Designing Buildings: the Stanton Williams approach

Designing and delivering a project is a journey, usually lasting years, which involves clients, future occupants, designers and, eventually, craftspeople and builders.

The route, the deviations from it and the people you travel with are often as important as the place reached: the quality of the journey informs the experience and appreciation of the destination.

Since July 2018 we have been working closely with Emmanuel on the design of the new college court south-east of South Court. This has not been about starting with a pre-conceived architectural concept and presenting it to the college: it’s been about working together to establish the direction for the shared journey we’re undertaking. The focus has first been on taking time to understand the particular community that exists at Emma and how the proposed new spaces will support the life of the college.
In parallel, we’ve sought to understand the unique character and spirit of place created by the college’s existing courts, buildings and landscape, looking at ways in which the scale and character of a new court, and the new social hub we are creating, can contribute to this rich network of spaces. The process is iterative, exploring ideas, the character of spaces and aspirations for new buildings in response to the existing context, through regular meetings with a college working party and through discussions with wider groups of Fellows, staff, students and members.

Architecture is a collaborative art. Ideas are borne out of dialogue, with a constant questioning of strategies and testing of concepts. Within our studio this takes place in ‘design sessions’, where team members table exploratory ideas for discussion, without preconceptions, but with a shared ethos and collective energy. We have a hands-on approach to these discussions, often basing them around altering and adapting rough, physical working models, sometimes held together with pins and tape to enable a quick, fluid and intuitive exploration of the design. The model workshop plays a central role within the studio and we often describe it as being the ‘engine room’ of our practice.

Our discussions with the college are also often based around the physical models we are making of Emmanuel and the emerging proposals: these have been especially important because the character of the college environment is dependent on the scale, readily grasped in models, of courts and open spaces. Physical models allow us to share these spatial explorations with consultants and members of the college, allowing everyone to understand and engage with the design of spaces and to contribute to the creative process.

The delivery of the project will require a much broader collaboration: a cast of hundreds on site and in the workshops of manufacturers. The attitude of everyone in the process leaves a direct imprint on the quality of the work produced. Our most successful projects have been those where everyone involved, from the most to the least skilled, has understood the client’s vision and taken enjoyment and pride in their work. It is a truism in architecture that great buildings are not just the result of having good designers: they rely on great clients who have a single-minded vision. We feel enormously privileged to be part of Emmanuel College’s vision for the future, part of the most significant transformation since the construction of North Court in 1914, and to play a small part of the college’s continuing history and evolution.

Gavin Henderson – Director, Stanton Williams