Architecture: BAAD?Wicked

Philip Bintliff turns practical solutions into visual triumphs, and he is often often inspired by pop music.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The tyres of the Toyota Landcruiser squeal under braking as it yaws into the industrial estate near Accrington. Light industrial units slide by like giant crinkle-cut chips of steel, the glinting anomalies of a peculiar void. Their outlines are sharp against a dense blue February sky, yet they simultaneously suggest something blunt, messy and Ballardian: vacuous spaces, the occasional chainsawed body part, sales charts spattered with blood, the plaint of a distantly echoing voice: "Would Mr Raskolnikov please return the axe to the display case in reception? Would Mr Raskolnikov..."

Philip Bintliff scans the sheds with a practised architect's eye. He's talking about pop music; something about the Beatles, and it's doubly apt. His face has a McCartneyesque set to it. Furthermore - "Can you see it yet?" he murmurs - he is within seconds of showing me something absurdly unlikely, the architectural equivalent of the Fab Four's Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Like the best songs it's a brazen affront to the mediocrity around it. The sleek structure that jumps suddenly into pin-sharp focus is an industrial shed like no other in the land, which Isabel Allen, of Architects Journal, recently described as Bintliff's "masterpiece".

With its improvisatory approach to the rhythms of form and detail, Bintliff's Hebden Bridge practice, Studio BAAD - pronounced "bard" - is laying down an architectural riff whose slippery syncopations are being heard far beyond Britain's northern light industrial wastelands.

Even a cursory glance at the building's elevations - the swirl of its exposed flank, the bulges of the glazed corner sections, the bizarre yet elegant row of shade sails - is quite enough to signal that in the headquarters building of the pounds 30m turnover Simon Jersey garment business, Bintliff has taken inspirational ad hocism into the architectural charts.

If the exterior of the building presents an obviously beguiling palette of edges and masses and smears of light and shade, the interior is a phenomenal essay in aesthetic pluralism, a bold cut-up that reads as if surprises at every turn had always been part of the big picture.

The braid of these spaces and levels seem to have no immediately obvious beginnings or ends. The treasure trove of unexpectedly connected work zones contain stocking-filler treats borne out of nothing more than the need to keep building costs down to about half that of off-the-shelf steel boxes and offices in the south-east.

A taste of Studio BAAD's method reveals all. Lighting in the canteen area? Right you are: lamps and shades mounted on nearly vertical boards and covered tightly in brightly coloured Lycra. Flick the switch and, presto, a luminous landscape fit for the Clangers. Flooring? Large sheets of 25mm thick MDF screwed down in a diamond grid pattern which looks like polished butterscotch. That pesky problem about different rates of expansion and contraction between the concrete flooring in the boardroom where it meets the American ash frames of the floor-to-ceiling windows? No sweat: just stop the flooring three inches from the windows and fill the gap with white gravel. And what about getting extra light into the office under the boardroom. Obvious, really: you make the boardroom table out of a suspended disk of inch-thick glass, and the floor under it, too.

These are the bon-bons in a mixture which also contains brilliantly carried- out functional solutions, and three in particular. When Bintliff considered the staircase at the far end of the office area, he wanted three flights of steps in a glass drum; too expensive. His starkly elegant solution was glass-treaded stairs, lit from below and set in a shiny galvanised steel silo. It looks like a million dollars; it cost a few thousand.

But the most striking feature of the Simon Jersey building is its array of sails, set at an angle just outside the translucent end wall of the warehouse block and its first-floor multi-use area.

"It was first designed as a steel shed," says Bintliff. "Part way through the design development they decided it was going to be a quality-control centre - so design departments, inspection of materials, print and pattern making were all put in there; and the designers wanted more light on a south-west facing wall. We were kind of nervous about doing that, so we produced a translucent wall and shaded it with sails. And they're stood on tripods so they can be unplugged and moved outwards when the building's extended."

During the day, the interior is animated by subtle plays of light and shadow. At night, coloured stage lights are shone on the sails from the inside of the translucent end wall, producing a lusciously dense light show. "It's a kind of set dressing, really," he explains. "We're interested in ambient effects. And it's very, very cheap. We've had people driving up and saying: `Where's the party?'." Bintliff cites Disney and Spielberg as inadvertent players in "developing the central role of light and its manipulation in architecture".

But if this is set dressing, then Bintliff is an uncommonly unflappable director: the creation of the Simon Jersey building has been like an ER out-take, a continuing series of problems and want-it-yesterday improvisations, with Bintliff operating the SteadiCam and the editing suite. There is something microcosmic about it all, an encapsulation of the dynamism of a business that began in the early 1970s in two rooms above a clothing shop in Accrington.

"I think we try to challenge ourselves a little bit with form," Bintliff explains. "I always think that form is very powerful medicine, but it's little used. In a way, the form of a building too often seems to me to be the result of a pragmatic progress: the plan worked out like this; you group these rooms in this way; the corridors here; the entrance is here. And the building ends up wrapping that stuff up. Whereas I think there's another way, where you can have a sense of what a building might be like as an idea or an experience, and then you start to build a function element into that.

"We do try to seek out a kind of dramatic opportunity in any project," he adds. "It's a great facility when people have burning ideas to produce, but I've never been like that. I don't sit at home doodling buildings. I only do that if we get commissioned. For me, a building always arises out of a circumstance, a client - and even one sentence from a client can inform a whole design."

Which is why Bintliff enjoys dealing with what he refers to as raw things. "And have you read about this debate about layered construction and monolithic construction?' he asks. "I was amazed. It was an idea I worry about a lot late at night, but never realised it was a general concern.

"Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson used brick facings to give the impression their buildings are hewn out of single layer of brick; comparing that with the idea of traditional layered construction, where you have some fairly wealthy brickwork, then you get some even better plasterwork, then you get some fine plaster, then joinery, then paint.

"So I've always tended to work on a monolithic basis, as though the material was the thing; the purity of that expression." Bintliff's eyes narrow slightly. "There's an American Indian saying I read about leave no trace. I'm really interested in that."

His touch is certainly light. And if the Simon Jersey building can be called a masterpiece, BAAD's design for the headquarters of the computer services company, Principal, in an old barn on the Broughton Hall estate, must be his box of Liquorice Allsorts. Stair risers covered in Freisian cowhide ("Cows were getting a really bad press at the time"), brightly painted softwood battens appliqued at crazy angles to glass partitions; MDF internal walls; and a minimalist kitchenette and tea-break area sheathed in polycarbonate. And all of it hangs together, tight as a drum.

Thirty miles away, in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, Studio BAAD's striking office and storage area for a textile manufacturer, Bedmaker, is a horizontal corrugated steel tube with a curving glazed entrance section and a trio of chubby metal tubes punching down through the roof - Bintliff calls them "light guns". Inside, the devil's food cake is in the details: delicate networks of chrome rods carry the black, rubber-studded stair treads; the elegant X-form steel balustrade screening a cut-out in the upper level. The only thing missing is the theme music from The Prisoner and a fleeting glimpse of Number Six.

But the crucial point about this oversized and slightly squashed cigar tube is that, like the Simon Jersey building, it is an affront to the lumpen structures around it. And its sheer isness funnels straight into a key image that has plagued Bintliff since the Gulf War.

"Do you know what an Apache helicopter looks like?" he asks. "The shape of it? Did you know that a platoon of Iraqis just gave themselves up as soon as they saw one of these things rising up from behind a sand dune? I mean, think of that, the shape of it rising up. Just the look of it was enough. That how buildings should be. They should make a particular statement, be unmistakable in some way."

And statements can arise from tenuous associations. Bintliff's concept for Hanah, a large distributor in Manchester, was prompted by the thumping bass intro from the Ace of Bass song, All That She Wants. It gave him the crucial idea for the rhythm of the grid design, "to provide events over the time frame of the entrance".

The practice's winning entry for Hebden Bridge's new bandstand - it's probably going to be a moveable flip-up platform on a track in the Rochdale Canal - was sold with another bit of impro: "We had an A1 gloss-laminated board with a collage on it, with bits of literature on it. There was a passage from Walden, something about `there were times when I couldn't afford to give up the bloom of the day to the work of hands'."

Which evidently leaves more time for head-banging ideas. Bintliff, whose team is currently concentrating on its radical, competition-winning design for Warrington's new arts centre, has begun to fret about something that melds architecture with psycho-technology.

He calls it "the WingThing" and hopes it will replace cars and houses as both a key necessity and new species of status symbol. His prototype happens to looks like a windsurf board and sail; but the idea is that, parked outside every house would be a piece of schizoid sculpture; it could be anything from a classic 40-year-old Alvis to a sleek space-age object that doubled as nerve centres which channeled solar energy, satellite communications, and filtered water into the home. New model WingThings would be brought out every year and would, themselves, become sought after.

The Landcruiser is burbling away from the brave new swirl of the Simon Jersey building, away from isness and back into the landscape of eerie familiars and the usual suspects.

Bintliff begins to say something about the WingThing's layers of meaning when the ghost of an Apache helicopter appears, dipping brutishly away behind one of the grim warehouses, the thackka-thup of its glinting blades fracturing into dubby echoes. Bintliff, an iconoclast who wants to produce icons without a past, changes the subject seamlessly and begins to speculate about the greatness of the jazz bass player, Jaco Pastorius.

Okay, Mr B, I'm going to call you on that. I dare you to take it to the bridge and riff it big time: design a building based on Pastorius' stunning 19-note intro on Birdland by Weather Report.