From the design of art galleries around the world and inspiring open offices, architect firm Matheson Whiteley has quite a roster of projects under its belt. Donald Matheson and Jason Whiteley launched their practice in 2012 and have already created a leading brand.
Donald Matheson talks to us about marrying the old with the new, what will influence tomorrow’s workspaces and why collaboration will lead the building industry to new heights.
What is the focus of Matheson Whiteley?
A lot of our interests come from Jason and my combined experience, our training as young architects. We met at Herzog & de Meuron, working on projects such as the extension to the Tate Modern. Herzog & de Meuron is one of architecture’s leading design voices and they gave us a sense of what we could achieve. They don’t have a house style as such; their work is a response to the realities of a project and brief.
We have adopted the same focus at Matheson Whiteley. We listen to clients and try to bring a sense of professionalism, keeping in mind the realities posed by cost and design limitations without letting them bring the project down. Instead, we use limitations to introduce a quality that a client might not have developed themselves.
Who are your clients?
We’ve been working with some great clients in largely three areas. Firstly, we were lucky early on to get involved in workplace design. In 2013 we worked with Ogilvy & Mather to design their new workspace at Sea Containers House for ten media companies, which was a big project for us. It was a collaboration with BDG the workplace specialists.
The client was up for something really architectural and permanent, to create an exciting space. The collaboration with BDG worked very well, it meant that while they focused on requirements such as the briefing and space planning and we could focus on the design and detail of the architectural interventions.
The second area is our work in the arts, with galleries and artists, influenced by my experience working at Tony Fretton Architects, while the third is residential. People often approach us with their projects following a commercial project.
How has the architecture of workspaces changed since you became an architect?
Compared to a few years ago, clients today are far more interested in architecture in its purest from. They want to create buildings with permanence rather than introduce a lightweight design. There is a real attraction to reusing the great qualities that already exist in a building.
Take the recent project we did for the branding agency North in Clerkenwell. They took on a long, tall room as their workspace and wanted to keep the sense of openness that it provided. They really challenged themselves in terms of their space requirements and decided not to have any enclosed meeting rooms. It’s a project with no doors – one space flows into another with simple, architectural space dividers. Projects such as this rely on a client taking a leap of faith that the design will work in practice.
Are other types of buildings impacting workspace design?
Absolutely. People are finding other places to work, rather than behind a desk and a computer, such as restaurants and cafes. We’ve introduced influences from these into workspaces, for example creating more open spaces at Sea Containers Houses, which has been very welcome and successful.
Clients in the creative industry put a lot of emphasis on creating a relaxed environment that stimulates people as a means to attract employees. Spaces are taking on different uses all the time. Ogilvy & Mather introduced a particularly wide staircase, for example, which has come to act as an auditorium for presentations, relaxed meetings and so on. These types of social activities are proven to be extremely valuable in how we exchange ideas.
What are you currently working on?
Quite a variety of projects. We recently won a competition to design a ground floor showroom for Alexander McQueen’s new headquarters in Clerkenwell. This gallery space will be a backdrop for all the brand’s work.
We’ve recently completed a great project on Haymarket in the West End to give a 1960s building a new lease of life. It was more about removing the additions of the last few decades, stripping it back to show the quality of the building beneath.
We’re also working on a project for an art gallery in Stuttgart to create a café space that will appeal to the people locally and bring them closer to the work of the gallery. We’re looking at what really lies behind the success of classic European cafes, how what is often an unplanned atmosphere can attract people to a space.
Is there a building or area of London that particularly inspires you?
The stretch of Regent’s Canal leading from the bottom of Kingsland Road in Hackney towards Victoria Park. There is such a combination of businesses, people and life all knitted together.
It’s amazing how London’s waterways have evolved and endured since they were created. The canals were built for industry. Today the buildings alongside them often house manufacturing alongside people working. Manufacturing still depends on the creativity and skill that talented people can bring. How can we humanise very large buildings and make them pleasant places to work that benefit the community? This is forming an interesting project that Jason and I now teach at Kingston School of Art.
What do you see for the future of workplace design?
The focus on human beings will continue. Design will be about how a workspace supports the balance between working and doing what makes us happy. Spaces will be more stripped back and robust, to create new uses.
These trends will be supported more and more by technology, which is really exciting. For example, in the new Tate Modern there is a highly intelligent distribution of power and lighting to give the performance spaces real flexibility. This is great in a cultural space and I can’t see why this won’t translate into workspaces.
The White Collar Factory is another great example of technology. The designers have reduced energy consumption through a state-of-the-art cooling system. This was made possible through collaboration between different elements of the building industry, and we’ll see more of this in the future. Engineers are becoming much more involved with designers and they are learning from each other’s expertise. This is what it takes to make projects such as this happen.