World citizens re-engaging with locality and vernacular - T-SA Architects

Despite their global backgrounds the London based, Malay-Japanese duo. Toh-Shimazaki Architects, are advocates of reinterpreting vernacular and materiality. Their recent Centre for Sight health centre in leafy Sussex is a case in point.

A Design with Care piece

Across the continent ‘Wellness’ may be an oft-used descriptive term, but in Britain, both word and concept are only gradually taking root. In the absence of Wellness centres, examples of architecture dedicated to healthy lifestyles are relatively few and far between. Instead, the country’s National Health Service building stock continues to be overhauled, while private health centres commission architects to deliver a small flow of new buildings.

One of the latter’s more intriguing examples is the Centre for Sight, which opened the winter of 2009/10, a new eye-treatment centre an hour south of London in the leafy county of Sussex. Among several unusual features characterising this project are the architects who won the commission. London based Toh-Shimazaki Architects, is run by an expatriate Asian twosome, Yuli Toh and Takero Shimazaki from Malay and Japan respectively, both of whom decided to make Britain their home after their school-days were spent attending two of the countries leading public schools. Both are graduates of Richard Rogers Architects, though this fact is belied by the subtlety of their respectful approach to context and place, which makes the Centre for Sight - as with their previous OSh House, which won both house and practice a string of compliments in the UK architectural media – a fascinating if understated example of how T-SA update and reinterpret local vernacular and tradition to bring something both new and rooted to their finished projects.

This is immediately evident coming upon the Centre for Sight; in effect, a series of five two-tone brick barns, providing a series of rhythmically contrasting volumes concertinaed into one walk-through building. One’s eye is drawn in equal measure to how the building has been chiselled into the site’s tricky hillside topography, and that of the zinc roof gently flowing over the buildings set of differing volumes. Restrained, and complementing other near-by buildings, the design was influenced by the earlier farm sheds originally standing on the valley site; and it was this regional Sussex vernacular which guided the architects slow and careful approach, involving numerous visits to soak up the feel of the place, extensive sketching and long hours of discussions and conversation with the clients; particularly the chief eye surgeon.

Inside, the main foyer and consulting rooms take up the first two of the five barn sections, all single floor, with services hidden above ceiling level; while beyond the foyer reception area laser surgery and an operating room comprise the remaining three sections - though with a second floor admin office sitting over these sections. Through-out the Centre, detailing is thoughtful, from the manual louvers covering small window spaces - to protect vulnerable recovering post-op retinas as completely as possible from sunlight – to the bronze signage and cool, practical oak desk and shelving, designed by T-SA and completed by the local contractors joinery team.

This engaging with materiality – equally evident at the OSh House, where the mid-twentieth century arts and crafts country house was cleverly updated for this new century – has seen T-SA lumped with the likes of the leading British materialists; CarusoStJohn and SergisonBates for instance. Shimazaki protests, saying they are neither as serious or as theoretical. Rather the TS-A approach is playful, preferring ‘to just get on with it’. What is clear though is that unlike other British based practices who look to the continent for inspiration and peer-reviews, TS-A are not particular adherents to minimalist boxes, Swiss made or otherwise.

In fact, a critical influence on both Toh and Shimazaki are the early sixties architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, a practice for whom everything in their architectural process, in Shimazaki’s view, was ever playful. And the connection doesn’t stop there. Shimazaki even got to work on the Smithson’s last building, Hexen House; and odd though it may seem, the two young Asian architects, living and working from London, found themselves continuing aspects of the Smithson’s legacy. At the Centre for Sight this influence is to be found weaving its way through the careful and delicate abstracting of vernacular, the singular attention to detailing, and a sense of how these forms will sit in the land for decades to come. TS-A’s unusual biographical reach embraces both the paradoxes of Globalisation and that of re-interpreting vernacular in the early 21st century.