Modern Masters: TDO architecture on designing The Modern House’s new headquarters

In our series ‘Modern Masters’, we meet with some of our favourite architects, designers and makers to profile their practice and get their take on architecture and design. Here, we talk to Tom Lewith and Doug Hodgson of TDO architecture, whose latest project is The Modern House’s new headquarters in Southwark, a flexible workspace that celebrates light, material and the original fabric of the former church hall.

As an innovative and forward-thinking practice, we found a natural ally in TDO architecture, whose previous work has seen them challenge architectural conventions with elegantly simple and considered solutions.

Tom: “TDO stands for Tom, Doug and Owen. The three of us were at the Bartlett together, many years ago. After finishing architecture school, we all went off to work for various practices.

“We would meet up one night a week in the pub to drink wine and talk about architecture: what we thought our practices were doing well, and what we would do differently.”

Doug: “It was almost like a think-tank and then, at some point, we started entering competitions.

“In 2010 Wallpaper*, who were commissioning their first ‘handmade’ issue, got in touch because they had heard about our idea for a contemporary doll’s house.

“We were interested in what it might look like, and how the medium might allow us to reconsider shared space with split levels and a central core.”

Tom: “We built the house ourselves with a lot of blood, sweat and tears and got our first commission off the back of it. It was for an emerging developer who wanted to find a practice for whom a one-off house would be the biggest thing they were working on.”

Doug: “That project was Old Church Street in Chelsea, for which we translated the split-level ideas from the doll’s house into a real building.

“That part of London rarely affords the opportunity to build a completely new house, so it was a great experience for us.

“At the same time, we also did Forest Pond House, a meditation room we designed and built ourselves. Those three projects – Doll’s House, Old Church Street and Forest Pond House – established the enduring language of our practice.

“All of them share an interest in materials and exposing them where possible. Simple, intersecting geometry is quite a big thing for us, as is asking how you can form interesting spaces and experiences from that.

“We’re also very keen on drilling down to uncover what a project is really about, in order to establish a starting point for how we can design in response.”

Tom: “In the case of The Modern House’s office, we were really keen to figure out how the space would be used before we started working. The former ecclesiastical building is comprised of ancillary rooms at the front, and two large halls at the rear.

“From talking to Matt and Albert, the founders of The Modern House, we learned that they were keen to use the space for events and talks, and to generally keep the building as flexible as possible.

“There were quite a lot of moving parts to the brief. It became clear that the best option would be to use the more spatially interesting of the halls as the main office space, but to make the desks in there demountable so its use wasn’t predetermined by the furniture.”

Doug: “But, as with all our projects, there is a simplicity to the solution – in this case, the desks come apart and can be reassembled easily.

“We first developed the concept with our XYZ Chair, in which three simple planes come together to form a piece of furniture.

“Here, instead of the desks always being static and present, we designed them in collaboration with Tom Graham Workshop to mount seamlessly onto a rack when they came apart.

“They can also be used in various configurations, and even as lecterns, display tables and individual units, so as to offer a dynamism that echoes the nature of the brief.”

Tom: “The rest of the space follows two rules: existing elements have an off-white finish, while new elements that we have introduced are black, such as the dramatic gloss-finished front door, bespoke meeting table by Max Lamb and dining table by Faye Toogood, which are both made in Valchromat, the same material as the desks.

“You can clearly see how the building has been tweaked, but as you read that occupation you read the original fabric as well. We think it says something about The Modern House and its audience: an appreciation of architecture, but also an understanding of how to occupy a space in a thoughtful way.

“Our approach to design has found new application for us recently because we have been working a lot with off-site construction and modular buildings.

“It’s an industry that doesn’t have the best reputation thanks to post-war prefabs and an association with uninspiring buildings such as prisons.

“But it’s really suited to our approach because modular buildings lend themselves to simplicity and repetition. We’re interested in the idea that the way a building is built can begin to express itself and celebrate the benefits of that way of building, rather than trying to hide or be apologetic.”

Doug: “It’s also the idea that one key element can really unlock a building. We all feel that architecture can be overly complicated, and share a belief that it should instead offer something quite simple in a beautiful and striking way.

“So, for our projects with Urban Splash and Places for People, we realised that by simply removing the ceiling to expose the concealed timber beams not only increased head height but added character and beauty to the space.

“In that way, our process is about investigation, and challenging established notions of doing things. It’s about offering a different perspective and way of looking at design.”

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