From the 2014 Stirling Prize-winning Everyman Theatre in Liverpool to being shortlisted for the AJ’s Emerging Woman Architect of the Year 2015, Katy Marks is fast making a name for herself with her new practice and her particular approach to architecture.
If you had to sum up Katy Mark’s approach to architecture in three words, a good place to start might be “community”, “collaboration” and “conversation” – you could tag on “cultural buildings” and “co-working” as well if you wanted to be contrived. Each of these was strongly in evidence on the chilly December morning onoffice met up with Marks at the Hackney Downs Studios, where her practice, Citizens Design Bureau, is based.
The site – which she calls “a former crack den and no-go area” – is being turned into creative workspaces with a broader community focus by Eat, Work, Art. Citizens Design Bureau, as the project architects, is figuratively and literally right in the middle of it all. About a minute into our interview, which takes place in a semi-completed boardroom, the machine gun fire of power drills begins in the room next door. “Story of my life,” she shouts, unfazed, over the barrage of sound.
Marks has something of a pedigree when it comes to co-working. In 2004, after graduating, she and three friends pooled their student loans to set up ‘The Hub’, based in a former photographic studio in Islington, when the co-working concept simply wasn’t on the radar. Their all-hands-on-deck approach saw them doing everything from fixing the roof to designing the now-familiar “petal tables”.
The team carried out a slew of feasibility studies, speaking to local residents, whose responses were tentative but positive. “People just weren’t sure it’d work having lots of different businesses in one space,” she says. Nevertheless, the Hub was a major success and has subsequently developed into a global franchise of over 60 Impact Hub.
Hackney Downs Studios is an altogether different proposition, its scale dwarfing Marks’ first foray into co-working. “The guys from Eat, Work, Art who run the site recognise that it’s not that interesting to just do workspaces, there are lots of other companies doing that,” she says. “We’re building a community around the workplace.”
The complex is a group of buildings centred around a concrete yard, optimistically called “The Village Green”, surrounded by independent businesses including The Russet café, a florist, The Hackney Peddler bike shop, the A-side B-side gallery, as well as an After School Art Club for 7-to-12-year-olds, yoga classes, and Croc Ciné, a French animation film festival. This list goes on. All of this is aimed at both tenants and local residents.
In addition to the 70 artists’ studios already in use, Citizens Design Bureau have come on board to develop 50 or so larger workspaces and a purpose-made studio theatre in the main building, a former printworks. Citizens Design Bureau has broken it up into a series of ‘blank spaces’ to give tenants flexibility in creating a working environment to match their tastes and requirements. The communal areas feature spray-painted graphics on wood-chip walls by one of the artists in residence. Marks is keen for other artists, designers and craftsmen to get involved and become co-creators, allowing them to ‘take ownership’ of their own slice of the project.
Alongside the workspaces, there’ll be the requisite meeting rooms and communal areas, photography studios based in the darker areas, a 352sq m theatre, and a Swedish restaurant. The parallel alleyway and railway arches will become workshops for carpenters, metalworkers and the like, whom Marks is keen to collaborate with on products that she’s designed for her architectural projects, such as the broad, ceramic pendant lights she co-created for The Royal Court Theatre.
A winning design
Marks’s most high profile job to date is undoubtedly the 2014 Stirling Prize-winning Everyman Theatre Liverpool (read more about the project here), which she worked on from concept stage to until start on site for Haworth Tompkins. She describes the project as “a labour of love”. “I’m from Liverpool and I used to go there when I was little,” she says. “It was both exciting and difficult because we were knocking down an old and much-loved building that’s always been a hotbed of radicalism and creating a new theatre that needed to retain a sense of the old theatre.”
“We spent a long time calibrating the space so it feels special, but also has an informality about it so you can comfortably go to the theatre in your jeans,” Marks says. “The biggest compliment people give us is that they don’t recognise the new building, but they recognise the feeling that it’s a place that anyone can come into and anything can happen.”
More than a just sense of the old theatre, it is physically one and the same as its predecessor in that it reuses 90% of the original materials. The team created workshops, offices, a ‘writer’s study’, and a youth centre within it, expanding its use to ensure the building is fully inhabited. Similarly, the new cafe and bar are well used by theatre goers, but also the public, which increases daytime ‘traffic’.
There’s continuity in design between the Everyman Theatre, The National Theatre Studio and The Young Vic, which Marks worked on for Haworth Tompkins in 2002 and 2008 respectively, each with an attention to creating an ambience that invites you in and encourages you to linger.
Designing her own path
The Everyman win opened doors for Citizens Design Bureau and has led to opportunities to work on larger projects. Marks is currently working on a major project for a new theatre in the West End with Cameron Macintosh, the producer responsible for the vast majority of the West End musical smash hits. Marks, however, insists she’s not just looking for bigger projects and heftier budgets.
“I never wanted to set up a traditional architecture practice. It seems outmoded and outdated to sit and wait for clients to come to you,” Marks says. “I’m interested in developing a more diverse practice offering the traditional architecture service, but also design surgeries, events and resources as well as product design work, research and digital design”.
This approach is borne out of a realisation that the cost of tendering or competing for projects can be debilitating for smaller practices, in particular the amount of work expected before even getting the job. She also sees long-term partnerships with clients as a solution to this that would be mutually beneficial.
“So often we’re freely giving away our greatest asset – our ideas – at the beginning in the hope of getting a contract,” Marks says.
Citizens Design Bureau works to articulate the value of its early stage work including facilitation, strategic planning, business development or simply developing a deeper ongoing partnership with the client to ensure their vision is fully recognized. On recent projects, Citizens Design Bureau has designed everything down the smallest detail.
“With the Everyman Theatre, we wanted to express the client’s ethos in every facet of the project from the large scale right down to drinks coasters and toilet pictogram,” says Marks. “Everything related back to the overriding concept that it should have a personal, tactile and crafted feel to it.
“Rather than hand over a signature ‘one-size-fits-all design’, Marks believes ongoing dialogue with both the client and end user is key to realising a building that resonates with both parties. “We want to create places that’re special because they’re unique to you.”