Creative processes

The Observer newspaper’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore anointed CAN’s ‘Mountain View’ house one of the best of 2020. Christopher Moore (no relation) from We Design Homes tells us a little more about this fascinating practice.

Mountain view by CAN – Jim Stephenson

It’s not unusual for someone looking to commission an architect for their new home to come armed with scrapbooks of ideas from design magazines, anecdotes from architecture TV programmes, and Pinterest boards full of inspiration. In fact, it’s an approach We Design Homes recommends. 

But Mat Barnes from architecture studio CAN wants that to be only a starting point. ‘I’m all about using those things and then widening the references,’ he explains. ‘If these are your architectural inspirations, what are your design inspirations?’ He reels off a list of sources that are immediately more personal than the usual gamut of architecture idolatry.

‘I want to know about the artwork you own. What movie posters do you love? Album covers. Fashion. Whatever. Using a Pinterest board is auto pilot. We need to dig in to find out what’s meaningful to you.’ He also asks what type of spaces people like to be in. ‘I encourage people not to think about the end product from the start. I want to know what kinds of spaces they like – factories, caves, churches.’

You don’t have to delve too deeply into the practice’s portfolio to understand the levels of personality Mat’s approach reveals. He describes the work as characterful and idiosyncratic. From the candy stripe blue on the exterior walls of ‘A Brockley Side’ house, with its blush interior colour palette redolent of 1950s Americana, to the sharp relief of a mountain, appended like a stage set to the rear of the ‘Mountain View’ house. The work is clearly joyful and personal. ‘High culture, low culture or pop culture. It doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from. I want people to walk into these places and be surprised, delighted and shocked in equal measure.

brockley house by CAN – Jim Stephenson

Mat is adamant his work not be labelled post-modern. ‘I try and stay away from that,’ he says. ‘If you look at our work you’ll see a house (the Mies X King George House) where a very different type of design response was needed, a mix between the architecture of the listed Georgian townhouse and high modernism. What we are trying to do is really, really reflect the personalities and desires of the people we are working with. We have no ‘house-style’’

Mat started his own practice on a part-time basis in 2016, still working full-time with another practice, and made the full transition to his own show in 2018. He has a great relationship with his former employer, and it contributes to his business model. ‘I rent space in the studio of my old employer,’ he explains. ‘I’m also able to draw upon their resources when I need work done on any of CAN’s projects. It’s kind of a ‘staff-sharing’ arrangement.’ It’s a clever model that works for both practices, allowing any slack to be taken up in the older firm, and providing ultimate flexibility for CAN.

Mies x King George by CAN – Jim Stephenson

A final word on Mat’s design approach – one he offered without being prompted. ‘Some prospective clients are concerned about the impact such highly personal and idiosyncratic results might have on the resale value of their house in the future,’ he explains. ‘I tell them that this house is for you. Whether you live in it for five years, ten years or longer, if you ever sell it the buyer will do what they want to it anyway. Your home should reflect who you are and bring you joy every day.’

Amen to that. 🙏

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