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The work of Ahrends, Burton and Koralek


11 Oct 2016 | Jon Wright

This rare and special audience with Peter Ahrends was intended to be a conversation – a conversation, he explained at the start, about the conversations that take place between architects and between architects and clients, in the course of making buildings and making buildings work.


To that end, it was to have been a dialogue between Peter Ahrends and Paul Koralek. In the event, with Koralek unable to attend, Ahrends proposed a dialogue with himself and with the audience by talking us through seven Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK) projects to highlight the nature and purpose of the conversations that drove the design philosophy of the practice.


A polite request from Ahrends to attendees was for a 'conversational argument'. In fact, the design histories of the ABK projects, some well known, some less so, some realised and others not, were far too absorbing to interrupt.


After discussing the hotbed of ideas and talent that was the Architectural Association (AA) from 1951-56 he described the immense opportunities presented to young architects in the years immediately following the Festival of Britain. With the spirit of the Atlee government at their backs, the conversations between teaching staff and between students themselves became the driving force of his work at the AA, as well as the Bedford Square walkabouts where they were forced to come back and then 'make a mark on paper'.


The beginnings of ABK – that Paul Koralek won the competition for the Berkeley Library at Trinity College, Dublin and asked the others to help him – is well known, but we learnt much more about the level of collaboration between the three young men, all only 28 at the time, in the early stages of the project.


Koralek's design for Trinity, because of the conversations they'd had, 'belonged to all three of us', Ahrends told us. One of the most gratifying of a number of wonderfully told and insightful anecdotes was about how the building-defining bay windows at Trinity that form the junction between the inside and the outside and make places of student recreation and contemplation were informed by Ahrends' thoughts about the nature of bays. He saw them as enclosures at the edge where you could experience two separate realms – like the shore and the sea, like the inside and the outside … 


The projects Ahrends picked showed the variety of ABK's legacy, alongside more detailed looks at the conversations that led to them. Of the built projects, Keble College in Oxford inevitably got attention – as, along with Maidenhead Library, perhaps the most well-known of ABK's works in England. Describing the bravery of the college in rejecting early ideas for a bold, new building that would define the college's identity, it was again the nature of the working relationship that was fleshed out by Ahrends.


Unbuilt projects shown included an extraordinary competition entry in Australia that expanded two large sections of a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome into two large shell structures, held taut with a structure like a tension rod. This elicited discussion on some more personal, architectonic ideas and about Ahrends' recognition of the 'the joint' in architecture and how it could be exposed and celebrated as an element.


Along with the bay, this idea came into play in the design of the Cummins Engine Factory in Schotts (1980). 


Ahrends saved the most interesting stories, if not, perhaps, the practice's best buildings, for last, in the form of their unbuilt Mary Rose Museum (1982-83) in Portsmouth and the Docklands Light Railway Beckton Extension and Poplar Bridge (1987-93). Having refused to donate their fees for the former to the Prince's Trust at the behest of Prince Charles, it was not surprising that their innovative, if imposing design never made it off the drawing board.


Ahrends' intimate portrait of the manner of dialogue between the partners and between the partners and the clients, was what made this a special talk, though it was an added bonus to hear more about the genesis of some of the better-known works. By bypassing the known history and bringing his own theme, Ahrends succeeded in delivering a unique talk which underlined ABK's connections with the Modern Movement and their continued relevance to contemporary architecture.


First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32

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