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Wonderwood, Leeds

Crossing borders

Redesigning overlooked areas of the city with wit and creativity, London-based Amenity Space founders Tony Broomhead and Nicky Kirk also bring humour and a love of architecture and contemporary art to the radio.

Broomhead and Kirk’s arts and architecture show on London radio station Resonance FM started in 2006. With a joke here and there, content ranges from serious topical discussions with leading architects to filling the British capital’s airwaves with atmospheric sound recordings and experimental music.

“Radio is a great medium for exploring a visual subject,” says Broomhead. “It forces you as the producer to research an issue from an alternate perspective, rather than focusing only on its physical understanding.”

Working on a wide range of projects, including lighting, art installations and eco-house design, Broomhead and Kirk’s broad scope of interests is proving useful in the current economic climate. As architects at larger commercial firms lose their jobs, Amenity Space is “just about hanging on,” says Kirk. Despite the recession, they won a commission to design a pocket park called Wonderwood. “This period has allowed architects to rethink their position,” says Kirk. “It has allowed creativity to blossom again as projects become smaller and briefs more complex.”

Amenity Space’s work also crosses over into creating art installations, such as Monitor, a wall projection of 600 moving eyes for a digital media and cultural buildings conference. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on badges tracked the movement of delegates. The ‘eyes’ moved in response to people moving through rooms. There was a “mixed reaction,” says Kirk, “with a number of people objecting to being tracked. Our intention was to subvert the use of this technology—typically found in ID and travel cards—and use it in an artistic way.”

The firm’s name, Amenity Space, is also a planning term. It refers to areas of land like road verges and unused gaps between buildings.

One such unused urban plot, left vacant after a developer hit by the recession stopped construction of a new office building, became Wonderwood, a pocket park with large yellow cut-out trees and oversized windmills in the flower beds. It’s an “urban fantasy garden,” says Kirk, designed as a place for local residents to relax in and enjoy.

Mainly interested in working on projects that allow people to “take control of their environment and transform it for their own benefit,” says Kirk, Amenity Space works at re-thinking the way people, and even animals, use border and in-between places. “We are the spark of creativity,” says Kirk, “that inspires people to look at their everyday activities in a new way and help to develop a better public realm.”

Published in Domus. Updated for Collaborative City.

How and when did you, Nicky, and Tony first meet? What keeps you working together?

We started University on the same day. We must have met in the studio on 15th floor of the Arts Tower – but neither of us can remember the exact moment. Weirdly we never worked together at university, but we did become good friends and this is what encouraged us to team up after we left. We both wanted to continue exploring architecture outside of university and so started doing the odd competition together. This lead to the radio and beyond.

Tony Broomhead

Running a practice together allows a relationship to develop that you would not expect when first starting out. We never meant to run the practice or necessarily realise the projects that we have, but by testing each other in creatively we have explored areas of design outside outside our comfort zone.

Nicky Kirk

Why did you start up the Resonance FM radio show?

Radio is a great medium for exploring a visual subject. It forces you as the producer to research an issue from an alternate perspective, rather than focusing only on its physical understanding. This leads to a greater understanding and encourages us to think about architecture in a fresh way. The radio show was always a way of learning and relaying our discoveries, but the side effect is that is has allowed us to work in an array of areas we could never have imagined.

Tony Broomhead

We have always thought of radio as another form of space: radio waves allow audio projections into different environments and transform the space into something different. We always had an urge to explore this, and the show allows us broadcast the acoustic properties of different environments. Equally we are fasinated by the built environment and often take a more conventional approach by reporting on a specific subjects. The radio show came first – then we formed our practice. If it was not for the the airwaves I cannot imagine how our practice would have begun.

Nicky Kirk

How do you approach a commissioned work? What can you tell us about your working methodology?

We get commissioned as artists on some projects and architects on others, our approach in both disciplines is the same. The boundary is often blurred between the two, which is important now as the traditional role of the architect becomes increasingly marginalised other building professionals. We like to work in areas where our profession and expertise is valued and work on projects that inspire quality and design ingenuity. To this end, we approach all our projects in a similar light.

Primarily, we discuss and analyse the purpose of each project, our role in it and aspirations of the client. We have learnt (especially in the public sector) that clients do not always understand what they really want. We start by working with them, designing out ideas, testing concepts and talking through every detail before forming conclusive ideas. We value this

process and it allows us to forge new meaning so that the brief can fully be developed. We are the spark of creativity that inspires people to look at their everyday activities in a new way and help to develop a better public realm.

Our projects rely on close collaboration with a network of talented friends (including software engineers, other artists, joiners, etc.) who have of expertise in a range of disciplines. We are never afraid to seek advice where needed. We realise that gone are the days of architect as master builder if you want to establish yourself in different disciplines and fuse together art and architecture.

Nicky Kirk

Any projects (anywhere around the world) you dislike?

Canary Wharf. A lot of Norman Foster’s work. You can have too many iconic buildings.

Tony Broomhead

Broadgate (Liverpool Street). Meadowhall, Sheffield.

Nicky Kirk