Alex Ely founded London based Mæ in 2001. The practice works at all scales with a strong social agency, from individual buildings to urban strategies and masterplans. In all their projects, they are driven by an unwavering commitment to community-led design.
Recent projects include Brentford Lock West, which won a RIBA London Award this year, as well as the Sands End Arts and Community Centre, shortlisted for the New London Awards 2018.
Beyond the practice, Alex maintains an energetic presence in the wider architectural world by being involved in design policy, design teaching and public speaking on housing and urban issues.
We visited Alex in Kings Cross on a clear afternoon.
Pastry: Orange almond cake slice
Tell me about an ideal day for you.
So I don’t believe in the myth of idealism. I am more stimulated by the serendipity and unexpected nature of the everyday.
However, I do have some preferences. I am an early starter and will be down at the gym at 6 am. I love to walk to work and drop by Brill in Exmouth Market for good coffee and breakfast.
I really enjoy that quiet time in the office before everyone else arrives. I have an hour to get my head down to think before we start the day.
The most rewarding days are when I get to spend time with the team, who are an amazingly talented bunch. When we have design reviews and workshops to dig deep into the architecture, those are particularly enjoyable days.
At the end of day, I would then wander home and catch up with friends and colleagues to have a beer and chill out.
I do try to plan my working week to allow a buffer for interesting engagements such as the Mayor’s Design Advocacy work I do with GLA, for external design reviews and of course, teaching.
Do you normally work with music? What’s your one track or favourite thing to listen to for deep work?
When working, I don’t listen to anything. I like deep work and it has to be quiet.
I actually met a friend who had a baby recently and she was playing white noise to her baby in the pram. You can get tapes of white noise now and that could appeal as a way to shut out distractions, so maybe I should investigate that.
That said, when I am relaxing, I do enjoy an eclectic mix of music from Beethoven to PJ Harvey. I used to listen to a lot of Philip Glass and still do from time to time.
The thing about PJ Harvey and artists similar to her is their shared ability to craft lyrics that resonate with the psyche of the English condition, which I really welcome.
"I don’t believe in the myth of idealism. I am more stimulated by the serendipity and unexpected nature of the everyday."
What tool, digital or analogue, can you not live without.
Instinctively, pencil and paper! I do carry my notebook with me all the time.
Also, I’m going to say my iPad. More and more, I can use the iPad for sketching and to engage in communication and social media for the practice.
To be safe, I would like 1 digital and 1 analogue tool because I can’t think without a pencil in my hand.
If you could invite 1 person, alive or dead, to dinner, who would it be?
If it was only 1 person, it would just be a date so I would prefer a party.
There are too many to mention but I would like to rattle off a few.
I would really enjoy the company of people like Edwin Catmull, the president of Pixar. The way he has nurtured the creative culture at Pixar is extraordinary. They have maintained a level of innovation and creativity that is just admirable. I would like to understand how he has managed to do that.
I have just been reading a book by Steven Johnson called ‘Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software’. It explores how complex patterns and forms can arise from the multiplicity of seemingly lower level functions and actions.
He is fascinating because he creates immersive parallels between things such as the growth of slime mould, the way humans build cities and game theory.
Another person would be Jane Jacobs. She shares some common ground with Steven Johnson and they would have a very memorable conversation. Her view would be more grassroots based and that cities are made from the growth of communities.
I would like to invite one more person. This one is perhaps a bit of a curveball. It would be General Stanley McChrystal. I think he has theories about team structure and decentralised management that I would like to hear more about in person. It has many parallels for our industry as well and how we can work in a more integrated way.
I don’t know if they would all get along but I think it would be quite a good dinner.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading a book called ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari.
It’s a salient reminder that the beliefs, such as religions and ideologies like capitalism, which seem necessary for society are all built on myths. Nothing in our biology pushes us towards these commonly held ‘isms’ and structures. The book posits that they have all been developed as a way to help Sapiens cooperate.
In reading that book, it makes you question the fallacy of your beliefs and as a result, you develop a healthy scepticism.
"The thing about PJ Harvey and artists similar to her is their shared ability to craft lyrics that resonate with the psyche of the English condition, which I really welcome."
You have the homepage of Dezeen for the day. You can put up any message you want. What would it be?
I would like to promote the importance of social purpose within architecture. Recently, I made a riposte on Twitter to David Chipperfield’s article in the Financial Times, he claimed architects have lost their way. I think the article made a generalisation and many architects are committed to creating work of social purpose, which could do with more coverage in the ‘starchi-press’.
I’m a fan of Dezeen and it would be great to see content for a day being purely about great buildings that deliver social value, aiming to get beyond the seduction of the image and looking at how we design to improve the quality of lives. I think we can more than happily supply the required beautiful images to demonstrate that social purpose.
Imagine it’s a late night and you have a deadline. What’s the takeaway craving? (We are not promoting working late.)
I don’t really do takeaways actually.
Cooking can be just as quick.
Preparing your own pasta takes next to no time.
"I would really enjoy the company of people like Edwin Catmull, the president of Pixar."
Any advice for a younger self or for someone entering the field?
I have the same advice for both my younger self and someone entering architecture.
It would be a reminder of a 17th-century proverb, which is ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’.
If I’m not mistaken, it was also cited in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.
I’m guilty of not following through on my own advice as much as I would like to. The people I admire are ones who are able to combine work and pleasure, engaging with society, friends, clients socially as a way of giving practice renewed vigour.
Any friend of yours that you think I should visit next?
We are developing a research programme looking at London through the eyes of international cities. Milan is our first stop and we are trying to understand how these cities deal with growth and densification.
I’d also recommend an old friend of mine, Kieran Long. He has followed a really interesting career path from journalist to Director of the V&A and even on television. Now, he is developing a very ambitious programme for the architecture and design museum in Stockholm called ArkDes, where he is the director.