Mary Duggan talks about architecture

Within the framework of the lecture series ‘TALKS about architecture’, the London-based architect Mary Duggan will speak about her projects on 14 June. ArchiNed asked her five questions.

Mary Duggan’s office 1 What is this? It’s a roll of felt that we lined an exhibition table with in 2017. I use it to protect models when I carry them around or move them. I often rearrange my shelves. 2 The chair belonged to my mother. It sat on the landing for years. It was about to go into a skip, so I salvaged it. I’m always scared that it might collapse underneath a client. 3 Albert Frey Houses 1+2 by Jennifer Golub (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) and OASE #91 Building atmosphere. 4 Every now and then I use a ruler to recall a scale of a model on the shelf and to see if a sample which is not to any scale could in fact be a scale. 5 Tea or coffee? Definitely coffee! It’s a coffee cup and saucer given to me by my sister, defined – as I understand – by the fact that you can fit two fingers through the handle. 6 How do you use the Dictionary of Color Combinations? Actually, whilst I often refer to the colour combinations, recently I have been preparing a catalogue of the practice’s work from 2017-2019, and I was referring to it as it is wonderfully designed. 7 I live and work in the same building. My daughter of 6 often creeps in and leaves little gifts for me. The bunny is a favourite because she has worked out that she can trap the mechanism, so it jumps up at me when I displace its counterweight.


What is architecture?
Architecture is the process by which one formulates a design methodology and the definition of a construction project. The process is completed with building instructions and a resultant building. After that, we have no powers.


In your office you created room for artistic research/production, for example by inviting artists for a residency. How does (fine) art influence your architecture practice?
We are bound as practitioners by the above definition. The latter (the construction part) is by and large a general process, although some architects are more engaged or ‘hands on’. For the design phase, however, this is obviously where the differences lie across practitioners. I fear that our professional world has become consumed by risk; by logical, practical and technical decisions, easily specified and insured by quality-controlled specification.
I am interested in (re)defining a new process, one that is not so immersed and led by a finite selection of known working parts. Instead, I like to look at the work through an artistic lens that starts with a blurry vision of something, an ambition using hope and unknown qualities as adrenaline. Historically, the realization of architectural design was in the hands of the author, and it was not known or experienced until it was built. That level of anticipation and trust given to the design concept has vanished.
Inviting artists and makers into my office is one way to break down the language of present-day architecture, to interfere with the legislative conversation, and to allow a poetic dialogue to infiltrate. The results enrich and broaden the discussion about the work and open new lines of enquiry, research and experimentation.


In your practice you employ different methods to test and communicate your ideas, including material prototyping and modelling. On your Instagram account there are numerous posts which show wax in different shapes and colours, and on your website you present your models like art works with titles like ‘1:50 MDF model with blossom’. The project texts state only the facts: the name of the building, location and program. How does your design process work?
It is important to me that despite the background work, that there is still room for interpretation. That is why the work is described entirely by its component parts, and occasionally its scale if I am keen to demonstrate that it is in fact a building rather than a sculpture, an ambiguous form or a material gesture.
I enjoy the fact that the detail I give in relation to the pieces might sow seeds and give a sense of a quality – material or spatial. The ambiguity is intentional. On some of the projects we do not know where the materiality exposed by some of the model investigations will lead.
Architects rely too much on explanation, but a building does not come with a set of instructions. The end user must visit, live and experience it for themselves. Art is open; it leaves space (psychologically speaking) for degrees of interpretation, regardless of the intent or motivation of the designer.


Your architecture, as presented on your website, looks very serene, very restrained. It emphasizes the aesthetic form of architecture, but architecture is also a political agent (as the expression or representation of ideals). How is this reflected in your architecture?
My attitude towards design is totally democratic. It allows room for interpretation and opinions. The initial reading of the work is material-led obviously – architecture is matter in the end. The consequences presented by the forms and material selections lead to and inform thoughts around spiritual value and idealized realities; one informs the other. Just because material and form are in the foreground does not mean that the business of making well-designed, well-informed, spatially intelligent fluent buildings is ignored; that would be irresponsible.
I find a lot of architecture intended to be politically idealistic is often patronising, defaulting to qualities (spatial or organizational) defined by statutory principles, informed by irrelevant precedent projects or predetermined by decisions about what a particular community needs and how they will behave.


In a podcast interview with Matthew Blunderfield for Scaffold you use the word ‘agenda’ a few times. What is your agenda?
My agenda (or manifesto) is to reinvigorate the conversation about making architecture. By that I mean I want to bring to the foreground of my practice alternative thoughts about what the design process is. I am interested in finding the beauty in architecture, not to meet a predetermined physical manifestation of beauty, but rather one that is borne out of time investment through experimentation, discovery, solid coherent thinking and fluency.

The fluency is the marriage of thinking (academic) and practice (doing). That said, I am often told that my work is beautiful. I don’t believe it is just that. The work is cleanly presented and conclusive when I have a conclusion, messy when in production. Wax, soap, plaster and concrete are messy substances; add dyes, pigments, seeds, mud and elbow grease and one might conclude it is totally disgusting.
There have been occasions when I have looked at my office and watched my amazing workforce in action and I think we would make a beautiful fairy tale. I could be a good witch with a cauldron making magical buildings. One must dream.