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Head space: Architect Jamie Fobert

Jamie Fobert is one of architecture's bright sparks, and boasts Givenchy and Antony Gormley among his clients. He talks to Rob Sharp about his philosophy and his current projects

Friday 02 May 2008 15:58 BST

There are few better examples of the young architect Jamie Fobert's glacial good design than his two-bedroom Anderson House, named after the lawyer who commissioned it. Just north of London's Oxford Street, it makes the most of a small site, located in the dead space in the middle of a Georgian block, somewhere normally reserved for rusting fire escapes and mazes of air conditioning units; where you'd expect to see a spider's web of washing lines and chefs having a cheeky smoke. Now Fobert, the upstart, has come along and playfully constructed something to maximise the light delivered to this potentially dark situation.

He's cut away a section here, inserted a large light well there, and so inside the new-build house, in the tall, thin living room where reams of concrete meet a sparse employment of Douglas Fir, beams of sunshine pierce the glazing and slide across the smooth bare walls. There's a lot of empty space. It's almost ecclesiastical. While this harshness might not be to everyone's taste, Fobert's stone-cold modernism and use of materials – commonly concrete, and lots of it – is winning him his fair share of fans. By architecture standards Fobert is young (45), and he is also hip among the capital's "yoof". He designed the east-London club Cargo, a shimmying Mecca for music industry juniors and fledgling designers, and his popularity is matched by his success: the Anderson House won the prestigious Riba Manser Medal in 2003, essentially the prize for the best house in Britain.

Since then Fobert's practice has grown strong. In 2005 he was commissioned for a high-profile extension to the Tate gallery in St Ives, and he has just completed the interior of a new Givenchy outlet in Paris, which opened in February. His work will be rolled out through the company's stores around the world. Like all Fobert's architecture, the shop takes its references from a diverse palette. "We tried to allow the design of the shop to grow through a conversation about contemporary art," he explains. Speaking in his Old Street offices, this Shoreditch-Canadian designer is intense; as particular about discussing his work as he is when he is designing it. Every explanation has to be precise. "When design is your whole life, it is hard to turn it into a catchy little phrase," he says. "But if I were to sum it up, I would say: we have an interest in making spaces which are perceptually rich. We want to create buildings which have volume, material and light."

Fobert studied at the University of Toronto and worked for the Stirling Prize-winning David Chipperfield between 1988 and 1996, overseeing the practice's Berlin offices for the final two years of this period before setting up his own firm. After finishing off designs for Antony Gormley's house, which he started working on at Chipperfield's, one of his first solo milestones was his 1998 Aveda store in Marylebone. Here, he first poured his – now trademark – cast concrete, for counters and benches.

He followed it up with a savvy selection of jobs: an elegant extension for the Cambridge art gallery Kettle's Yard in 2004, and the perhaps off-piste decision to work on an interior for the patisserie Konditor & Cook last year in Norman Foster's Gherkin. Fobert won plaudits for the innovative incorporation of his own style into this building, essentially a designer's calling card: he decided to include a large black-steel mezzanine "box" – a place for the staff to prepare produce – into the café space, which seems to hang there. He explains: "I quite like the idea of being able to take a shell inside the Gherkin and do something. We didn't want to do something that was working against the building but we didn't want to do something that was a pastiche of it."

Such incorporation of simple shapes, ideas and colours (and pleasing his clients at the same time) has enabled him continually to catch the eye of potential suitors. After completion of a farmhouse in County Clare, Ireland, in December 2006, the project's clients – who were living in London at the time – liked it so much they decided to move back to it permanently. You couldn't ask for a better seal of approval.

So it was no great stretch for Fobert to re-imagine the Givenchy store, located on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where virtually every major fashion house in the world has a presence. In doing so, he took inspiration from Riccardo Tisci, the label's creative director. "There was an interview process that took two months which began the whole dialogue," Fobert says. "It started with us looking at the work that Riccardo had done. We noticed his blend of the contemporary and the historic." The space they have created in Paris features six "walk-in" black boxes to house clothes, within a minimal white gallery-like space. From a distance, the boxes look like smooth monolithic blocks. But up close, each is seen to be made of a subtle, charred oak. This material was inspired by the art of David Nash, which Fobert first saw exhibited at Kettle's Yard; the piece in question was some willow that had been struck by lightning. The interior of each of the six boxes is lined with a different material – one plaster, one leather, one glass and so on – and each has its own distinctive panelling. For example, the interior of the first contains a casting of Givenchy's haute couture salon, in Paris's eighth arrondissement, where Hubert de Givenchy worked between 1952 and his retirement in 1995.

"As you go into the boxes," explains Fobert, "they become these castings of historic spaces. They are quite feminine, quite romantic. So your perception shifts as you move through the space. Rather than most retail where you walk in and every surface is full of product." Now, Fobert is working on a pavilion for the developer Native Land at the top of the ramp outside London's Tate Modern, which he hopes will be erected this autumn. It is a high-profile showcase. He concludes: "A practice where you go from one great client to another is great. It's kind of an upward spiral where you have to be really careful you don't take on big jobs just because they're big jobs. You get round this by trying to resolve each project to the best advantage of the client. Often you look at the things that would naturally work." Common sense, eh? It explains why his rise has been dramatic. Watch this space.

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