We won the Young Architect of the Year award and the next thing we heard from Michael Gove is that the government is not going to use any award-winning architects anymore," says Christopher Lee. "Thanks a lot!"
Founded in 2007 by Lee and Kapil Gupta, Serie Architects has a small office in a former factory building in Islington, a room at the end of a long corridor shared with TV companies, graphic designers and NGOs. The influential practice already has a global reach, with satellite offices in Mumbai, Beijing and Chengdu, and commissions in India, China, eastern Europe and the USA, much of it at an ambitious scale. Lee suggests that this internationalism is a reflection of the founders' rich heritage: "I was born in Malaysia, of Chinese origin, a British citizen, living in London. My partner, Kapil Gupta, is Indian, based in Mumbai."
Lee and Gupta met as students at the Architectural Association, where Lee is now co-director of the projective cities programme (he is also doing a PhD at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam), and are theorists as well as practitioners. Unlike many graduates of the AA, they did not embrace Zaha Hadid's digital determinism. "We don't celebrate the computer," Lee scolds me when I congratulate one of his employees on their digital wizardry. "Why should architecture exist because the computer can do it?" They propose instead a more disciplined, less showy working method that builds on architecture's disciplinary knowledge: the revival of the idea of type and typology as a design method – the search for a universal grammar underlying architecture. It is less a manifesto than a call to first principles.
Their talk and literature is peppered with references to the 19th-century architectural theorist Quatremère de Quincy, who tried to define a vocabulary of architectural elements in his Dictionnaire Historique de l'Architecture (1833), and 1960s enthusiasts of typology such as Aldo Rossi, who hoped to discover "the immovable elements of architecture" in the palimpsest of the city. Lee is critical of the "exotic formal experiments of the past 15 years", where "every swoosh and whoosh is justified as being superior to the types it displaces". He quotes de Quincy: "[Invention] does not exist outside rules; for there would be no way to judge invention."
credit Fram Petit
Lee and Gupta do not look to the past just to copy from it, or merely for inspiration. They believe in interrogating the "deep structures" graphically reducable to diagrams, evident in different types of architecture. They work through these precedents and propose original forms. "There is an identification of the deep structure [the courtyard, the vault] and from then on the deep structure produces the project," Lee explains of their procedural rules. "The project could be different things or have different outcomes, but what is important for us is the rigour with which the deep structure is treated. It is not based on free-form composition or gestural composition but it uses very simple things like symmetry, repetition, mirroring, translation and so on. So it's quite old-fashioned in that sense."
This is not to say that Serie produces dull or nostalgic architecture. Though the practice is about to break ground on three continents, and is moving into a different architectural league, it has completed only two small but striking projects, both of them in Mumbai: the Blue Frog Acoustic Lounge (2006-7), a Tron-like nightclub with a series of cylindrical booths cut into an undulating raked stage of backlit acrylic resin; and the Tote (2007-9), a luxurious restaurant whose elegant, branching white columns seem to hark back to Abbé Laugier's ideas about the origins of architecture in the primitive hut (Lee compares the vaulted space, with its elaborate tracery, to gothic cathedrals but it's more theatrical than lofty). This is architecture as entertainment.
Distancing their philosophy from parametricism, Lee aligns Serie's work with a different "British sensibility ... a modernism that is more attuned to craft or materiality," citing architects like Caruso St John, David Chipperfield and Tony Fretton. It is fitting then that its London office is crammed not with digital renders but exquisite hand-crafted models that have just returned from the AA, where a touring exhibition of the practice's work has just closed.
On the floor is the Xi'an Horticultural Masterplan (2009), for which Serie suggested a 1km-long bridge that would echo Xi'an's historic city wall and house five vaulted greenhouses, creating a new axis and focal point for the splintering urban plan. On a bookshelf is the practice's proposal for Parcel 9 (2008), part of MAD's architectural showcase in the mountainous region of Guizhou, a volcano-like structure whose three peaks are perforated with clusters of courtyards like an emmental cheese. On a table is its conversion of the Xin Tian Di Factory H (due in 2013), an industrial relic in Hangzhou that it has started to restore – it will be gutted, filled with three circular volumes and surrounded by an undulating punctured plinth covered in grass.
In the monograph that accompanies their AA show, Working In Series, Lee and Gupta divide their oeuvre according to the deep structures that guide each project: ceiling/vaults (this page), plan/circles (see previous spread), and facade/grids. All their work, as they are keen to assert, from nightclubs to masterplans, shares an intrinsic logic: the interrogation of "deep structure". Lee and Gupta believe that their methodology, with its common grammar, helps them to develop projects simultaneously from the two continents that divide their practice.
When I visit the London office, eight employees are hunched over their Apple computers in Zen-like silence, manipulating renders for the Hangzhou Gen Bei district masterplan competition. Serie has proposed tightly packed clusters of tower blocks in lush gardens that are encircled by four-storey shops and offices to create "islands of exacerbated difference" within the city. Other commissions include a meditation hall with a capacity of 15,000 for the Jain Ashram in Dharampur, which is raised on a high plateau like the Parthenon; a performance space for the Maximum India exhibition at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, unified by a rippling hanging carpet made up of thousands of suspended threads; and a second Blue Frog lounge in New Delhi. When the London office is asleep, Mumbai picks up the baton.
Serie has not yet built anything in the UK, and I ask Lee why it felt compelled to maintain an office here, when the opportunities are so obviously much greater in the booming east. "I think that, whatever we say about the UK with regards to its conservative nature in building, in terms of the production of architecture it is still one of the best, at the forefront of architectural thinking," Lee replies. "I think there's a big difference between the UK as a place to produce architecture and the UK as a place where architecture is built. You see a lot of very good firms working here that build overseas first."
Winning Young Architect of the Year has raised Serie's domestic profile and it was recently invited to submit a competition entry for a small project in west London. "It's a toilet block in Avondale Park," Lee laughs, pointing towards a render of an elegant amenity with two courtyards, one open to the green and the other internal, featuring a secret garden with a cherry tree in full blossom.
I remark that it is typical of the British mistrust of architects that, while Serie is invited to rethink cities in Asia, all we can offer is the opportunity to design a public lavatory. "We're not complaining," Lee says. "There are two or three other entries, and we'll find out at the end of the week if we even get it." Unfortunately, it lost the competition – we will have to wait a little longer for Serie to build one of its deep structural experiments here.
credit Fram Petit