I am not big into these rock star architects and designers,” says Paul Scrivener, director of design at London’s market-leading design firm for office interiors, MCM Architecture. Indeed, Scrivener is so unattached to his own ego as a designer that it seems he would be just as happy to give this interview anonymously – to talk only about the collective work of MCM and never mention his particular contribution, despite the fact that he has been there for all but the first two years of the company’s history. A las, here we are, and Scrivener has agreed to talk.
We are perched in one of his team’s sparkly new interiors at the Holborn offices of law firm Speechly Bircham, which has a clear view into the Deloitte building, an office MCM has also recently finished. A couple of buildings along is DEGW, where Scrivener worked in the mid-1980s, as the company blazed the trail in workplace design in the UK. This man has clearly been around the office interiors block.
His core message is consistent – clients’ needs come first. And Scrivener has very strong opinions – but which he quite rightly feels he is entitled to, as an architect himself – about how some architects can get in the way of this.
“My approach is fairly simple,” he says. “I start by finding out what makes clients tick, what they really want and need.”
Not only does Scrivener have a talent for ascertaining a client’s exact needs, he has almost a sixth sense for providing what they don’t even realise that they want. During our chat, he fetched me a glass of water I hadn’t asked for, although I needed it. I suspect he employs this skill in his design for corporate offices.
He trained as an architect in Liverpool in the 1970s and then moved to London to design social housing in Lambeth and Lewisham. But the “snail’s pace” of progress eventually pushed him into other arenas, and Scrivener finally made his foray into office design. “It wasn’t called workplace design in those days,” he says of his first office-specific gig at Austin-Smith: Lord in the early 1980s. “We just designed offices. It was a bit later that people really started to think about the design of workplaces.”
Much of this formative thinking happened during his time at DEGW, from the mid to late 1980s, which was followed by an ill-fated attempt to form a design practice with a colleague, scuppered by the recession. It was in 1991 that Scrivener found himself at the door of Marsha Cummings Marsh (MCM). In his 17 years as design director, he has overseen the firm as it has grown from five people to 70 and secured the lead in the office fit-out market in London. Most notably, MCM has also established quite a name for itself in sustainable office design, as highlighted by this year being ranked the number-one “green company” in London by the Sunday Times.
The concept of workplace design is endlessly exciting to Scrivener because it has the potential to steer social change. “It involves everybody,” he says. “You get a much wider audience and you are able to take quite important issues to that wider audience.” In view of MCM’s extensive client list, which includes Sainsbury’s, Norton Rose, BP, Marks & Spencer, AstraZeneca, IBM and Lloyds TSB to name a few, one begins to imagine just how many people MCM can reach with its message.
“Particularly, with the sustainability thing, I think it is important for us to inform our clients as to what they can do through the process to improve their performance and just generally be responsible citizens,” adds Scrivener. “You can do an enormous amount. It is about what you specify, but it is also about how you light, heat and use a space. The less space you occupy, the less space you heat and light. That is not to say that we are shoving everybody into shoeboxes, but we are making space work smartly, so that you get as much out of it as you can.”
It is not surprising, bearing in mind the firm’s environmental credibility, that Scrivener regards the sustainable refurbishment of existing office buildings as one of the key challenges to come.
“There is all sorts of legislation coming into place about the energy performance of buildings, and it is relatively easy to reach a decision to make all new buildings conform. But 99 per cent of building stock is existing and falls well below those standards,” he explains. “Regardless of whether it is cost effective, there needs to be a drive toward finding a way of enabling people to refurbish their buildings, because we aren’t going to knock every one of them down and start again.” MCM’s job for Pearson Group on Shell Mex House, now known as 80 Strand, is an example of how the company worked to transform a “tired” 1930s office building into a suitable home for a modern group.
Another part of changing attitudes, says Scrivener, is developing a “green aesthetic” – and designers and architects must lead the way. “If you design responsibly and sustainably, you will design different types of spaces, you will use different materials and I think people’s perception of what is quality will change.”
“Cork tiles, for example,” he adds, chuckling. “We are specifying them for the first time in living memory, but you have to find a way to make them look cool – and then they will be. Just like it is no longer cool to have acres of deep-mined Chinese marble in your reception. It is a different way of thinking and a different set of values.”
Speaking of values, Scrivener has very little patience for the superstar architects and designers whose style supersedes all else, including the needs of the people using their products or working in their buildings – ignoring the “social responsibility” Scrivener believes is inherent in the job.
“I don’t think that every building needs to be a statement building,” he says. “Every little building on every corner does not need to jump up and down and yell ‘look at me’.”
Scrivener thinks there is a real case for quiet architecture – and that is where he feels comfortable operating. He mourns a loss of humility in the industry. “I am passionate about what we do, but I recognise that we are servants,” he says. “I think that some people lose sight of the fact that architecture and design is a social art, first and foremost, and that we are responsible to the people who use our buildings.” Pause. “Oh dear, am I starting to sound wanky?”
But Scrivener’s approach to design is rooted in this idea. He encourages client involvement and recognises that the goal is not to design monuments to himself or to MCM, but to provide spaces that people love to be in. “You must not deliver the lowest common denominator, but you do need to deliver the highest common factor,” he says.
What is both challenging and promising, according to Scrivener, is the fact that it is becoming more common for design firms such as MCM to work closely with architects to deliver base buildings that truly serve the clients.
“This is where it can be difficult for the architects to comprehend that we are not there to trash their vision,” he says, with thinly veiled frustration. “For me, the most fundamental thing about any building is that it has to work for the users. A fabulous-looking building is not a good building if it actually constrains the way people use it, particularly these days because there are so many diverse users with so many diverse needs.”