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November 10, 2007 12:00 am

Inspired by a broad perspective

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Architectural practice 6a operates out of a quirky former workshop buried deep in a typically schizophrenic chunk of London, at the end of an alley, behind a green door, set into a row of terraced houses, somewhere between the shabbier ends of Bloomsbury and Holborn.

The eccentric location chimes perfectly with the nature of the company, led by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald. Born in Paris, schooled in Belgium and having studied at the University of Bath and at Cambridge, Emerson met Macdonald, his partner in life as well as work, at London’s Royal College of Art. She had trained at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architecture and the University of North London following a scholarship in Japan and worked in British furniture designer Tom Dixon’s welding studio before moving into architecture.

They formed 6a in 2001, naming it after the address of their new office space. In the years since, they have built a name for themselves as thoughtful architects who effortlessly straddle art and fashion, retail and domesticity. Current projects, including a carbon-zero English country house, a residential complex on the Croatian island of Brac, a Colombian jungle retreat and the conversion of a Scottish military installation, give some idea as to their diverse workload.

“We’ve always been interested in how things are made, in how people make their mark on the world,” Emerson says. “As a communicative species we leave traces and what we try to do is to make connections, engag[ing] in a broader discourse – art, literature, film and so on.”

Their houses give a flavour of this. In TC House, the interior is defined by an attenuated piece of furniture that adapts to changes in use as it travels through space. In JP House, a faceted dining room gives on to a canvas-like view of a previously visually inaccessible garden. And in AK House, rough Victorian timber-stud framing has been exposed as a ghost of former structures. This memory of space, of history, of underlying structure and of place is key to their work. We try to make something that creates its own presence but is also rooted in that particular time,” Macdonald says. “These houses couldn’t have happened in another place or time; even a year later they would have been very different.”

Always as interested in the ordinary and the real as in the extraordinary, they explore how meaning arises through unconscious familiarity. Their carbon-zero country house, Mines Farm in Cambridgeshire, is, for example, that most corrupted of English things, a half-timbered building, entered through a full-height great hall with a grand staircase that wraps around a central fireplace, providing views across the entire breadth of the structure. It’s a stunning rethinking of the genre, rooted in tradition and memory, strangely familiar yet radically new.

“If there was one building type we’d never thought about it was the country house, so we tried to understand local traditions, of building, materials, techniques,” Emerson says. “The house is inspired as much by the powerful photographs of industrial buildings by Bernd and Hilla Becher and by the images of framed buildings by artist Idris Khan, in which the building dissolves and becomes ethereal, as it is by local English tradition. There’s a manipulation of structure and scale, which leads to the traditional form dissolving.”

In their proposal for a large site on Brac, Emerson and Macdonald have also incorporated local motifs and materials, including a creamy white stone. The urbane, coherent plan wraps around a public plaza designed to house a film festival. This cultural grounding differentiates it from all the other tourist developments on the Croatian coast.

A rather different example of 6a’s work is the project in Cupar, Scotland. Originally built as a submarine surveillance station in the 1940s, it is a nondescript, low-lying structure, the resonance of which derives entirely from its enigmatic role in Cold War intrigue rather than its utilitarian architecture. The architects’ strategy is elegantly minimal, building up another, translucent layer above the existing buildings to create a series of nine houses illuminated by clerestorey openings.

“We think of a house as a place where things can be allowed to happen,” Macdonald says, “where the architecture doesn’t overwhelm life.”

www.6a.co.uk

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