There is something irresistible about architects who have the knack of making difficult things look easy; of making the jerky, random messiness of everyday space seem whole and coherent without apparently agonizing over it. Of putting materials together with the skill and care that makes explicit the poetry in the tension between delicacy and massiveness, between the simple and the complex, without overelaborating the process. Of making an architecture unmistakably of our times without struggling to be fashionable. Of believing utterly in the integrity of architecture, and yet not losing touch with the worldly. Of being as interested in approaching existing buildings as in structuring large-scale vacant sites. These are the ways to make architecture with directness, charm and enthusiasm. And these are all qualities, none of them in overabundant supply in the current climate, that I associate with the architecture of Munkenbeck+Partners.
The started their practice in London over 25 years ago, bringing to their partnership an international perspective – having both been educated at Harvard and built around the world, and having had the experience of working in some of the most distinguished architectural offices (Stirling, Farrell and Grimshaw, among others) – as well as the intriguing creative friction that comes from a confrontation between an Englishman and an American sensibility. They took part with confidence in the generational shift of the 1980s, when architects in their 30s were able to move on from the arid stylistic battles that had dogged their predecessors.
They have worked on a wide range of projects, from the robust urban masterplan to the exquisite interior. On occasion they have had to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, faced with difficult, messy sites and unpromising material. But they have risen to the equally difficult challenge of making a mark on a clean slate.
Along the way they have proved not just that they know how to make architecture with power and presence, as well as delicacy and subtlety, but that – just as important – they can make spaces that feel good to be in. Whether designing a shop for Yohji Yamamoto, the Orsino restaurant or office buildings, they have continually shown a deft lightness of touch, inventing new technical solutions and redefining architectural types. Why shouldn’t a high quality office space have natural ventilation? Why should speculative offices mean lowest-common-denominator aesthetics? And, by the same token, why should treating them with care and individuality make them any more expensive to build. They have, moreover, thought long and hard about what it means to build in the city, to make urban spaces that are alive and full of people, to create structures that generate activity, and to build architecture on a scale that lives up to that kind of setting.
For me, the architecture of Munkenbeck+Partners means modernity without austerity. They have an easy way with sensuous materials, and use a richer palette of colour and texture than many architects of their generation. It is clear that they have a passion for light, suffusing their interiors with daylight, bringing to life spaces of all kinds. They have a bold and inventive approach to form where it is appropriate, and a willingness to defer to existing patterns where it is not. Above all, they have the energy to be continually surprising, to produce new and original work without repeating themselves.