In a world where architects are revered as rock stars and the industry has become globally fashionable, keen to shout about its achievements, Mike Stiff is a quiet man. Stiff + Trevillion was established more than 30 years ago at a time when architects were part of the construction world, and when to be known for creating great buildings was the best accolade you could receive. It certainly wasn’t done to broadcast your achievements to a wider world. In the calm of the firm’s offices in Notting Hill, it’s still the same. Indeed Andy Trevillion is quieter still, declining to be interviewed as he prefers to stay out of the limelight. What has changed, though, is that Stiff + Trevillion has clocked up over 2,000 projects in the past three decades and built some incredibly fine buildings. The team has swelled from two determined graduate architects in 1981 to over 40 people. There is also a book, a very good book, telling the story of the practice and its ethos. But rather than have it touted around PRs and journalists, it’s a tome shown to clients and staff, we suspect to remind everyone of all of the projects the company has completed. With so many under their belt, it must be difficult to keep track of their achievements. We endeavoured to do just that and took a few minutes to catch up with one of the firm’s founding partners…
Mike, what made you want to be an architect?
My dad was an architect but strangely enough he didn’t want me to be one. I was passionate about drawing and painting and used it as a way to communicate. When this was coupled with an eagerness to understand how cities worked, architecture seemed a natural path.
You established your business fresh out of university. Was that easier to do back then?
No! When we graduated back in the 1980s there were few decent employment options as the construction industry was smack in the middle of recession. So we thought we would try our hand at creating our own practice which would give us time and space for free thinking and consideration. In fact it was a baptism by fire – we needed to work and every job had to be important because we needed the fees, but we also had to show what we could do. We learned very quickly to make informed decisions about what we were doing and how we were going to do it. I don’t think working for anyone else could have put us under that kind of pressure and seen us succeed.
We are always told that London’s skyline is one of the most impressive in the world. How do you see this changing?
It’s an exciting time for architecture and there is a general feeling that we’re on the point of change. Industrial sites have all but moved out of central areas, new railway lines are coming, more people are on bikes, sustainability is key and the whole community is more international. It all adds up to a very different way of life in London. There are also still relatively untapped areas and I think we’ll see a lot of change in places like Battersea and Vauxhall over the coming years. London is great at reinventing itself.
You have won many accolades and been shortlisted yet again for a RIBA award, this time for 1 Valentine Place, on Blackfriars Road. How important are awards to architects?
Awards are important if they come from a quantifiable body. They are great for clients and great for peer recognition but ultimately the best accolade is seeing someone’s professional or personal lifestyle shine through because of a building you’ve created.
Stiff + Trevillion only created its first residential home two years ago. How did you apply 30 years of commercial practice to this project?
We had done residential refurbishments before but this was a complete newbuild. Mayfly Cottage, as it is known, belongs to friends of mine and so they were pretty open-minded when it came to embracing ideas. They did have definite ideas about sustainability, though, and so we started with a green oak frame and added materials that were designed and sourced locally alongside energy-saving features that were built into the property. The surrounding architecture was all period, including a 13th-century church, and so our challenge was to make something contemporary that was observant of its neighbours without being pastiche. The end result is a beautifully understated building that is tactile and welcoming, just what a home should be.
Most architects talk of a legacy project. What would yours be?
I think 10 Pentonville Road is our legacy project. We have managed to create a new focal point for that street, which was underlined recently when I was in a cab and was asked where I wanted to be dropped off. The cabbie pointed out ‘that grey building’ as being the focal point of Pentonville Road, which was great. It already has its sense of place and prominence, which is the best you can hope for.
What does the future hold for Stiff + Trevillion?
We are now a team of 40 plus additional associates, which by all standards makes us a reasonably sized company – much bigger than we ever intended. Our team is very family focused and lots of the staff are related, which means that outside work we all get along and share similar ideas, likes and dislikes. It’s pretty harmonious. We are lucky that the work keeps coming and now we face a crossroads where we have to protect what we have or expand and become a big company.
Is there a building you wish you’d designed or hope to design?
For me personally it would have to be a public building. That isn’t to say that a lot of the buildings we have done are not regularly used by the public, but a destination building such as a library or gallery would be a real landmark project – somewhere that people go as much to absorb the surroundings as to use the facilities inside.
What does your local area mean to you?
Everything. I have lived on the same patch of Portobello Road for the past 30 years and know exactly where everything is on my doorstep. I cycle to work past shops, cafés and pubs that have been here for years and can rest assured that my favourites are well supported and will be around for a long time to come. Equally, I cycle past a huge area that we helped to regenerate to an office that used to be something else, so change is also all around me. Over the years we have used the galleries, museums, theatres, parks, restaurants and cafés and the fact that they keep changing means that there is always something new to see. It’s a great part of London to live and work in.
What would you tell your young self if you could roll back the clock?
Go for it. Take those chances because if you don’t, your career may take a very different path. But also stay true to what you are. You’re an architect and you have a duty to create great buildings that people will want to see, work in, live in and spend leisure time in. You’re an important spoke in the wheel and that wheel must keep turning.
Stiff + Trevillion: Practising Architecture by Mark Dudek is published by Artifice and available to purchase through the Stiff + Trevillion website.
Inside Design with Stiff + Trevillion is at Great Western Studios from 12 - 27 June 2014; greatwesternstudios.com
Discover more about Stiff + Trevillion on the Domus Nova Architect Guide.
Stiff + Trevillion Architects, 16 Woodfield Road, London W9; stiffandtrevillion.com