Morris+Company is an evolution of Duggan Morris Architects. Rebranded in 2018 and under the helm of Joe Morris, its name reflects its collaborative and ambitious spirit for the future.
We met up with Joe Morris in their Old Street offices on a Tuesday morning to discuss the new direction, mindfulness, his talented team and how being vegan can influence one’s position in architecture.
What’s on the horizon for the practice?
Joe: We spend a significant portion of our life working, which makes the direction of the practice, a place of work, a crucial topic to consider.
I started learning architecture when I was 19 so I have been in architecture for almost 30 years. I still feel like I’m just getting started. This excitement of beginning is productively coupled with a sense of foreboding and the realisation that life is short.
At the practice level, I’m interested in Morris+Company exploring what it truly means to work as a collective. This sense of the collective is far beyond the practice, client and design team, but extends out and into society.
I’m interested in expanding the tools and attitudes that architects can use. Often times, architects believe they know best and are the single fount of knowledge and expertise. Architects have an issue in general with suspending their pride and are usually too precious with what they do.
As a practice, we value inclusiveness and are increasingly focussed on matters that might be quickly dismissed as non-design issues. How is the architect, who is drawing the line for a design, able to grapple with political bias, ethos, race, culture, religion, age, class, intelligence and nationality on a day-to-day basis?
The best way I can describe this attitude is seeing architecture as a territory we negotiate. The above-mentioned issues make this territory necessarily complex. As such, it is our job to put pride and ego in a box whilst mindfully embracing the iterative and inclusive nature of the architectural process.
For instance, with the recent ‘Hidden Homeless’ competition, we explored the use of 20 square metre co-living units, which is politically and socially challenging to do. We are not naive to think this is the only solution to the housing crisis but we have to test it as part of a wider range of attitudes to a very complex issue.
We are also working on health centres, energy centres, nurseries, schools and offices. These projects are often located in areas of outstanding natural beauty or within the green belt as well as brownfield sites and city contexts, but all host a myriad of complex challenges.
We are still interested in building projects that are beautiful, elegant and functional. However, I think architects need to bring much more attention to the social and cultural robustness of their projects.
"An ideal day for me definitely involves cycling."
Could you talk about the new website because I think it demonstrates this attitude clearly?
Joe: We redesigned the website from a blank sheet of paper, a completely fresh start. We didn’t want it to simply be the typical show of projects. It has become less ‘portfolio’ and more ‘behind the scenes’. It is more focused in the human condition and the story of people.
It’s a way for us to expose projects to our audience in unique ways and give visitors a chance to tailor the website to their taste.
Some people are there to see final, composed images of the projects but if they are interested, they can dig deeper to see the messier and more complex sides of each project’s ideas, methods and processes.
In a way, we want to structure the website like a piece of jazz music. The glossy images are akin to the structure of the drum beat and the messier complexities of how a project came to be are like freehand riffs. You need both and we want to show both.
Do you have a favourite building?
Joe: I don’t believe in a particular dogma about particular architects or buildings. Being overly referential presents a danger of pinning everything on a particular building or style.
However, if I had to, I would like to talk about the ORTUS building that we completed in 2013. It’s a community facility dealing with mental health in South London. It had a fantastic team behind the project from the project architect to the client and the head of the charity involved.
We jointly wrote the brief and it took 5 years from start to completion. Everyone we know who has been to that building feels lifted. With designing for mental health, there were a ton of preconceptions and stereotypes we had to contend with. It often has to do with restriction and prevention whereas we were really concerned with openness, optimism and a more uplifting design attitude.
The raised ground floor is completely free of program. We helped shape the business plan to ensure this was feasible so it could be a very public territory in the building. A loose space for people to be there and around the building.
It was all about maximising serendipity.
"We are still interested in building projects that are beautiful, elegant and functional.
However, I think architects need to bring much more attention to the social and cultural robustness of their projects."
You recently turned vegan, what motivated you to do so?
Joe: I was thinking deeply about the routines of social and business life, which do involve a significant degree of decadence. It comes with the territory of being in a network and attending events in the industry. I started to become more reflective about what all of this would be doing to my health and wellbeing and in turn how this was having a detrimental impact upon the city and more importantly the planet.
I considered going vegetarian but quickly rejected this as not being radical enough. It’s been a bit like the scene in the Matrix, when they unplug the socket from the back of their heads and gain a shocking sense of clarity. Going vegan has shown me how desperately damaging and problematic human methods of production are.
Going vegan has pointed me towards a much more mindful and thoughtful way of life, which has had a pervasive impact on the way I see my practice and my work.
"In a way, we want to structure the website like a piece of jazz music.
The glossy images are akin to the structure of the drum beat and the messier complexities of how a project came to be are like freehand riffs.
You need both and we want to show both. "
What is an ideal day for you?
Joe: An ideal day for me definitely involves cycling.
Riding is an opportunity for me to think about nothing and everything. It is a time to hear my own breathing, feel my heartbeat and experience the city flowing by.
I live in Columbia Road but I cycle to Earl’s Court and then back to the office in Old Street. It is about a 25km loop and I do this twice a day.
You go past Euston Road, South Kensington and Hyde Park and see everything.
I go at rush hour in the thick of it every morning and night. I love it.
After the morning ride, I would hit a coffee shop around the corner. I’m a regular so they always have a vegan spread with double espressos ready for me.
Around 11 am, I go to a gym in Angel a few times a week. It’s a gym without any bells and whistles and I go through an intense work out with my trainer for an hour.
I have an amazing team that makes the ideal day possible.
Keir, David, Charlotte, Miranda and Harriet are integral to Morris+Company. Hugh, Ben and Danielle and so forth. I’m less and less involved in the day-to-day management of the practice and I rely on this core team immensely.
In a way, it’s about being self-aware enough to understand where I need team members who specialise and are better at certain tasks than I am. For instance, I have less model making skills than Luke, I can’t negotiate a fee as good as Keir, my drawing skills are no match for Kugathas and Sandra and my resourcing skills are nowhere as good as David’s.
However, I can ‘out-cycle’ all of them on a bike!