New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Trevor Morriss, Principal, SPPARC

Tuesday 19 July 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Trevor Morriss

Principal
SPPARC

David Taylor catches up with SPPARC’s Trevor Morriss to delve into the firm’s project ‘stories’, its name and history, and not being shy about creativity. Oh, and completing his first building at the age of 17…

 
David Taylor  
Good morning, Trevor. How are you?
 
Trevor Morriss  
I'm good, very good, thank you. I'm enjoying this fantastic warmer weather.
 
David Taylor  
I wanted to firstly ask you, for people who don't know SPPARC, can you explain firstly the acronym and also briefly outline your general ethos? It is Stanley Peach and Partners, isn't it? Is that where it comes from?
 
Trevor Morriss  
We're an evolution of Stanley Peach and Partners. I was a partner of Stanley Peach from 2002 to 2007, which very much had a before I joined, in government work. I was brought in to look at a slightly different dynamic in terms of architecture and the building topology. And out of Stanley Peach and Partners grew SPPARC as a brand in its own right. SPP back in the day evolved into SPPARC in its own right and its own entity. In fact, there was a demerger from Stanley Peach back in 2007, so it is a completely separate entity, although we’re very, very proud of the history and outstanding heritage of Stanley Peach, which goes back 130 odd years. And indeed, one of their most famous buildings was the Centre Court at Wimbledon, which has just celebrated its 100 Year anniversary.
 
David Taylor
It's interesting, isn't it, that there are quite a few acronym practices. You know, I recently spoke to RSHP, formerly Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. And of course, there's AHMM, and many others. It's a way, I suppose, of mystifying and opening it up to making it clear that it's a team effort, right? You can sort of hide behind an acronym, in a way?
 
 
Trevor Morriss  
That's exactly right. And certainly, when I started the practice, it just didn't feel right when it was just about an individual. Architecture is very much a team effort and collaboration is at the heart of what we certainly do as a practice. And actually, SPPARC can be a number of things. SPPARC's origins come from Stanley Peach, but people often come to us and say: “you need to put the spark into something”. Spelt differently, of course, but it actually works really, really well for us. So that kind of mystery around it is something which we actually kind of rather enjoy. And it's often spelled incorrectly as well. But again, that doesn't offend us too much, either! (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) There is another mystery that has come to my attention on your website - i was scooting around it and there's a line on it about your own particular career, and it sort of trails off without any explanation. I wondered if you could unpack it? It says that you've always taken an unconventional approach to your architectural career, which began at the age of 17, when you had the opportunity to design your first building in Shad, Thames, London. And then nothing else. Can you unpack? Can you explain that?
 
 
Trevor Morriss  
Yes. I wanted to be an architect since I was four years old; always wants to be an architect. It's been in my blood since a very early age.
 
David Taylor  
Four? Since four?
 
 
Trevor Morriss  
Since I was four - I was drawing, sketching, designing. And they always seemed to be buildings rather than people, people kind of looking at the sky with trees, waiting to be at our building. So architecture was something which fascinated me from an incredibly early age. And I guess since an early age, I was on that path on wanting to become an architect. And at the age of 17, I had an opportunity to work in an architect's office. I will say it's a fairly lowly kind of start. I started, going back to the late 80s, as a print boy. So I started running dye line prints on  an hourly basis, in the heady days of the late 80s. But after work, I used to sit down and do what the guys were working on, and kind of come up with my own sketches. And once, before leaving, I left my sketches out - not on purpose at all, I must have been rushing for a train. The next morning, one of the senior partners came in and said, who did this? And one of the other architects said: ‘oh, that was Trevor’, and I was called in to the senior partner’s office. Could I come in and explain this? Can I explain my sketch?  talked him through it and he said: that's probably better than what we were doing. Get yourself off the print machine, and you can start working on this. 
 
David Taylor  
Fantastic!
 
Trevor Morriss  
And I did a warehouse conversion on Shad Thames at the age of 17. It got built, got delivered, and it's still there. And I still will walk pass it with a lot of pride. we do a lot of work in Southwark Actually, so me working in Southwark always kind of feels like it's a bit of a homecoming from those early days.
 
David Taylor  
Wow! And, just going to your timeline as a practice, you were formed in 2007, which I think surprises you that it's so long, 15 years, you're celebrating as an anniversary? What do you think you've learned in that time? What are the key milestones as well?
 

Trevor Morriss  
I think the reason I'm so surprised that it is 15 years is because I guess I enjoy it so much. And therefore, time does fly, as the saying goes. But also, I think we're still in our infancy, really. The first generation of our buildings has completed; I now feel like we are on our second generation and third generation of buildings, I still feel that it's early days as a practice. I think there's a long way for us to go and to grow. And grow doesn't necessarily mean in numbers of bodies in the studio; it's actually just talking and growing in terms of our portfolio and the work in which we're delivering. In terms of lessons learned, I think we're learning every single day aren't we? I mean, I think the minute you start thinking that you're learning then it's probably time to stop doing it. But I think for me, it's always about the joyfulness that architecture should bring. And it amazes me often how, how grey a brief can be, how grey the response can be. And what I have learned is if you do bring some humour, some colour, it's amazing actually how well people respond to that. So I'm learning not to be shy about creativity. You know, let's ensure that creativity really flourishes in architecture and the default position isn't always the right position. And sometimes it's nice to just kind of push those boundaries slightly, whilst having a very mindful eye on context. I think some of our buildings really do that. Our Borough Yards scheme, for example, is absolutely informed by history and by context, but I think there's a real playfulness about it as well.
 
David Taylor  
I also noticed that you have a good gender split within your practice - 55% women, 45% men - and I noticed 15% ‘Lucys’ versus 85% other names, which is very amusing (laughs). On the first point, how do you do that? Is it an active mission? And what is the effect of that ratio, would you say? And on the second point, could you explain the story of the Lucys – just random?
 
Trevor Morriss  
We are a practice which believes in opportunities for everyone. And I think that's coming from my background of building a building at 17. (laughs) That's a fairly unusual way to get into architecture, so we are long-term believers in giving opportunities to absolutely everybody. So, an open mind is the answer. Also, there wasn't this kind of conscious decision. It's actually about employing the best talent, and also retaining the best talent.  I think that's hugely important. We have an incredibly low turnover within our team; people stay for a long time, which for me, is actually one of our greatest triumphs, actually. We have a really good team spirit and camaraderie within the practice, which I think really, really important. And so that split between male and female has been incredibly organic, actually, rather than being preconceived, and also we have a very international team. We have members from all over the world. And I think it's that kind of mix and that kind of variety, which is inspirational, actually. It also means that we are able to draw on lots of different influences. And you know, I think that helps to ensure that there's a real dynamic within the office.
David Taylor  
We featured your work about Olympia fairly extensively, recently. What other projects are you working on? I notice you call them stories, which is quite an interesting phraseology, which to me suggests you recognize that they are many-handed and there are lots of stakeholders involved. Am I right to make that assumption?
 
Trevor Morriss  
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And we do call them stories on absolute purpose. We feel that the first few months of any commission, our role as architect is actually we almost become detectives; what we're actually doing is sniffing out all the clues on what the response should be. So if that's a contextual response, if it's a community response, piecing together bits of history. And our schemes are very much informed through each of these three things; they are very much informed through community and history and context. I think that also ensures that we don't have this house style. So, every SPPARC building has a very, very different visual aesthetic. And that isn't just to kind of rip it up and start again, it's actually every site. And every topology is slightly different. So, these kinds of stories are actually about the journey of where the scheme starts, right at the very, very beginning, to where it goes. And every project does have an amazing story to it. I think it's really important that is something I think we should weave through the architecture but tells some of that story.
 
David Taylor  
And of the stories that you're sniffing out and extending at the moment, which is the one you're spending most time on, and what's the most interesting of those others?
 
Trevor Morriss  
We're hugely fortunate that we have got a fantastic portfolio of work. And it is probably wrong for me to single one out. But I kind of will! (laughs) What am I doing today, David? Maybe that's the best way to look at it. What's on my desk as we speak? We're working on a fascinating project on Shaftesbury Avenue, which is the old Saville theatre, which has been an Odeon Cinema for a number of years, maybe 20, 30 years. But the Saville Theatre was a 1931 Art Deco Grade II listed building. In the 60s, it was owned by Brian Epstein, of Beatles manager fame. And major things happened in this building; it's where Jimi Hendrix played Sergeant Pepper back to the Beatles a couple of days after it was released…
 
David Taylor  
Wow!
 
Trevor Morriss  
…It was where The Who really had their formative years. So it has this amazing musical legacy. And our role there is extraordinary. We are rewinding the clock and creating a new purpose-built theatre build back within the envelope of the Grade II listed building. And then cohabiting complementary uses with it. So that's on my drawing board today. And that's incredibly exciting. But we have a really varied portfolio within the studio at the moment across a number of different sectors also working on Chatham Docks, and coming up with a very sustainable industrial project, which focuses around the river; the last non-tidal dock in the south. It's a working dock at the moment and we're looking at these kind of strategies of how to increase employment opportunity there. So, it is a really kind of varied portfolio of work
 
David Taylor  
Well, I'd better let you get back to all this. It sounds like a lot of work. So, thank you very much for outlining the work of the practice and your many Lucys’ involvements, as well
 
Trevor Morriss  
Oh yeah, I didn't touch on the Lucys!
 
David Taylor  
How did that happen? 
 
Trevor Morriss  
it evolved! It turned out that if we ratioed the number of team members to those who are called Lucy, there are 15% Lucys in the practice
 
David Taylor  
How many is that?
 
Trevor Morriss  
We have around five Lucys. 
 
David Taylor  
Wow. Wow. Generational thing, okay. Thank you very much for talking to me; that's really fascinating
 
Trevor Morriss  
You're more than welcome. Enjoy the rest of your day
 
David Taylor  
And you, bye.


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Trevor Morriss

Principal
SPPARC



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