Cullinan Studio: Reconnecting with Nature - by Roddy Langmuir

To mark the occasion, Practice Leader Roddy Langmuir, reflects on Cullinan Studio's progressive vision for society and the natural world, and discusses architecture's role in combating climate change.


About 18 months ago, many of us in the Cullinan studio felt the need to stand back a little and ask ourselves why we were working as architects? What was the larger context beyond the design problems we faced each day? We’d been carrying on, furiously chasing deadlines, heads down, doing what we do… but there was electricity in the air, storm clouds gathering. Professions have a tendency to self-reference and behave with a bubble mentality, whereas new ideas often ignite on the margins of fields of study where they rub up against different disciplines and frames of reference. It was feeling as if the profession of architecture needed to open its horizons and embrace the biggest issues for the built environment – climate change, biodiversity loss, and imagining the transformative possibilities of new infrastructure. In the world beyond ours, you could sense a change was beginning to take place, or at least an acknowledgement that things had to change.


Drawing for Alder Hey Children's Hospital:
sub-wait spaces overlook the garden © Cullinan Studios


Many individuals and organisations, including our own architectural practice, had beaten at the doors of climate change for over 50 years with little measurable impact. But these doors were beginning to be taken down by a popular uprising that was penetrating right at the heart of big business. And our children were refusing to see climate change as a problem too large and too complex to be tackled; insisting on action and choosing to work with ethical businesses that were aligned with their world view.


Drawing for Stonebridge Estate, London, 
illustrating the qualities of the shared places, front doors and
the creation of good microclimate © Cullinan Studios


Climate change has stalked us; even on an accelerating course, in human terms it has happened slowly, growing insidiously beyond the 4-year remits of our electoral systems and even beyond entire generations. We have felt so powerless to act against it - our narrow, ever more specialist education clouding our understanding of the sheer breadth of impacts, and our laisse-faire market capitalism unable to offer up the mechanisms to take concerted action. Surely if we could just take the sort of individual, national, and global action that has been triggered by Covid-19, we might truly combat the relentless progress of climate change and biodiversity loss.


It was in this context that we began a series of conversations to challenge ourselves, and to measure our direction as a practice against this world view. Architectural practices have a natural tendency to develop a culture, as a foundation for their work; otherwise, absolutely anything goes and design decisions either become confused or whimsical. Established 60 years ago by the force of nature that was Ted Cullinan, our cooperative practice is characterised by openness and debate to resolve disagreements. We seek ways of making buildings that celebrate low energy design and look to enable social interactions at all scales. We enjoy the larger ‘design team’ working mentality for its richness of ideas and surprise contributions. We try to find ways to make buildings that respond to local context, local topography and local culture and climate.


Now, at a time when there is a mass re-awakening towards the urgency of addressing climate change, it is as though we have been practicing for this moment. The need for a broader interpretation of sustainable design, and the need to reconnect people with the natural world through the buildings we design is in our blood – it’s our DNA. The last paradigm shift in architecture was brought to us through the soul-searching quests of the great modernists. Brilliant and flawed, it has led to our shared architectural language – and we all design within this frame of reference. Now we are entering another period of transformation, centered on how we all respond to the challenges of climate change.

Drawing for Holy Cross Primary School Swindon:
the school is built using a modular timber cassette system creating
pitched ceilings to classrooms with clerestory windows and
shared pods for cloaks and WC’s © Cullinan Studios

In our discussions on these topics we chiseled away and came back again and again to a simple truth: that our society had lost its balance with the natural world and that we need to reconnect with nature. This is an empowering thought for any designer. Reconnecting with nature does not simply mean weaving the natural world into our increasingly abstract urban environments, it also requires us to reach for responses calibrated against the essence of our humanity. We can measure how well we are designing places and buildings for better mental, environmental, physical and spiritual health. It embraces the drive to de-carbonise; the need to value the quality of the air we breathe; the role the materials we use have in a new circular economy where the concept of ‘waste’ disappears.


Climate change is a calamity but re-dressing it is a massive opportunity - for a better built environment. It’s a great time to be an architect – a time of profound change and flourishing ideas for how to improve community and wellbeing, how to create better connections with the natural world, and how we might reimagine our streets when all the parked cars have gone. We need to align with the dramatic changes happening across many disciplines. Architects need to avoid isolation and marginalization and get back to the centre of things, helping find creative solutions for clients where the value of our input is not measured by the quantity of what we build. The continuous churn of the built environment is embarrassing! We need to be architects for less building, where what we do build, invests in quality, and is designed for the long term.


While we will have to undergo a minor revolution to take our built environment towards the promised land of a net energy producing, zero waste industry, it will still just be a part of the story. What is really exciting about our response to this new brief is how we do it…not just that we do it. Good buildings connect with nature… they relate to people and have great relevance to their lives. Good buildings employ the sun, daylight, and textures, in an interplay with dynamic qualities that anticipate our movement. Good buildings tell us stories about how and why they were made, and they are gradually synthesised as a part of our culture to be passed on. Good buildings endure because they do all this, and the joy they give us ensures that they are valued and adapted to new uses.


Reflecting on this as a guiding philosophy for our practice, it seems to be more about continuity and redefinition than a change of course. If the hardest brief for a designer is an entirely open one with no constraints, then reconnecting with nature offers a grounding to ease our everyday design decisions while also giving us an opportunity to lead the practice in alignment with a better future.


 You can order your copy of Cullinan Studio in the 21st Century HERE.



View the full list of Autumn books in our catalogue HERE.