01 July 2018

MICA Practice Profile, New London Quarterly - Kings of Context

For MICA - the practice that has now been going for six months following a relaunch from Rick Mather Architects - it is a case of business as usual. Only the Camden based outfit is actually doing much more than that. It is going from strength to strength, winning 20 new projects since Mather's death in 2013, building on the practice's delight in context and constraints, and preparing robust and detailed plans for TfL and the Treasury for everything from the best route to take on Crossrail 2 to new garden cities.

I meet the two directors of the now 50-strong practice whose initials make up the new name - Gavin Miller and Stuart Cade - exactly five years to the day since Mather's death. The offices above a Santander bank are a popular idyll from the hustle and bustle of Camden High Street below, with an attractive, sunny and green roof terrace to the rear. But it is clear that beyond Mather's penchant for greenery, a lot of his thinking and beliefs live on in projects such as MICA's work at Centre Point and in Croydon at the Fairfield Halls.

Launching had been part of a long game, says Cade, about which they had been thinking for a few years. Miller adds that they felt they would only consider changing the name if they could prove themselves on their own merit, going on to spend some time in consolidation and winning new work, and, of course, avoiding simply 'trading off Rick, giving him his space, if you like'. The transition, though, has been relatively seamless and clients are readily calling them MlCA without prompting. Then again, around 80 per cent of the practice's work over the last five years is in new projects. 'We always felt there was more we could convey about the office's abilities', says Miller. 'And that's what we've tried to do – what we hope to do - with MICA.'

The new work is a mixture of public and private sector, whereas in the past the majority was in the public, with arts, education and culture to the fore. Working across the spectrum, the practice is working on cultural mixed-use at Croydon with Brick by Brick, to pure landscape projects such as at Lancaster University, where the firm is 'rejuvenating' the campus with six new spaces and replaced canopies in each of its colleges along the university's spine, together with external study space and work on Alexandra Square. 'It's kind of celebrating the history of the Shepheard Epstein campus', says Cade. 'Because it was a much smaller length and it suddenly doubled in length in the mid-eighties. So we're trying to give back some of the character.'

That, in essence, represents much of the practice ethos - about how buildings relate to their external spaces. 'It's a level of care at all scales that we feel typifies our approach', says Miller. At Centre Point, the practice created a masterplan to deal with the building and how it 'readdresses' its setting. It was designed initially as an 'anti-place', says Miller, because Harry Hyams was forced by a condition of building high to 'maroon' a building on an 'island' and road. MICA worked to take traffic out of Centre Point, create a new square and re-orientate it to make the most of the opportunity. This has entailed working with TfL, Crossrail, LB Camden, as well as Almacantar, celebrating the building with new public realm including trees to the area, along with 13 units of well-appointed affordable housing that are already complete. Can I get one of those, I ask? 'That's what everyone says', laughs Miller. Retail units around the floor have been complicated to plan, but they include full-height automated doors which blur the inside with outside.

The relationship they built with Camden to gain consent grew into a wider masterplan for private developer Triangle in Holborn, plus an estate strategy for Camden, and work at Lincoln's Inn Fields, which, taken together, represents a large chunk of mid-town.

Around four years ago, MICA won the competition to masterplan the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn, and out of that the firm is now on site with a three-part scheme for the Great Hall, including a four-storey extension for what is the oldest working library in London. It is also 'hiding' a new double-storey basement for a lecture theatre and 10 advocacy rooms beneath its eastern terrace, with a rooflight to bring in natural light. Again that combines landscaping and the firm's new status as accredited conservation architects.

On the back of that, the firm won a competition at Gray's Inn on High Holborn, aiming to 'restate' its entrance and redevelop the building above, recladding with mosaic tile and reusing what is a rather anonymous office building.

At King's College London they are reworking a triangular site for medical teaching, even reusing a cadaver tunnel and lift, delivering a new building and courtyard, a refurbishment, and creating an elevated garden overlooking the Thames. One of the constraints here was preserving a sight line for a candle to be seen from Lambeth Palace to the Palace of Westminster, which had been to let the Archbishop know that war was coming. This may yet come in handy.

And three years ago they won, through the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) framework competition, one big project to regenerate Fairfield Halls in Croydon. 'It was a really popular local venue but had lost its way over the last 20 years', explains Cade. A mixture of bad programming, poor alterations and just the size of the building had led to its decline after a really rich heyday in the 60s and 70s when everyone performed there. After much debate - including about demolishing the building - the work will add new retail, a new art gallery created from a disused car park, new multi-purpose spaces and, around it, a new college green, a new home for Croydon College and the College of Art, plus a residential development of 218 homes which helps to fund the entire endeavour. This is Brick by Brick, with the concert hall being an almost pure conservation project including the reinstatement of chandeliers and the Ashcroft reinstated as a 'raw' space. The opening is set for March next year, with BH Live appointed as the operator for the theatre, and the new concert hall now able to cope with amplified sound through the addition of new acoustic baffling. 'Hopefully overall it will be a viable and successful venture again.' The grand spaces below will be given over to art, with 2,000 square metres to be used instead of just driven into to park.

The residential element of the scheme also threads back to work MICA did at Chester Balmore in Camden, where it created 53 'stacked' Passivhaus maisonettes - homes for the local authority - around a courtyard. 'Brick by Brick is a really great initiative', says Cade. 'Really bold.'

Elsewhere it has completed a project at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, another competition win to introduce natural light back into a space to preserve the anthropological artefacts inside. The library space has become a local studio space for flexible use, and the scheme reopens this summer.

And then there is the masterplanning work for TfL. Initially MICA worked with TfL on what could be done with Heathrow if the airport went the way of Boris Johnson's wishes - closing, with a new airport in the Thames Estuary. Given, says Miller, there was enough concrete in the ground there to build a road from London to Edinburgh, their attitude was to work with existing runways and infrastructure. They analysed typologies in some detail, with a scheme which was generous in open space but with high-density development, arriving at a projected new town that could comfortably house 250,000 people. The exercise then led to TfL commissioning MICA to do a series of speculative studies - 'London in 15 Years' - which was top secret and involved presentations to the Treasury on Crossrail 2, springing out into other areas. 'We were tasked with finding the best route for it', says Miller, adding that they chose to put infrastructure where it could bring the most uplift, at times challenging controversial elements such as thinking about future policy on things like green-belt policies.

They worked with SDG and Quad planning on this, and the latter's team of marathon runners would often run around areas like Wimbledon to undergo 'site finding' and model how many extra units could be built. Other sensitive studies, some still in discussion for TfL, have looked at the Sutton Tramlink extension and C2C North Kent, with another on how to position where the two Bakerloo line extension stations will go on the Old Kent Road. MICA also looked at suburban densification, identifying classic 1920s Metroland typology and then looking at different planning scenarios on existing and new sites. From this they arrived at a theoretical uplift of 750,000 new homes, some of which they 3D-printed. 'It could be an interesting exhibition', says Miller. 'Guess the place.'

On a similar tack, for the last 10 years the practice has been working on a scheme on greenbelt land in Harlow, which has forced them to think about a response to the issue. Which is? 'It's value the asset, in simple terms', says Miller. 'If you're going to develop on it, you preserve the best parts, celebrate access to it by activating the frontage, and then you preserve in perpetuity the remaining piece.' The scheme has echoes of how Rick Mather first set up office, coming second in a new town competition in Finland before doing house extensions and building up from there.

But the way Harlow was ultimately unlocked was by preparing a study that said, effectively, 'if you don't want 10,000 homes on this land, we'll show it in all your villages', Miller adds. 'That really unlocked it. That scared them.' The council are endorsing it in principle and the Places for People scheme – currently called Gilston - is now in for planning. And then there is the practice's work in Barking, which is about integrating housing and employment, in many cases 'celebrating' the particular employment use, and more of the traditional Rick Mather Architects type work with Oxford University, where it is designing a new college quad for Keble, and an underground library for Queen's College that's up for an RIBA award. There's a new ballet school for Rambert in Twickenham, a hotel in the Highlands and a boarding house for sixth-form pupils at Stowe School. Finally, MICA is working at Hay-on-Wye, adding a new platform to the medieval tower giving vantage points across the valley, a new art gallery and new sharp, crisp interior to the burnt-out Jacobean mansion.

Rick Mather always used to talk about giving something to the street, and MICA is clearly progressing this central idea. 'We do take issues of siting and orientation very carefully', says Miller. 'We've never really done object buildings and always think of buildings as a mini masterplan and how that can enable things around it.' That runs all the way through to detailing, and the practice prides itself on 'efficiency' and getting more into its sites, giving to its setting, and being 'uplifting' at the same time. Cade agrees. 'I think we love context, whether it's historical context or a tricky building to work with, or a particular history. We love the idea of working with something; what to keep and not to keep. A puzzle, and then working solutions, and then keep working things, and that runs down to details as well.' They're nimble, they say, and fixers too, having a history of coming in to try and succeed where others have failed - Centre Point being a good example.

'Ultimately', says Miller, 'that's about rigorous analysis, parameters and constraints, and using them as a positive.'

By David Taylor

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