Steve McCloy and Bongani 'Bo' Muchemwa of Aj 40 under 40 stars McCloy + Muchemwa talk to us about everything architecture, from running a young studio to dream commissions and diversifying.
Recently named the 'Experimenters' by Wallpaper magazine in their survey of the next generation 10 London practices, Bo & Steve might not be your conventional architects. Their range of projects extend far beyond the architecture of buildings, from bamboo bike's to fashion accessories, sculptures and even books, their diverse and inventive approach have made them one of the most exciting studios to look out for - we can't wait to see what's next in store for them!
HOW DID YOU MEET & DID YOU CHOOSE TO START YOUR OWN PRACTICE?
Bo: We met a decade ago in Leeds during our first year of architecture school. We both shared an enthusiasm for architecture and in discovering architecture as a subject of study and discipline, it was really exciting! Every time we saw an interesting project, physically outside or in books or magazines, they were always with people that had either started their own small practice or had started their own side projects from a bigger practice. I think the more excited we became about architecture; it was inevitable that we would probably try to do the same because I think there is always a limitation of what you can do if you are working in another practice and as an employee. Trying to make a practice has its own challenges but the reward is that the things you were looking at as a student, you can actually look at to see if it can work in the real world.
Steve: Ever since me and Bo worked and lived together in University, we always had that excitement and keenness that Bo mentions. It’s all about the conception, not only coming up with the concept and the whole notion of the design that essentially runs through from the building, but also the conceptualisation of how you want to work and the type of people you want to work with. That was really one of the most exciting core aspects that university teaches you. We also both had many years of professional careers in established companies where you learn to manage tasks, utilise your skills, work with people etc., but it never fully satisfied some of the core areas of the architecture discipline as a creative practice. Architecture has its own kind of capital ‘A’ discipline, it is always something that has its own real attraction and I think new people always want to lead their own course or channel their own path into it.
WHAT IS THE McCLOY + MUCHEMWA WAY OF WORKING?
Bo: Our ethos is really about experimenting. It can be with a type of building or a type of a space, but it’s always about trying to experiment and figure out what new and interesting things we can find. It’s finding potential where it might be hidden, trying to see if you can flip perceptions of something that could be ordinary, like a bench or a wall or anything. Our ethos is trying to challenge every brief to find opportunities that are interesting and exciting.
Steve: We didn’t know what our ethos was at the beginning. Me and Bo share the vision and creativity of the practice but its neither my practice nor Bo’s, it’s a shared entity, so that’s something that had to bubble up and the ethos emerged from iteration just as the design emerges from iteration. I like what Bo said about experimentation. Wallpaper magazine included us in their survey of the next generation of 10 London practices and ran an article on us where they called us the Experimenters. We were super proud of that because it really stood for what we want to do whereas we were not so interested in some of the other titles.
We were lucky to go to a great university, Leeds Met, which was not one of the high-pressure high-performance schools, it was a bit more laid back and we had space to experiment with what we wanted. There was actually 3 of us, Bo, myself and this genius called Dan Mason. We found that we used to have a bit of extra time to actually push some of our design projects forward. What we would do is have a couple of red bulls, stay up late, and do this critical process, which is almost like a Socratic Circle, critiquing each other’s work, saying things like I dare you to put this in the project or I reckon you can make that wackier or you could do something else here, so there was this process of pushing one another and that’s something that me and Bo continue to do. We respect each other’s artistic and critical process but at the same time, if someone brings a happy accident or if someone wants to deviate, we can have a serious debate about things.
DO YOU THINK YOUR UPBRINGING IN AFRICA HAS HAD ANY IMPACT OR INFLUENCE ON THE WAY YOU DESIGN?
Bo: Possibly, I think there was maybe a familiarity, a kind of a shared upbringing. I also think the meeting of my own culture or my own understanding of the world with the European culture of the UK was probably quite shocking when you’re 15/16, so possibly in there, there is a yearning to explore again and travel. You know, when you arrive in a place, something in yourself gets triggered where things are exciting again.
Steve: When your foundation is different, it means you don’t have the same underlying assumptions about how things are supposed to be. When you start architecture school, in the first year, you’re really encouraged to shake your preconceptions but, because both Bo and I have had an upheaval experience of moving to Europe which is a big change, I think you’re primed to shake your preconceptions about how things are supposed to be. That then relates to how you think about the space and the built environment and even a domestic dwelling, because you are not wed to notions of home comforts or domestic regimes or what a plan of house is supposed to be like. There is also an interest for us beyond the western history of architecture. I think specifically, we like to hold ourselves account to that and say, no we should look at dwelling type plan typologies and alternative logics that are used in different cultures, not just revisiting some of the ones we knew in Africa but we are also obsessed with Japanese typology, that is super influential on us and that relates back to travelling again.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SOME OF YOUR RECENT PROJECTS?
Steve: One of our most recent projects is the Butler's Wharf Jetty Park competition entry which we were shortlisted in. It was possibly the closest we got to delivering a fantastic public realm project and we realised that not only do we have to collaborate and build a fantastic team to do the project, but we also realised that this is what we wanted to focus our practice on, to do projects in the public sphere. That particular project and other previous ones such as the Lea Bridge Library which was another public bid we came close to winning, helped us to narrow down on what we’re focusing on next which is to win or collaborate as a means to access public commissions.
In the meantime, we’re still tackling any number of scale of projects so that we can exercise our desire to do creative work. We found recently that product design for example, and a few small domestic jobs, they’re really good for ticking over your creative practice. We worked recently on a bamboo bike commission which was really fun but you know, it obviously had limited impact on other people’s lives, but it was a good way for us to reimagine and think about raw materials and reconceptualise what a simple object like a bike could be. It’s the same with some of the other domestic projects we’re doing, they’re only investigating a narrow aspect of architecture but they help us tick us over and develop ideas for the larger projects that we hope to do in the public realm.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DREAM COMMISSION?
Bo: It’s not necessarily the project, it’s getting the right client and conditions for a project. I think maybe the misconception about building good buildings or a good project is that it’s all about money but actually, the real truth of it is that it’s about a good client, an interesting collaboration, one that is fruitful. You know the budget could be very small, the actual project could be very small, but the dream project is always about trying to find that combination because you can then apply that to any scale. If you’re lucky and you can find that formula, then you’re sort of set to do any interesting project really. So, it’s not a specific project but it’s a specific condition.
WHAT PROJECT HAVE YOU BEEN MOST PROUD OF?
Bo: One of our proudest projects is probably an installation we did for Leeds Art Gallery a couple of years ago. Me and Steve joke that there is a little sketch in Little Britain where this music producer, theatre type guy [Dennis Waterman], gets a commission to write a certain type of music and he goes and says he is going to write the music and do everything on that project ["write the theme tune, sing the theme tune"]. I think the Leeds Art Gallery was a similar type of project for us where we were involved in pretty much everything. We won the competition, collaborated with every single stakeholder from the city council to the stakeholders from the library attached to the art gallery, and built the project. We also got to fiddle around with the spreadsheet which is amazing, which I think we should let architects do more often, and the project in the end was on budget and on time. It was that type of specific condition that made an interesting project a spectacular success in our books. It wasn’t necessarily about the cultural aspect of the project but more about the level of control.
HOW MUCH LEEWAY DID YOU GET ON THE LEEDS ART GALLERY PROJECT TO PUSH THE DESIGN IDEA FORWARD?
Steve: None, there is no leeway, the budget was tight. This is the thing architects have to do but being able to access the client’s spreadsheet for costs is really important. We were able to shift some of the priorities of the project on the spreadsheet and adjust the cost. Because it was a temporary building, we could have zero carbon embodied using borrowed elements and so, we were not even using construction materials for some parts, we were using repurposed road barriers which were so cheap, like 5p a day each to hire, it turned out really very low cost. Because the building wasn’t permanent, it didn’t need to meet certain elements for longevity. But we were also able to do a pavilion which essentially had a footprint twice the size of the serpentine pavilion that year for approximately 1/100th of the cost.
When Bo said what our dream commission is, I suppose what we want is not necessarily the big masterpiece cultural building, but the portfolio of affecting works that we can be proud of. So, if you can do something where you are proud you had an effect with this project and it was architecturally intense or architecturally explores some of the research interests we have, then you start to build a portfolio of works which are all essentially exploring your interests, I think that’s really what starts to form the 'dream' projects.
HAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN TEACHING INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU PRACTICE ARCHITECTURE?
Bo: I’m not sure if it’s Simon Allford that said this once in a lecture I attended, a practice that isn’t associated with academia becomes a dammed practice. When you’re trying to teach someone a skill, you have to know a bit more than its everyday use, you really have to expand your knowledge and that forces you to become much more involved with what you’re doing, it makes you more skilled and enriches your way of working.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT SOME OF YOUR WORK OUTSIDE OF PRACTISING ARCHITECTURE?
Steve: We both have a little bit going on. I think all our work outside architecture is still related to the conceptualisation of architecture. It is sort of a trap we have fallen into because we signed up loosely to the theory that everything is architecture, which was peddled by an architect called Hans Hollein in the 1980s and so, we’re guilty of thinking everything could be a 'project'. When we worked on the bamboo bike, it could have been an exercise of craft, but we were so tempted to twist it into the realm of becoming a project which is why you embed it with some intellectual dimension however modest. So, everything we’re doing does relate back and helps us with a wider understanding of the conceptualisation of project.
My most exciting project that I’d like to talk about is my book which I’ve co-authored with the Bartlett professor CJ Lim and it’s called “Once Upon a China”. The book was released on April 16th and the book launch is likely going to be at the beginning of the next academic year. It was a total delight to work on that project as a researcher and writer. The book followed from a previous book by CJ Lim called “Inhabitable Infrastructures: Science fiction or urban future?”. I think those two projects have taken up most of my extracurricular time. They deal which a much wider picture of architecture and understanding of socio politics or masterplanning and general issues that affect everything we do.
“Inhabitable Infrastructures” looks into a kind of fantastic world of sustainable urban masterplaning and futurology. It looks at the trajectories of these and weighs them against science fiction and speculative fiction which is this wonderful place you can source ideas or look for fantastic predictions. In the book we also look at amazing examples of traditional structures or traditional infrastructures which are so extraordinary that it’s even better than some of what you see in science fiction. The involvement in those two books is one of the things I’m most proud of in my whole career. I really love working with CJ Lim because I believe he is one of these great figures in the discipline of architecture. He is continuing and expanding on the legacy from his own mentors such as Zaha Hadid who he was making paintings with in the early years and, Peter Cook. It trickles down and so, being able to contribute to that, in just a modest way, is one of the best ways that I am hoping to instil the ethos of McCloy + Muchemwa, with some of that great architectural pedigree.
Bo: In that ethos of being experimenters we have recently started working with a small technology start-up that is interested in food and food delivery but in a way, all of that is feeding our curiosity and all of that research and knowledge might turn out in projects in built form. That’s why we’re always searching for things that are not entirely or directly linked with architecture.
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION?
Steve: On our website it says that we have a profound respect for the artistic process and the realm of ideas peddled by art. I think this is a huge source of inspiration for us. Post the invention of photography, artists like Turner and Whistler started to explore more with atmospheres which led to the investigation of the expressionists and fauvist painters etc., Essentially, art is liberated into abstraction and you get some movements that are just super-inspiring to us including Expressionism but also Neo-plasticism, De Stijl, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism; those are resources that we are always looking back to in our work. Projects like The Redscape have explicit references that we were looking at based on Mondrian paintings in Neo-plasticsm style, the big red Seagram murals of Mark Rothko, and Matisse with his painting called The Red Studio which is explicitly present in the architectural spaces that we tried to make for these red boxes the form the temporary pop-up art studios. We love things that we haven’t seen before so that’s why the time when artists liberated to abstraction is interesting, it was when art could finally investigate things that had never been seen. To be honest, I don’t think architecture is keeping up with the art world and it often gets side-tracked away from the core investigation of what architecture can be. There’s so much more potential and a lot of transferable learning that can be taken just from the art world.
Architecture can be one of the most delightful, wonderful places to experiment but most architecture is fairly insipid, it’s sensorily weak, it doesn’t smell good, it doesn’t feel good, sometimes it looks good but it’s not necessarily really investigating all those things. I think architecture is a really tough version of the art but it has so much potential that still needs to be tapped. The pure art world is a place in which you can draw out some of the human experiences which architecture could really deliver. Art can be a great inspiration for some of the experiential and sensory qualities of architecture.
Today we get our inspiration from Instagram. A friend of mine from university, a fantastic woman called Alice Brownfield who just won the MJ Long Prize which is for exemplar women in practice, she is a great architect and great leader, now Associate Director at Peter Barber Architects. Much of her knowledge and campaigning is disseminated through the social media platforms, Twitter, Instagram, and that is a place where we’re keeping track of everyone from our generation, all of our classmates from school, everyone that is doing interesting initiatives, everyone who is doing the cool stuff. So, it’s not so frivolous to find inspiration there because that’s where it’s kind of happening.
WHAT WOULD SAY ARE THE BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF RUNNING YOUR OWN ARCHITECTURE STUDIO?
Bo: The benefits are that you are in charge of the direction of what you want to do. The challenge is getting projects and more about cash flow and really trying to steer it to become a sustainable entity, I wouldn’t call it a business.
Steve: The challenges are definitely many, and I think I would probably say to people that they probably do outweigh some of the perceived benefits. The desire to become an independent creative practitioner is like an affliction, it’s like a struggle, and the benefits might be personal to you but they are probably intangible to other people. I think that the benefits are related to what motivates us to want to be architects in the first place. Architecture is a discipline which is an intellectual discipline and a creative discipline but it is intrinsically tied to the material practice of building buildings or installations or things in the real world. To be in control of your own business is to have that opportunity to struggle to have your ideas built. That’s where all this momentum that we built up through university or doing competitions or all the great ideas or things we’ve seen from other people’s projects comes in. There is a possibility that it could come true when you’re running your own studio and I think that’s the potential and the hope.
IF YOU COULD COLLABORATE ON A PROJECT WITH ANYONE OR ANY OTHER ARCHITECTURE STUDIO, WHO WOULD IT BE?
Bo: It’s a longlist but I’ve always had a fascination with Rem Koolhaas, it would be nice to work with him. Apparently he is sort of a tyrannic person, but I think I’ve always enjoyed the eureka of his thinking and the architecture.
Steve: On Buckminister Fuller’s gravestone he requested that they engrave this odd sentence that says, ‘call me trim-tab’. A trim-tab is part of a ship’s rudder, like a tiny mini rudder on the back of the[main] rudder which starts the rudder turning and then the rudder turns, and the huge ship turns. That was Bucky’s idea, he was a hugely influential thinker obviously in terms of ecological sustainability and engineering but, he imagined himself as this tiny little thing at the back which could affect big change and he had a belief in the individual intellectual pursuit to do that. So for me, I would love to work with a large studio or a large firm which has a huge amount of engineering or a city planning powerhouse behind it that essentially, would be open to a change of direction that can be effected by the kind of input from a small practice - I like the idea that it would be someone that would value that tiny bit of trim-tab.
IF YOU COULD RECOMMEND ONE BOOK, EXHIBITION, PIECE OF ART OR OTHER, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Steve: I would recommend watching Disney Pixar’s Big Hero 6. It’s based on an original comic book and we actually explored it quite a lot in the “Inhabitable Infrastructures” book. It’s a fantastic sci-fi/speculative fiction movie with this optimistic technological future which also acknowledges its dystopian underside, it’s absolutely incredible. It has great diverse characters, beautiful CGIs and rendering, and it has this amazing setting in a city called San Fransokyo. In the back story, there is a big earthquake in San Francisco and Japanese migrant workers come in to help rebuild it and then settle there, so you get this fusion of Japanese cultural references and technology like Japanese robotics, but it also merges with the Californian tech culture into this wonderful movie full of robots and high-tech things but really like an optimistic future. Recently, I lent the 'making of' book to a friend of mine who has been working on his first commission for anime concept art and he has actually gone on to become one of the production designers of a new anime movie, so I think it’s really a rich source, Big Hero 6.
Bo: I would recommend Sketches of Frank Gehry. He barely does lectures, he’s got this masterclass that isn’t necessarily all that interesting, but I think that film shows him as this neurotic person that is struggling with his ideas, struggling daily, it’s that struggle that you find when you start a new project, but he seems to be struggling literally every minute in that film. It makes you empathise; you feel like ok, it’s not easy for him so I shouldn’t worry too much if I’m struggling.
WHAT IN YOUR OPINION, DOES THE FUTURE OF ARCHITECTURE NEED TO ADDRESS?
Bo: Supposedly climate change is an issue but also new ways of building. We’re always talking about AI and saying we’re all going to lose our jobs, but the issue is that what’s not going to change is the need for good buildings. What should change I think would be a real intense exploration of how we can improve but it’s an ongoing story of gradual improvement. It’s not quite specific, but I think everything that is an issue such as climate change, really needs to be part of the solution. I’m not sure if it actually can be, but maybe we can find little areas where we can suggest a different way of living.
Steve: I would say, fundamentally, Architecture isn’t a problem-solving discipline although its ever more invoked than I think it is. The climate crisis is rampaging on, it was at the top of agenda when we started architecture school over a decade ago and for the next two decades it will still be at the top, you’ve obviously got the UK housing crisis too. But, I think if there is a design solution for the UK housing crisis that is required, I think that it has already been done. There are so many exemplary schemes that they just essentially need rolling out, I think that they’re abundant in terms of housing solution.
There are a lot of problems with political and commercial will, but the real agenda for the discipline of architecture needs to look more into 'urban futures' infrastructure and social environment and then, governments and clients need to look into food and economics. I do worry that sometimes architecture, as a discipline, is a bit distracted and derailed from its core competency. I think we need to move more into a territory of speculation I suppose about how the city can be enhanced by technological and societal development and we can reimagine in terms of where that’s going in terms of how people are going to live and what the architectural expression is going to be of that future. It’s definitely going to be beyond exuberant carbon pumping western capitalist model and I say that specifically because most of this change is not going to be in museum-like cities like London, Rome… Europe essentially, might be left behind but African cities, Chinese cities, places where stuff is really happening, there needs to be more thinking in architecture and that’s the key issue, to get where the future is going to happen, needs to move on from existing models.
When Bo says that he'd like to work with Rem Koolhaas as his kind of 'dream collaborator', the interesting thing about him is that he’s always ahead of the curve and at the 2020 show at the MOMA, they were highlighting that the countryside might really be the setting for the most important issues of the day to tackle going forward. So, we need to look a little bit maybe even outside of architecture or housing or cities, you know expand our thinking… And so, the countryside might be a new territory as well.