Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Adam Caruso and Peter St John, partners in the architecture practice of Caruso St John, are very different properties. But together, over the last 18 years, they have produced a powerful range of enticing buildings ranging from Walsall Art Gallery to their Stirling Prize shortlisted Brick House – a one off house for a private client. Now one of their most challenging commissions to date, Nottingham Contemporary arts centre, is moving towards completion and is due to open next spring.

Caruso St John's innovative buildings draw upon a vein of architectural pleasure principles such as ornament and decoration, texture and colour. They hit a richer note than much of the more pared down, minimalist architecture practiced by many of their contemporaries. Both partners are equal advocates of St John's observation: "A building should be emotional. It can have an intellectual idea behind it but it's not supposed to be "cerebral". There is definitely a playful quality, a richness in our work."

"We are very complementary characters," says Peter St John. "Close, long-term collaborations can be a difficult to maintain – they are like marriages. They require effort and patience and tolerance in order for the good things to come out and to feel that you are doing something much fuller and more relevant than you would be if you were working on your own."

The two first formed their practice in 1990, having worked together at the architectural office of Arup, the global engineering company. Both are married, with four children between them, and both live in London, with St John in a self-designed contemporary mews house...

Caruso, 46, was born and raised in Montreal. His mother was a librarian, and in school holidays Caruso earned money stacking shelves. His father was an architect, and for many years gently discouraged his son from a profession that where it seemed so hard to make a living.

"Until I was in my second year of university I felt I didn't want to be an architect because it was such a difficult existence. I was in a pre-Med programme at McGill University in Montreal but then transferred to do art history and then realised that I did want to do architecture after all."

After graduating, Caruso found himself in the depths of a Canadian recession with little hope of finding work so he moved to London where the outlook was more positive. He worked initially with innovative practices led by Ian Ritchie (best known for his Courtyard Theatre for the RSC) and then Florian Beigel – the architect of the Half Moon Theatre on London's Mile End Road – with whom Peter St John also worked, though never overlapping, and Beigel became something of a mentor to them both.

Peter St John, 48, came from a very different background. His father was an aeronautical engineer turned civil servant and the family mostly lived in Surrey. There were no architects nor artists among the family or friends, yet St John says he was inevitably drawn towards architecture.

"I have had an interest since I was young, even when I didn't know much about what architecture involved," St John says. He went on to study at the Bartlett and the Architectural Association, before working with Edward Cullinan Architects – an innovative practice famed for their Downland Gridshell museum building in Sussex – and then Dixon Jones, where he was involved in the Covent Garden Opera House reinvention in the mid 1980s "I felt architecture was a good balance between the arts and sciences and something I might be good at. It's now extraordinary to me how I managed to make the decision.

"If I was to put my finger on one thing, it was that my father was very interested in making things. He was a carpenter in his spare time and we made a lot of furniture together. I have always been very able at making things which manifested itself in an interest in buildings and making models. My motivation was less intellectual than Adam's, more emotional and physical."

The commission for Nottingham Contemporary, the city's new £14 million gallery and performance space, builds on a series of Caruso St John buildings closely linked with the contemporary art world. It sits on a corner site at the edge of the city centre in the old Lace Market district Clad in a series of undulating green concrete panels, indented with a subtle lace pattern borrowed from a sample uncovered in a 19th century time capsule nearby, the building has golden cappings disguising the joints, all sitting on black polished plinths. Standing out both against the red brick backdrop of the converted Victorian buildings of the former Lace Market – now an upmarket area of restaurants and hotels – and the 1960s Broadmarsh Shopping Centre, just across the road, it is a multifunctional arts space, with a vast performance area.

The undertaking required a considered approach to the urban landscape. Pushed into the slopes of Garner's Hill, with trams running alongside, Caruso St John's construction makes the most of its wedge-shaped site and the way it steps down the hill. The building reminds you of the lofts and found spaces of Soho in New York, as well as the ornamentation of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, combining vast and raw internal spaces with its vibrant coat of many textures.

But this place will also be fun, inviting artists of all kinds – painters, photographers, musicians, actors – to take possession of the space and establishing an informality to the flexible spaces which promotes accessibility. The centre's café – spreading out on to terraces with views across the city – will not be a Starbucks or a Costa type but more of a melting pot and social centre with art forming the common ground.

"Nottingham Contemporary is contextual in a sense," Caruso says, "but also looks unlike anything else around it. It won't fit in with the existing buildings nearby but it does make connections to the Lace Market which people will understand and it also makes physical connections that didn't previously exist between three different street levels."

The building of 3,000 square feet, commissioned by the City Council with support from the Arts Council and local and European development agencies, is already generating wide excitement. Alex Farqurharson, the director of Nottingham Contemporary, says "My sense is that the building is being embraced as a symbol of the city's aspirations for the future. Through innovative moulding and colouring techniques shown in the buildings most unusual features – the green lace-etched concrete panels – I think Caruso St John have found a new, I'm tempted to say exquisite, language for this sculptural material."

Caruso St John's own loft-like offices are in an unflashy part of east London, a walk away from the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, which the practice updated in 2006. The new entrance to the Museum was coated with an eye-catching mosaic of stonework using quartzite, limestone and porphyry – colourful, original and well suited to this family friendly building.

Looking at buildings like Nottingham and the Museum of Childhood, one can see that Caruso St John are just as heavily influenced by the 19th century Arts & Crafts movement and the decorative grandeur of the Victorian era as by the great Modernists. There is an open minded attitude which brings a wealth of ideas and references to the design table. Nottingham Contemporary itself is reminiscent of the building which first brought Caruso St John to public attention, the New Art Gallery in Walsall, a £21 million project, which – like Nottingham – was secured through an open architectural competition, won in 1995 and completed in the year 2000. Crowned by a tower 100 feet high, clad in terracotta tiles, Walsall is a highly tailored space which created a new focal point for the town.

"What we are really interested in is that the design is appropriate," Caruso says. "Sometimes a building does need to be grand, as in Walsall, where we had to be rhetorical in a way because there was nothing there and no real investment in the place for a hundred years.

"For us, Walsall came at the perfect moment. It was certainly much bigger than anything we'd taken on before but in reality we were exactly ready to do that project at that moment. We had a fantastic client [Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, with Gallery Director Peter Jenkinson] and for us it was a model of how projects can be."

In the years after forming their practice, Caruso St John worked on a series of houses, studios and small projects. But they also took an early decision to teach, initially at the University of North London. This not only encouraged them to question, vocalise and explain their own work and philosophy but provided a modest income which helped subsidise the time invested in entering architectural competitions, such as the Walsall New Art Gallery. Even as the practice has grown, the teaching has continued, with both currently sharing a post in Zurich.

Says Caruso, "The first few jobs we had, like a barn conversion, could have been quite average but we spent a lot of time making them feel special and we were able to do that because we had the teaching going on as well. It was a nexus of things which totally governed what the practice has become.

"What we didn't do was cultivate typical British clients like developers. Lately developers have begun to call us and I'm sure we will have the opportunity to work with them here. But we will be in the slightly stronger position of being known for exactly what we are.'

"Many architectural partnerships have a design leader and someone who is more of a businessman, but Adam and Peter are both very much designers," say Andrew Sedgwick, a Fellow of Arup, who has worked with Caruso St John on Walsall and Nottingham and known them for many years. "What's unusual is that there's this constant dialogue between them about major design issues.

"They can be quite critical of one approach or another but then quickly resolve the way forward and move on to the next thing. Nearly twenty years is a long time to keep such a creative partnership going and is quite unusual. They don't go for enormous gymnastics and weird and wonderful structural forms but some of the effects that are generated are dramatic."

Post-Walsall their art gallery projects have flourished. There has been an ongoing relationship with the Gagosian Gallery, for whom the practice have now designed four projects, including the recent Rome gallery. They have also been appointed by Tate Britain to look after the ongoing refurbishment and updating of their building. Last year they completed a major gallery and studio refurbishment project at Spike Island in Bristol. They also do exhibition design, including Turner & Venice at the Tate in 2004, and a number of shows with artist Thomas Demand, who is also a collaborative partner for an upcoming new public space – Escher Wyss Platz – in Zurich.

More broadly, they have also just designed a £1 million contemporary café pavilion for English Heritage within the grounds of Chiswick House – which is partially classically inspired but with a domed ceiling set inside a pitched roof – as well as working at Downing College, Cambridge. New build or restoration, sensitivity to site is all important.

"A lot of contemporary architecture is dropped on a site and has a sibling in Dubai or Shanghai, maybe by the same office or maybe by another, because it's hard to tell anymore,'" Caruso says. "Globalisation puts enough pressure on everything in society and you don't need to represent it in architecture. That's so facile but that's what's happening. Architects want to work globally, to have global clients, but you can still do site specific projects."

Now Caruso St John are looking at a wider range of projects, including commercial jobs and office buildings. But within every job they place an emphasis on a close relationship with the client involved. These relationships, take time to mature and evolve but are crucial to the end buildings.

"I fundamentally believe that really good projects are hugely reliant on the client and the client's ambition," he continues. "So much contemporary architecture is just about shape making and the brand of the architect, and for a lot of clients that's what they want. We had a reputation for being a bit diffident and demanding to work with, but that's because we want the project to be amazing in a way that will benefit the client. There's no contradiction between our ambitions and theirs."

Caruso St John Architects – – 020 7613 3161.