DK-CM is an architecture, planning & research studio founded by David Knight (DK) and Cristina Monteiro (CM). The practice is outspoken, bold and imaginative in its architectural position. Their work is underpinned by a respect and knowledge of the social, historical and formal contexts of a place.
They have exhibited frequently at international biennales and galleries. The practice is committed to questioning and interrogating the meaning and processes of public agency through tireless research and running a forward-thinking architectural unit, ADS2, at the RCA.
Recent projects include the Erith Lighthouse for Bexley Council, public work in Uxbridge as well as a residential project in Moscow.
We met with David and Cristina on a sunny late morning in Bethnal Green.
Coffee: Both black
Pastries: Lemon polenta cake and brownie
Tell me about an ideal day for you.
DK: Well, cake would be a good start. The ideal day is a busy day but one that is not too busy to think widely at the same time. We are quite keen to always get around the table to design collectively as an office. We do a weekly show and tell and people take it in turns to bring something in to show the rest of the office. It’s informal but it keeps the practice discursive. It’s easy for practices to get lost in a series of meetings, procedures and deadlines. On the one hand, we are fascinated by these processes involved in public work but at the same time you need to “force” some other ways of thinking and doing into the mix. So in that sense, the ideal day is a busy one with that mix of contrasting activities.
Do you normally work with music? What’s your one track or favourite thing to listen to for deep work?
CM: David loves music and we live close to Rough Trade. David and our daughter Amelia frequent the shop every Saturday. I’m lucky because I just get to sit back and enjoy what they uncover at the shop.
When I am at work at the moment, I always listen to the same thing. It’s in Spotify and it’s a playlist called ‘Into the Woods’ and classified under Folk and Americana. It’s full of obscure Norwegian / Nordic bands and it feels like you are going on a woodland walk. I am also addicted to a band called Flyte.
That said, I can’t listen and write at the same time. When I am drawing, I listen to ‘Women’s Hour’.
DK: I have a geeky tendency to tune the music to the task. I listen to music when I write. When I was writing the PhD, a typically slow and laborious process of long-form writing, I listened to a band called Explosions in the Sky. They make cinematic tunes that are quite long. The crescendos and falls in the music help you tune your writing.
Sometimes, it’s 2-minute rock & roll tunes while making images to keep the mood up.
"We do a weekly show and tell and people take it in turns to bring something in to show the rest of the office. It’s informal but it keeps the practice discursive."
What tool, digital or analogue, can you not live without.
CM: My mobile phone. It has changed the way I go about daily life. From groceries to catching up to news and social media, it’s all done through this amazing device. It is a scary tool but it is indispensable. I am so dependent on it because of all the windows it opens.
I remember seeing an old episode of Dr Who, and everyone had these earbuds they were connected to. The whole society moved in concert and in a similar way, now when you go on the underground, everyone’s attention is glued to their phone.
DK: The honest answer is also the phone but I'm going to say felt tip pens. Thick gauge and colourful ones from Pentel.
Both my parents had backgrounds in drafting. My mom was trained in cartography and my dad in technical draughtsmanship so 'technical' drawing is in my blood. My grandmother, unusually for her generation, was a draftsperson for the Ministry of Public Works. My uncle, who just retired, was an architect. I didn’t grow up with paint brushes but with a lot of dead Rotring nibs. When I am drawing, I have a definite tendency to pencil lines in first and then get a nice little 0.2 pen to draw over it.
The reason why I said coloured felt tip pens is that they are a way for me to break that habit. I actually have a neat book for straight pens and another book for the looser felt tip drawings.
CM: I take credit for giving him the felt tip pens!
DK: Also, I am consciously trying to design with colour more. Architecture education tends to be quite desaturated. You were advised to not use colour unless it was conceptually pure to use colour. In a way, it is a method to escape one’s programming to use colour intentionally in the design process.
"Sometimes, it’s 2-minute rock & roll tunes while making images to keep the mood up."
If you could invite 1 person to dinner, who would it be?
DK: Colin Ward. Partly because I am cross that I didn’t have dinner or a pub conversation with him before he passed away. The year I started my research for the PhD was the year he died. I’ve known his work for years and it’s an enduring regret in the research that I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to him.
I went to his memorial event at Conway Hall and met a whole bunch of people influenced by him and who worked with him.
Apart from the fact that his work is important, I am really interested in the way he both created books and also got his hands dirty in activism and policy. For every book, there was an effort by him to act on his ideas. There was a creative tension between his ideas and actions, which is a fascinating way to practice. That flicking between thinking and doing is an amazing thing to learn from.
It also partly explains why our dog is called Morris after William Morris, whom I see as having shared similar qualities of practice as Colin Ward.
CM: We have just come back from New Zealand and I am completely in awe of their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. I would love to go for dinner with her. She is a year older than me and able to communicate across so many different generations. She is a wonderful role model for women and I really enjoy the way she uses media. She always does her own Facebook posts before conferences and has managed to use Youtube to chart a bottom-up approach where she can be in touch with people in society who might normally be disenfranchised from politicians and politics. Other politicians could learn from her.
Having said that, I wouldn’t know if she would have a good sense of humour and I would like to take someone else with me to dinner, just in case. Jo Brand would be a great 'icebreaker'.
DK: Sounds like a good dinner, I might try to gatecrash this one.
"I would run down Bethnal Green for a biryani."
What are you currently reading?
DK: I am currently reading ‘All in the Downs’, which is an autobiography of an incredible folk musician called Shirley Collins. She was a hugely important figure in music globally and a collaborator of Alan Lomax. They travelled around the United States in the 1950s and got some of the first recordings of blues musicians. If you go to the blues section of any record shop, half of the artists there were first recorded by Shirley and Alan with a portable recorder that was the size of a backpack. They were going out into the deep south of America and recording this amazing folk music for the first time.
She did incredible ethnographic research, without which, popular music would have been very different. She then came back to the UK and became an incredible folk musician. After a personal crisis, she stopped recording in 1978 and has just made what some regard as the best record of her career. She has been living in this cottage in the Downs in Lewes, close to where I come from. She sort of disappeared from culture for decades and decades and just reappeared with this amazing new record and autobiography. I started reading it 2 days ago.
CM: Since having our little girl, what I have discovered is this incredible world of children’s books and illustrations. Yesterday, I read a wonderful book called ‘Meet the Parents’. It’s a gentle book, slightly mocking the role and use of a parent in a child’s life. It was a nice way to introduce humour to children.
Everyday, we take turns to read to our daughter. She’s addicted to books and refers to her room as the library. She says her room is a ‘library with a bed in it.’
We try to alternate between English and Portuguese folk tales and contemporary things.
Going back to your question about the ideal day, the end of the day is great for thinking about literature and writing.
You have the homepage of Dezeen for the day. You can put up any message you want. What would it be?
DK: For the space of one day, it would be interesting to radically change the way projects are shown.
The shiny, finished photo of the project is tough to challenge as a way to represent architecture. So much of the culture is based on the highly curated glossy image and it’s hard to dismiss that in a competitive world.
However, because Dezeen are in effect the gatekeeper to this, they could carry out some thought experiments. For example, for a day in the week, all projects would show the economic model it was based on. All projects would be shown through a spreadsheet for a day and then turned off the next day to go back to the glossy images.
CM: I enjoy the fact that Dezeen is visually led. I’m interested in user-generated content and I would suggest that for a day, we would have a relevant theme like ‘design’ or ‘place-making’ and Dezeen could collaborate with Instagram to showcase all the images submitted through a particular hashtag.
Imagine it’s a late night and you have a deadline. What’s the takeaway craving? (We are not promoting working late.)
CM: We don’t do late nights. We have been practising for 5 years and maybe we have worked late about 5 times. We are quite disciplined about working within the parameters of the day. If I had to choose, it would be miso soup.
DK: I would run down to Bethnal Green for a biryani.
Have you picked up a new behaviour, habit or routine that has most improved your life?
CM: For me, it would be having our daughter. It has changed my life and made me more disciplined in the way I plan my work day.
DK: Having children steadies you. You can’t obsess over any professional or personal crisis. It cuts across everything really quickly. A child has a need and you are the only person who can deliver on that need.
CM: Actually, David also has a good habit in being quite disciplined of doing a drawing weekly, which he then posts to Instagram. They are architectural but not project related.
DK: They are drawings on another Instagram account @_knight_david. They are trying to be relevant to practice and exploring form and pattern while also enabling me to continue being an architecture student and having the time to think about types and precedent.
"...students depend too much on Dezeen and Pinterest as the first step in research. "
Any advice for a younger self or for someone entering the field?
DK: I think for a younger self, it would be to try and be more confident and assertive about the things you personally like in relation to the profession. There is a lot of manner and dogma in architecture education and practice, which somewhat stipulates acceptable tastes and the ways you are meant to talk about and value things. These can have a very uncritical basis sometimes. Architecture education can implicitly demand you to be interested in only certain things.
I think the things that got me interested in architecture when I was 15, both aesthetically and politically, are still as important to me now as they were then.
CM: Use the pen and don’t divorce yourself from using analogue methods. Try and devote time, at least an hour a day to reflect on things through writing and drawing with a pen.
It’s so easy to not know something and depend on Google and your phone too much.
I always ask students to go to the physical library. It is a wonderful resource and students depend too much on Dezeen and Pinterest as the first step in research. Flicking between the library and digital platforms can make one's research richer.
Following on from David, those journeys from youth are so important. I grew up in Porto and saw the city crumbling and I wanted to be an architect to help the city flourish. Though there is a romance in ruin, that sparked my interest in wanting to become an architect.
Any friend of yours that you think I should visit next?
DK: Any of the cohort of Public Practice associates that have just started.
CM: Monadnock or Fala Atelier. We share a strong affinity in the way we describe and think about our projects.