ARCHITECTURE / Memoirs of an invisible man: Nick Lacey may be the most imaginative architect working in Britain today. So why has no one heard of him? Stephen Gardiner reports

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NICK LACEY isn't easy to find. The addressis right - Reed's Wharf painted up in huge capitals along the top of the warehouse facing you at the end of Mill Street, in London's Docklands. But where's the entrance? Someone from the art gallery on the ground floor explains. 'See the door in the corner, the black panel in the wall beside it? Well, open that, press the button for Reed's Wharf, go to third-floor reception, and that'll get you in.'

The puzzle is that the door is the entrance to an adjoining building, and that you're in a hall and then a lift with a glimpse of the alien interior decorator about them that doesn't seem right at all. Lacey, whom some regard as the country's most imaginative living / working architect, still remains puzzlingly elusive.

Not for long, however. A door leads back into Reed's Wharf warehouse and so to Lacey's office, a collection of spaces with low ceilings lined in wood, and glowing with the polish of the interior of an old sailing ship. It's something of a shock to come across him at last - a tall, shadowy and slender figure discussing the design of a bridge on a drawing board. 'So what would you like to do?' he asks, as though continuing the conversation with the other architect beside him. 'We're into bridges, you see,' he adds, by way of explanation. 'But we can talk about that later. Shall we go upstairs to where I live?'

For someone who won three first prizes in open architectural competitions between the mid-Seventies and mid-Eighties, and built one of the largest, boldest and most original apartment blocks in the country, he sounds surprisingly reticent. 'I'm afraid we have to go out into the other building - which is not by me - again, up a flight, then back into my place.' He laughs. 'A curious arrangement but unavoidable. Shall I organise some coffee?'

While he's warming the milk on the Aga, a glance round the magnificent exploitation of space at the top of the warehouse captures an immediate picture of the ambition of Lacey's ideas. From the upper platform suspended among the giant roof trusses down to the detail of a jigsaw of rooms, the huge scale of the river cuts to that of the family, to factors like the manipulation of light and a remarkable collection of Thonet's bentwood furniture dating from the 1830s. Lacey's architecture is domesticated too.

So how did he come to architecture? The route has not been exactly smooth. 'After school (in north London) I was going to read greats at Cambridge' - no thought then of following his father, an architect. Looking back, he feels he must have been impressed by certain buildings he'd seen - for instance, by Frank Lloyd Wright - because, after a year at Cambridge, he changed courses.

In 1971, three years after qualifying, he opened his own office, and a year later had won his first competition - 50 retirement homes for architects, funded by the Architects' Benevolent Society. There had been over 200 entries. Amazingly however, due to the objections of Howard Lobb, honorary secretary of the ABS, Lacey's brilliantly achieved solution came to nothing: for some reason never made clear, it was blocked, causing an outcry in the profession. Lacey still talks about this incident with feeling, dropping remarks like clues to be picked up: 'It was a beautiful site with historical associations . . . There was a wonderful mound in the background that was the remains of a castle . . . I liked the idea of a wandering street through a linear collection of cottages which were an extension of the earthworks . . .' An image of a 'village' below a 'castle' emerges, a microcosmic Corfe, a poetic vision lost to architecture.

So Lacey returned to odd jobs. Six years later, his name suddenly resurfaced - he'd won the Crown Reach competition for a huge apartment block next to Vauxhall Bridge on the north bank of the Thames, out of hundreds of entries. The distinctive feature of his design was its crescent form that gave views up and down the river, views far more stimulating than those directly across. The assessors went for it, and the building was completed in 1983. The full impact of a truly innovative form was revealed: to meet an important condition laid down by the developers, the Crown Commissioners, a view of the river had to be maintained from the westerly direction of Bessborough Gardens. Lacey exploited this by transforming his crescent into a vast butterfly effect, centring on a single- storey entrance hall.

Lacey established a zone of calm for the apartments: while outer walls shut out the din from the embankment road, the inner, open structure overlooks the quiet of the garden crescent. He went for this same zone of calm in his entry for the Vauxhall Cross competition (1982) on a site immediately opposite Crown Reach. Here, where he tied for first prize with two others, crescents of offices protected groups of apartments and gardens from the traffic's racket. Nothing came of the result; nor was anything learnt from it. The last part of the site, the downstream side of the bridge, has after all been filled with London's most obnoxious building, the green-and-cream MI6 HQ.

During the Eighties, Lacey was working on the warehouse at Reed's Wharf, which he had bought in a derelict condition in 1974, when he was commissioned by Tarmac, the developers, to carry out an enormous project for offices, residential quarters, shops, even a hotel over a railway station, at Heron Quays, just south of the Canary Wharf skyscraper. Although only a section of it was built, this richly-coloured, metal-clad scheme, partly standing in the water of the docks, remains, in the view of many, the only true work of architecture in Docklands.

And he was on the competition trail again - he went in for the Paris Opera House, his solution being to bring down its parts to the small scale of the buildings around the Bastille, separating them with narrow streets and small squares within the fabric of the whole. 'I called it Opera City,' Lacey says.

To judge from the bulk of the scheme chosen, this wasn't what the judges wanted. But the humanism and originality of his ideas won him one of the 10 prizes. That was in 1983. After that, the phasing out of almost all open architectural competitions was followed by the recession - a crippling combination.

For the moment, Lacey is preoccupied with his bridges, on which he works with his engineer, Bryn Bird. Both designs are stunning, and both are for pedestrians: one is a suspension bridge for Reed's Dock; the other is on his 'butterfly' theme in stainless steel over the north entrance to the Rotherhithe tunnel. Both have been praised by the Royal Fine Art Commission.

His last completed design was the art gallery on the ground floor of the Reed's Wharf warehouse: a cool, white, interior for his cousin, Stephen Lacey. Stephen is mystified by Nick's lack of work. 'A brilliant man like him?' he says. 'They should be queueing round the block.'

(Photographs omitted)