Caruso St John‘s 25 year anniversary lecture at RIBA on November 17th 2015.
Caruso St John Architects:
Since its foundation in 1990, Caruso St John has been pursuing an architecture that is rooted in place. The practice resists the thin-skinned abstraction that characterises much global architecture in favour of buildings that are perceived slowly over time and that have an emotional content.
Its work is enriched by an on-going dialogue with the European city and with history – that of architecture, art, and culture more widely – traditions that bring an accumulated richness of expression to the work. Ideas are elaborated in a manner akin to art practices that engage directly with the built environment and embrace the ‘found’ space. Caruso St John intervenes in sites carefully, valuing the humble and everyday as well as the more celebrated products of the architectural canon. It is the context that is the starting point for generating form rather than allowing the programme to dictate the architecture.
Sophistication is achieved by the careful refinement of details and a distillation of ideas to create a particular atmosphere. Exteriors have a sensitivity to sometimes fragile settings whose character has evolved over time, while interiors have a specific and particular atmosphere appropriate to their purpose.
Following the practice’s rise to prominence with the winning of the international competition for the acclaimed New Art Gallery Walsall, its engagement with the art world has been notable for the creation of museum and gallery environments that enjoy the confidence of artists. The practice is known for its willingness to negotiate the delicate intricacies (and often limited budgets) of art institutions on an equal and genuinely collaborative footing.
Many cultural sector commissions have followed, including the Millbank Project for Tate Britain that it is steadily stitching back together the museum’s disparate elements in a manner that is, at the same time, clearly contemporary and evokes the craft of invisible mending. Other recent UK arts projects include a suite of commercial galleries for Gagosian, Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London and the revival and extension of the Art Deco Liverpool Philharmonic concert hall. Caruso St John were awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize for the Newport Street Gallery in 2016.
The practice has also assembled a portfolio of projects that intervene in a city’s urban fabric at the scale of an urban quarter. These include the 29,000 m2 Lycée Hotelier de Lille (a hospitality school and urban regeneration project in France), a €40 million head office for the Bremer Landesbank in Bremen, and the new ZSC Lions ice hockey stadium in Zurich, as well as substantial mixed-use developments in Munich, Hamburg, Antwerp and Zurich. The latter includes a 30,000 sq m commercial and residential block next to the main station – part of a regeneration masterplan for the district by the Swiss national railways (SBB).
Despite the large scale of some of these projects, Adam Caruso and Peter St John are careful to ensure that its working method remains intimate and responsive. The office has grown slowly and its size is controlled, to ensure that each of the founding partners can be deeply involved in every commission from conception to detailed design. One of the partners attends client meetings and leads the project, together with an architect project leader. Importantly, the partners and other staff also still make time to teach and write as a way of enriching and elaborating the practice’s thinking.
All this is unusual at a time when architectural success is too often measured by uncontrolled growth, the lazy repetition of details, or the use of signature shape-making and materials regardless of context. Instead, Caruso St John’s approach brings an intensity to the built work and ensures the rigorous construction quality for which Caruso St John is renowned. The result is an architecture that is considered, meaningful and enduring.
The practice is consciously international in its outlook, with approximately 25 people working from an open studio in a 1930s factory in east London that the practice converted for their use. In 2010 a second office was opened in Zurich.