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Alex Michaelis - Michaelis Boyd Associates

30th Jan 2014

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If you look up the word ‘maverick’ in a dictionary, it gives a description of someone who is ‘an unorthodox or independent-minded person, an individualist, non-conformist, free-spirited; an unconventional trendsetter’. Few people can be summed up in one word, yet ‘maverick’ perfectly describes Alex Michaelis of award-winning west London-based architecture practice Michaelis Boyd Associates.

The road was never going to be conventional for Michaelis. He is the son of the world-renowned architect and engineer Dominic Michaelis, a pioneer of solar power who continues to work on his plans for Energy Island, a floating sea-level platform for generating renewable energy. With such big shoes to fill, it’s no wonder that Michaelis junior didn’t set out to be an architect. He studied science with a view to a career in medicine, but then a life-changing visit to Italy ignited a love of buildings and architecture that was too strong to ignore. From tentative steps, today Michaelis Boyd Associates (the practice he founded with Tim Boyd) is a multidisciplinary team based in an old church hall in Kensington, united in its approach to sustainable design.

As the architect who kickstarted our current obsession with digging below houses, one of Michaelis’ most-famous projects is his former family home, recently sold by Domus Nova. The glorious sixbedroom subterranean property on Oxford Gardens incorporates a pool, a climbing wall and the kind of open-plan space most of us can only dream about. Functional rather than opulent, the property is testament to Michaelis’ aspirations for underground living: to create extra space that enables us to move home less frequently and so disrupt our lives less. Watching as developers have hijacked his ideals to maximise plots and values, Michaelis is now on a mission to encourage planners to marry permission with compensation packages for those living on either side of a basement build – a controversial ambition, but the solution to a fast-growing problem. Problem solving is just one aspect of the job Michaelis enjoys, and this is evident in the scope of work the practice has generated over the past decade. Projects include the restoration of Notting Hill's iconic Electric Cinema, Babington House in Somerset, Soho House private members’ clubs in Los Angeles and Berlin to name a few, restaurants in London including Tom Aiken at Somerset House, Pizza East, Byron in Farringdon, Hoxton, Old Brompton Road and Northcote Road - as a selection of several, Hush, Giraffe and Cabana Westfield, while in Istanbul, Michaelis Boyd have recently completed work on Tom Aiken's first Turkish outpost - Tom's Kitchen. There is also a children’s centre in Kensington - Maggie & Rose, hotels in New York [The Williamsburg Hotel], South Africa, Botswana [Sandibe] sheltered housing in Nepal and private residences all around the world. The list is impressive and shows that nothing is off limits. As Michaelis says, “The big projects are what really centre my focus – the chance to explore possibilities and challenge people’s perceptions of what an environment should be.”

In every project the practice delivers there is a beautiful simplicity, a reaction to what Michaelis refers to as a current ‘sensory overload’. “Everywhere you look we are being informed, educated and generally bombarded with design,” he says. “It’s in magazines, online, on our high streets, at exhibitions and shows. It’s all too much. Our architecture is a direct antithesis of this and we aim to challenge the zeitgeist by giving users the chance to escape the outside world. In the future, space will be our biggest indulgence.”

This desire to create beautiful, functional yet interesting design has recently found expression in a new furniture collection. Frustrated at not being able to find pieces that were exactly right, Michaelis Boyd Studio launched its inaugural collection, entitled ‘Dinner for 8’ at the 2013 Milan Furniture Fair. Including a dining table, chairs and lighting, the pieces were well received and have all the quiet makings of future classics.

As 2014 stretches ahead, Michaelis is reticent about the challenges facing the practice. He won’t reveal where, but there is a big project in the pipeline that will provide the greatest showcase yet for Michaelis Boyd Associates. Is this his legacy project? “Every architect wants the indulgence of a legacy project, but I’m not sure we’re there just yet,” he says. “My ultimate project hasn’t happened so far. What has happened is that the scope of what architects can do has broadened and deepened significantly. We can sketch and make it happen, and we do. The real challenge is considering and minimising the effects of what we do, whether on people, the environment or the planet as a whole. I think that’s where the alchemy starts and the legacy is created.”

Architecture is considered a game of two halves, problem solving and design. Do you have a preference for either?

No, not really. I like the challenge of meeting the brief, particularly on a big project where the possibilities are much greater. I look to try to incorporate new technology, renewable energy features or to make a building as sustainable as possible. If a project can tick those boxes then I see that as an achievement.

Oxford Gardens was a pioneering project. How receptive do you think planners and people in general are now to subterranean living?
I’m disappointed that the creation of subterranean space is something that has been hijacked by developers to fully maximize the financial gain on every project they now tackle, a basement is the loft conversion of the 80’s. It’s so rife now that I think it’s time for the planners to act up and put measures in place to protect those affected by deep build basement conversions – a sort of compensation package for the disruption.

What has been your favourite project so far?

It hasn’t happened yet! I’ve enjoyed elements of all of the projects that we’ve done but I don’t feel we’ve reached our full potential. Oxford Gardens, my own home was very satisfying to work on as it gave me the indulgence of trying out lots of new technologies with no danger of upsetting the client.

How does London inspire you?

London is an amazing city and I feel very privileged to know it so well. Inspiration generally comes to me when I’m cycling, taking everything in around me. That’s when I get my greatest ideas.

You launched furniture at Milan last year. What drove the thought process behind this project?

It’s hard to buy into perfection and so many things that we see need tweaking or are just wrong in some way. We’re bombarded by design yet the best solution sometimes is to just make what you want so you know it will be right. That’s where Dinner for 8 came from. We’ve started small with tables, chairs and lighting but hope to expand on this in the future. 

You were recently appointed to the redevelopment of
Battersea Power Station – what are your plans for it?
We are delighted that our practice will be joining this iconic development and will play a role in breathing life back into one of the most famous London buildings. Our goal is to create a design that respects The Power Station referencing its historic palette of materials and details. Through a rich mix of layouts we are using our diverse range of experience to create unique apartments for modern living.

If you were London Mayor for the day, what would you do?

Make the city more sustainable. I would ban the Thames Tideaway Tunnnel and instigate local blue greening solutions for London.

Discover more about Michaelis Boyd Associates on the Domus Nova Architect Guide

Michaelis Boyd Associates, 108 Palace Gardens Terrace W8;