Rising stars of 2017: architecture practice Interrobang

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Rising stars of 2017: architecture practice Interrobang” was written by Rowan Moore, for The Observer on Sunday 1st January 2017 09.00 UTC

Much of the time, talented young architects are viewed in a particular way – diverting, promising but not really grown up, not to be entrusted with projects of any consequence. Young engineers are treated more seriously, but are assumed to have no creative spark. It is to escape such perceptions, and the limitations they set, that Maria Smith, architect, and Steve Webb and Andy Yates, engineers, have set up Interrobang, a practice dedicated to “hybrid” and “anti-specialist” thinking. An interrobang, if you didn’t know, is a fusion of an exclamation point and a question mark. “It suggests adventure and questioning,” says Smith.

Webb Yates Engineers worked on projects ranging from alterations to Gatwick and Heathrow airports to the Rain Room, a space full of falling water by the artists rAndom International at the Barbican arts centre. Maria Smith used to be half of Studio Weave, a practice known for delightful follies and temporary structures but in danger of being typecast as such. Smith and Webb are both eloquent and quick-thinking, with decided attitudes to what they do, and Smith was also the spectacular compere of something called Turncoats, a series of the least boring architectural events of recent years. Yates says less but, according to his partners, “is the only one who really knows anything”.

Together, they can take on, from Smith’s point of view, “larger and more ambitious projects than I would have dared to dream”. For Webb and Yates, collaboration means they can expand the imaginative dimension of their discipline. They all want to destroy the convention that an architect’s job is to design pretty things and an engineer’s is to make them happen. Their larger projects include the conversion of the famous art deco Hoover Building in west London into flats and continued (and increasingly interesting) work with airports.

Barbican’s Rain Room: it’s raining, but you won’t get wet

With a lifting bridge over a canal in Smethwick, west Midlands, they hope to achieve what Webb calls a victory of “brain power over a mass of metal” – they propose to add outriggers to ward off collisions by boats, which means the structure can be far more delicate than usual. They are designing a mews house in south London – typical young architects’ fare, but a project informed by an engineer’s feeling about materials. Webb talks of the “utter stupidity of building in brickwork”, on practical and environmental grounds, so the facade is a clever composition of tiles.

They all like the intellectual rigour of engineering formulas that, like music and mathematics, create a framework that makes it impossible “to bluff”. Smith is studying for an engineering degree in her evenings and weekends and says she has “started dreaming in equations”. Outcomes of their combined thinking include Back to the Stone Age, an installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum that showed how thin stone slabs could be used to make a self-supporting floor that would be more efficient than concrete and better looking. In works such as this, you can’t tell the architecture and the engineering apart, which is the point.

Three more to watch

Orkidstudio, a Glasgow-based practice that works in the developing world, says it wants to achieve social change through architecture and is serious and practical about achieving it.

Adam Nathaniel Furman is a man who finds more joy in reviving postmodernism than it had in its 1980s heyday and expresses it in ceramics, tweets, 3D printed ceramics and the occasional actual construction project.

Concrete Action is not precisely an architectural practice but a network for gathering and spreading information and advice on housing projects, for the benefit of communities, professionals and activists in the many battlegrounds of current London development.

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