Surface Architects has many things going for it. One is fortuitous timing. The firm has been busy during a period when England's central government has sanctioned the funding of new buildings for university campuses around the country. Accolades have brought the team into the public eye. It was recently added to the U.K.'s "40 Under 40" list, which is an awards program for young architects. However, forgoing all the hype that surrounds graduate-school theory-speak and appearances in tabloid party pages, this young practice, led by its directors Richard Scott and Andy MacFee, concentrates on creating engaging architecture. Scott, who studied architecture at both The Bartlett at University College London and SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, caught his first big break with Andrew Zago, a professor from his years in Los Angeles. At the time, Zago was a visiting professor at Cornell University and asked Scott to join him when he was given an in-house commission to build a design studio for the Aerospace Engineering Department. The project called for a workspace that emphasized synergy and creativity in mechanical design. Scott recalls, "It was by far the most interesting and groundbreaking project I'd been involved with up to that point."
After returning to London and joining Alsop Architects, Scott formed a collaborative -- which he called Surface -- in 1996 with fellow architect Kristen Whittle. Since both Scott and Whittle had attended SCI-Arc, they found themselves asking ever more theoretical questions regarding architecture. The pair decided to bring on board the services of philosopher Jeremy Weate. "It was pragmatic to engage the services of a philosopher," explains Scott. "With all our questions, Whittle and I were more and more tied in knots. We educated him in architecture and he educated us in phenomenology." This would prove to be a wise decision -- their initial project won first prize in a Japanese residential design competition.
In 1999, after a year teaching a course on theory and history with Weate and three years at Alsop, Scott decided to focus on Surface Architects. In the firm's new incarnation, Scott states, "I did not want to be a career academic, so I wanted this to be about opportunities that can be manifested in built architecture." For the first two-and-a-half years, Scott worked on modest projects. He got his first large commission and attention from the press when he won (with the help of Weate's philosophical counsel) a competition to fit-out the London headquarters of Razorfish, the once monolithic but now defunct Internet design company.
With this newfound recognition and a growing project list and staff, Scott approached MacFee, a schoolmate and ex-coworker, to join the firm in 2001. "At Alsop, MacFee had an expertise in turning radical proposals into well-built buildings," says Scott. "It's transformed the opportunities of this practice, by our being able to offer our clients really crisp service and prove that we can transform drawings into viable projects."