance and study of the site, under as many aspects as possible.
One of the most interesting elements for example in their project for a mansion block in Hampstead, London in 2017, is the value they give to the in-between spaces, the actual distribution spaces which usually are considered “wasted square metres”. They have started from the study of those tiny spaces that permit the circulation of a house and tried to emphasize them by enlarging and giving them some kind of importance and respectability, and what comes from this experimentation is something unexpected: those spaces without windows at the physical core of the house make the whole more livable and functional, not remaining anymore just “wasted square metres”.
Every new project is meant to be a new study towards undiscovered possibilities architecture still hides. To sediment a new coherent layer in the history of the place is the purpose. The creative process starts with the study of the history of the site, then physical models enter the game. Reiteration is the workflow and, after an infinite number of essays, here it comes: the discovery, the revolution, the fortuity that they decide to propose in reality. Will it work or not?
– Sergison Bates Architects, El Croquis 187
– Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates, “On Continuity“, Conference at Harvard Architecture School, 2014
– David Grandorge, Sergison Bates Architects, Buildings, Quart-Verlag, Lausanne, 2012, 300 pp.