DESIGN INSPIRATION WITH COFFEY ARCHITECTS
Multiple award winner Phil Coffey remains hungry for new challenges and that’s something everyone in architecture should be excited about, says Mark Kebble, when visiting Coffey Architects in Clerkenwell
Clerkenwell is buzzing. It’s the opening day of Clerkenwell Design Week and the good weather is adding to a feelgood vibe as hundreds of people mill about looking at the latest in design and architecture. Sitting in a light and airy warehouse conversion office on Great Sutton Street, I feel like I have a ringside seat to design inspiration – after all, this is home to Coffey Architects.
Taking a seat as I wait for the man behind the practice, awards are dotted all around the wall and I need a good paragraph to go over them all: winner of the Stephen Lawrence Prize in 2011; Small Project Architect of the Year 2012; Young Architect of the Year 2012; even being named in the Independent on Sunday’s 101 Great Britons 2012. ‘They are really important,’ reflects the now present Phil Coffey. ‘They lead to opportunities to do bigger and better things. It gives clients a good idea of how you differentiate yourself.’
Phil is looking well and tanned, a result of a week’s holiday, and his enthusiasm appears to have no bounds – maybe a result of the break, but I suspect this is a man who simply loves what he does. After all, growing up in the North of England, he always had that design eye. ‘When I had essays to do at school, I would always do drawings alongside to make it look a bit different,’ he grins.
Starting out in the architectural industry, he certainly picked the right people to learn from. ‘My first job was working with Bryan Avery, who worked on the Museum of the Moving Image, now the BFI,’ Phil says. ‘I recently worked on a project at the BFI [the Reuben Library], which was in the same space where Bryan had once designed something underneath. It was Bryan’s first masterpiece. When I went to the site – no word of a lie – one of my original drawings was on the wall!’
After a year, Phil moved on to working with Ian Ritchie Architects, where he continued to work on huge projects. ‘I worked on the Spire of Dublin for around three years and the Plymouth Theatre Royal for four years. Ian was another brilliant architect, but I questioned if I should carry on working on brilliant buildings, where I wouldn’t be able to build a client a base myself. So I got the opportunity to do a £40,000 house extension in Battledean Road [in N5]. It was my first ever job on the residential side. I went from an £8m building to a £40,000 house extension…’ he tails off, looking a little surprised by the fact.
Although I sense it’s a little tongue in cheek, he describes the jump to launching his own practice as a ‘silly thing’ – especially as Coffey Architects haven’t looked back. Starting in Highbury Grove nigh on a decade ago on his own, he has been based here in Clerkenwell since last Christmas with a team of ten behind him. One look at the kind of projects they have undertaken shows why Phil Coffey has become such a respected name in architecture, with an astonishing range behind him from residential to public spaces. ‘Before a project we look at three things: the client, site and us,’ Phil explains. ‘Can you, as an architect, help a client to achieve something? Sites are really important – is there something interesting you can do? Is there something you can eke out of the architecture? For me it’s not about money, it’s about interest.’
Talking about the project that won Phil the Stephen Lawrence Prize is a case in point. He brings over a framed photo of the project at a primary school in KentishTown, which was for a library extension. ‘They originally asked us to create a room on the roof, which would have cost a fortune. We said why don’t you put it on the side?’ Called the Book Box, the resulting design is an adaptable space that can be used for music lessons – and opens up to an external teaching/theatre space where performances can also take place. ‘We were originally on a shortlist of four [to be commissioned] and we won it because we broke the brief,’ Phil smiles wide.
He has done a lot of work around the Islington area – ‘Victorian and Georgian buildings are great to work on,’ he enthuses – but the Book Box you sense is something that gives him a real buzz. ‘Working on more public buildings is an ambition,’ he agrees. ‘I love the residential side, but you can touch more people with public buildings – theatres, galleries, schools… These affect more people’s lives.’ Suddenly a band bursts into song down the road as Clerkenwell Design Week cranks up a notch. ‘We have designed a dog sculpture for Clerkenwell Design Week as part of the reinterpretation of a Ron Arad Chair, it’s called TOM WOOF. The project is like all projects we undertake; it is unique and brings a smile to your face,’ Phil adds with a laugh. Big or small projects, Phil Coffey is the name to know.
Coffey Architects, 11-12 Great Sutton Street EC1V 0BX; 020 7549 2141; coffeyarchitects.com
Three stand-out Coffey Architects projects in North London
Terrace House, Islington
Phil Coffey’s own home, this three bedroom terraced property is normally characterised by low ceiling heights and isolation from the rear garden. The living spaces merge into one through the use of materials, heights and thicknesses. A large open plan space accommodates many functions separated by furniture and walls, and a sunken living space facing west enjoys the evening sun and captures solar gain to heat the house.
Sky House, Camden
A three bedroom penthouse flat, where two pavilions are positioned on the roof: one to accommodate living spaces, the other for rest/relaxation spaces including bedrooms. It’s a great example of how Coffey Architects work on increasing living space.
Folded House, Islington
A five bedroom detached house that has been renovated and extended including a striking new stairway and large extension. A reconfigured entrance sequence returns the new large triangular garden into a private retreat.