Glasgow, London, Dublin
Glasgow’s industrial heritage and roll-up-your-sleeves building traditions informed the work of Robin Lee and Alan Pert when they launched their firm NORD (Northern Office for Research & Design) in 2002. The city’s old factories, its history of craftsmanship, and its cold, wet climate encouraged the architects to think carefully about materials and how buildings are made—lest their projects leak, or dishonor the spirit of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In May 2011, Lee and Pert dissolved their partnership, with the former establishing Robin Lee Architecture in London and Dublin and the latter working as NORD in Glasgow and London.
“The notion of making was essential to our work,” says Pert, 40, who grew up in Scotland and remembers visiting Crichton Castle as a boy and being fascinated by the 16th-century building’s courtyard walls studded with massive diamond-shaped stones. Lee, 45, was born in the Channel Islands (between Britain and France) but grew up in Scotland. After earning a degree in architecture, he went back to school to study sculpture—an experience that shaped his perspective on form, materials, and the value of limited means. “Architects today can do anything with form,” states Lee. But the freedom unleashed by computer-aided design holds little appeal to him: “I want to develop a position in terms of form that has rigor to it.
I love the way artists like Carl Andre and Richard Serra take a material as it’s found and use it.”
In the firm’s largest project, the Wexford County Council Headquarters (completed by Robin Lee Architecture) in Ireland, the design exploits the nature of stone and glass—emphasizing the solidity of one and the transparency of the other. But instead of putting the stone on the exterior of the building and glass inside, the architects did just the opposite. By inverting the typical arrangement, they subverted expectations while remaining true to the character of each material.
Starting with Bell House, their first project, Lee and Pert searched for the essence of architecture by stripping away as many elements as possible. So the house’s windows are flush with the brick envelope, and mullions, lintels, and other forms of articulation are eliminated. “We wanted to minimize or obliterate things like gutters and flashing to get to a singularity,” says Lee. In doing so, the architects reinterpreted the local vernacular, echoing familiar residential forms but making them appear distinctive by taking away certain details.
In all of their projects, Lee and Pert treated materials honestly but in ways that make people see them in a new light. “I like to take a mundane material such as lumber or brick and give it a sense of dignity. I try to maneuver within that material’s building tradition, while pushing it forward,” says Lee. “Our buildings reflect their material context, and, in the early work, that was Glasgow,” says Pert. Now that Lee and Pert have gone separate ways, it will be interesting to see if they take different paths in their work and their practices
NORD (Robin Lee/Alan Pert)
LOCATION: Glasgow, London, Dublin
DESIGN STAFF: 4 (Robin Lee Architecture); 14 (NORD)
PRINCIPALS: Robin Lee, Alan Pert
EDUCATION: Lee – Glasgow School of Art, PG Dip., 1993; Mackintosh School of Architecture, M.Arch., 1991; Mackintosh School of Architecture, Dip. Arch., 1990; Mackintosh School of Architecture, B.Arch., 1988. Pert – University of Strathclyde, M.Arch., 1993
WORK HISTORY: Lee – Zoo Architects, Glasgow, 1996–2002. Pert – Zoo Architects, 1996–2002; GMW & Partners, Berlin, 1993–95
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Wexford County Council Headquarters, Wexford, Ireland, 2011 (completed as Robin Lee Architecture); Primary Substation, London, 2009; Destiny Church, Glasgow, 2005; East End Sawmills, Glasgow, 2004; Bell House, Strathblane, Scotland 2004
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Lee – National Sculpture Factory, Cork, Ireland, 2012. NORD – WASPS Artists Studios, Gallery and Bookshop, Glasgow, 2011; Govanhill Swimming Pool, Glasgow, 2012; SWG3 Gallery and Studios, Glasgow, 2012; Furniture Galleries for the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2012; Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice, Glasgow, 2014