by Almas SadiqueFeb 23, 2023
"Every project starts with a conversation." This seemingly simple yet profound statement underscores the ethos of Corstorphine and Wright, an architectural practice that is not content with the ordinary. Their innovative approach consistently pushes the boundaries of traditional architecture while maintaining a deep understanding of how their developments impact communities. Ranked at 14th position in the esteemed AJ100, Corstorphine and Wright is known for its ability to create intelligently-designed spaces that go beyond functionality, invigorating communities and maximising long-term civic and commercial value.
What sets this practice apart is their deep understanding of the intricacies of diverse projects across various sectors and locations. This knowledge empowers them to deliver practical and effective solutions that align with their client’s goals, ensuring the success of each endeavour. Their ability to infuse spaces with that elusive “must-have” quality is a result of their blend of creativity, innovation and an intimate understanding of the distinctive context inherent to each project. With a robust team of 250+ experts spanning over 10 studios across the United Kingdom, Corstorphine & Wright consistently showcases their artistry through a diverse portfolio of transformative projects, whether it’s the conversion of shopping malls into cutting-edge life sciences hubs or the resurrection of historical bunkers into opulent holiday homes.
At the heart of their work lies a profound respect for humanity. The practice possesses a unique ability to create places with a magnetic quality, places that pull people in and forge emotional connections. Their commission to design the Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease in Leeds was not merely a project; it was a call to embrace empathy and human-centric design. This centre envisions a sanctuary where nature and gardens harmonise with clinical spaces—a place where families can find solace and togetherness during the challenging journey of care.
Sustainability isn’t an afterthought for this architectural practice, it is a guiding principle that recently earned them a prestigious nomination—the Sustainable Project of the year at the Insider South West Property Awards. The Dorset Police Headquarters project showcases the practice’s ability to create secure and sustainable spaces. Designed to meet the BREEAM 'Very Good' standard, the HQ incorporates features like air source, heat pumps, and photovoltaic panels for solar energy generation, making it a model for modern policing facilities.
Moreover, the London team's focus on the life sciences sector illustrates the practice’s ability to transform existing assets into state-of-the art ecosystems. Their design proposal for the Grafton Centre in Cambridge is a prime example. Originally a shopping mall, it has been reimagined as a hub for innovative start- ups and scientific enterprises. The project retains and repurposes existing spaces making room for modern development, showcasing Corstorphine & Wright's dedication to shaping urban facilities for the future.
Going above and beyond conventional boundaries, the practice’s recent undertaking, in partnership with LXAProjects, focuses on the redesign of the Vietnamese Embassy and Consulate in London. This initiative embodies their commitment to fostering international connections and solidifying bonds.
Their latest completed residential project, and perhaps one of the most captivating in their portfolio, is the transformation of a World War II bunker into a lavish holiday home. This Grade II listed bunker, part of the ‘Chain Home’ radar system during the Second World War, was repurposed while retaining its original aesthetic and historic layout. The architects managed to incorporate a “bomb blast” opening, allowing natural light and breathtaking sea views, while keeping the bunker submerged in its landscape.
Exploring the philosophy and methodology of Corstorphine & Wright, architect and director Jonny Plant shares his insights in a conversation with STIR. Highlighting the completion of the Bunker House project, he provides a glimpse into the practice’s values, emphasising their dedication to heritage preservation, blending the past with modern design aesthetics and the collaborative spirit that drives their projects.
Aarthi Mohan: Can you share the initial inspiration behind transforming this WW2 bunker into a holiday home, and what drew the client to this idea?
Jonny Plant: Our client wished to bring the bunkers back into use and to celebrate their previous purpose. The bunkers have sat on the farm for many years slowly being taken overgrown by nature. Our client wanted the public to be aware of the bunkers and to be able to visit them. Converting them to holiday homes allows the public to experience the bunkers whilst also being commercially viable as part of a farm diversification project.
Aarthi: The brief of this project was to celebrate the historical significance of the bunker while making it habitable and commercially viable. Can you describe the design approach that helped achieve this balance?
Jonny: The significant reason behind the commercial viability of the scheme is the long-term investment and that the bunker will remain part of the farm in perpetuity. The design approach to ensure that this was a desirable place to stay (and would then be fully booked) was two-fold. One to ensure that you were always aware you are inhabiting a bunker by expressing all of the original features, especially the simple raw concrete construction and two, optimising the view and light that opening up the south elevation could achieve with views over the coast.
Aarthi: How did the Grade II listing of the bunker impact your design process, and how did you work with conservation officers and heritage consultants to address this challenge?
Jonny: It didn’t particularly. We approached the design from the very outset by wanting to tell the story of the bunker by expressing the original fabric. The building was listed during the planning application when the conservation officer became aware of the buildings and their significance. We worked hand in hand with the conservation officer to agree to some of the finer details.
Aarthi: Maintaining the original fabric and ‘feel’ of the space was a priority. Can you discuss some of the strategies or techniques you used to preserve the historic integrity of the bunker’s interior?
Jonny: The overriding objective was to express the plan form as originally built and retain the original concrete construction including any ‘scars’ of where previous fixtures and fittings were placed. All intended to tell the story of its original use. This was achieved by stripping back externally the original concrete box, waterproofing and insulating externally and then carefully reinstating the landscape with carefully chosen native planting.
Aarthi: How has the transformation of the bunker impacted the surrounding environment, particularly with the banked earth walls and new habitat for wildlife?
Jonny: The intervention was designed as much as possible to have a minimum impact on the surrounding environment and biodiversity. Whilst the landscaping needed to be reinstated, it was done in such a way as to match what was there previously (bar for the southern façade opening). Other measures were taken, such as employing a specific seeding mix to match the native plants already on the site. In most areas, the planting has been allowed to grow wildly as previously apart from some mowing in specific areas.
Aarthi: Could you share some insights into your design philosophy at Corstorphine & Wright when it comes to blending modern design elements with historic structures to create a cohesive and functional space?
Jonny: We use context to ground the design of our buildings. By ensuring that our work responds to the historic and physical context of our buildings and sites and the people we are designing for, our buildings are rooted in the narrative they tell. When working with historic buildings, the modern interventions we apply (where appropriate) will be successful if they respond to that narrative.
Aarthi: As architects, how do you see the transformation of historical structures like bunkers contributing to the broader architectural discourse, especially in terms of adaptive reuse and preservation of heritage?
Jonny: Our starting point when working with any existing building is retention. We are committed to the principles of the circular economy and wherever possible we design for re-use and disassembly. Only where there is no viable use for an existing structure, will we consider its demolition. We are as committed to the embodied carbon in our buildings as the operational carbon.
Aarthi: Collaborating with Symmetry on this unique project was crucial. Can you share your thoughts on the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in architecture and design?
Jonny: It was vital to have the right structural engineer for the project. They had a deep understanding of not only what we were trying to achieve with the design but also why. It was thanks to them that all of the structural interventions that were needed such as the structural solution to ‘hang’ the blast opening, could be seamlessly hidden.
Aarthi: Looking ahead, are there other unconventional or historically significant structures you are eager to transform into functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces?
Jonny: We are currently developing the second, much larger, bunker on the farm. This will employ many of the principles learned on the first bunker, with a few improvements along the way. We have always worked with historic buildings and have several others on the drawing board. We are always looking for more.
In the unassuming yet significant projects they undertake, Corstorphine & Wright have carved a niche where architecture is not just about buildings but also about the connections they foster, the communities they support and the sustainable future they envision. Balancing practicality with artistic dedication, they remain committed to crafting a world where architectural excellence meets human excellence.