A Sustained History Featuring McLaren.Excell’s Lower Mill Project – Video Series by VOLA

Words Bronwyn Marshall

As part of VOLA’s series of short films, On Design, McLaren.Excell founding co-directors Luke McLaren and Robert Excell speak to their underlying approach to light, materiality and form. A Sustained History explores how these elements are expressed throughout McLaren.Excell’s Lower Mill project.

As an expression of craft and paring back architecture to its fundamentals, McLaren.Excell approaches each project with the same curiosity and rigor. A Sustained History explores the underlying foundational principles McLaren.Excell’s work, and how these are expressed throughout the Lower Mill project, a restoration and contemporary insertion within an original 18th century mill. Through a dissection of the core elements that comprise our architectural realms, Luke McLaren and Robert Excell reflect on the significance of instilling a timeless quality through the layering of richness and texture.

Rather than being influenced by trends, the architects instead focused on creating a home that sat confidently yet quietly at the intersection of history.

Set within a small English village lies Lower Mill. With the building listed as a Grade II significant structure, McLaren.Excell adopted a preservation approach, expressing as much of the original as possible, and layering new elements with those of the existing mill. Rather than being influenced by trends, the architects instead focused on creating a home that sat confidently yet quietly at the intersection of history. In explaining their approach, Luke says “Without a story, without context, there is a [lack of] richness and texture to the building. People like stories, people like histories, people like a narrative that they can understand and there is a vicarious enjoyment in seeing something go through a process because you are part of a broader story, a history in the making if you like, of that building. So, what we do has to be considered in that light and [of] how the building continues to thrive and exist.”

As part of VOLA’s series of short films, On Design, McLaren.Excell founding co-directors Luke McLaren and Robert Excell speak to their underlying approach to light, materiality and form.

In responding to the original Victorian-era mill, the architects took inspiration from the raw materiality of the existing building.

Blending in with the original and existing elements of the mill, McLaren.Excell wanted to contribute to the continuation of its history. Luke explains, “There’s nothing that will date about the quality of a space – that is a timeless thing. There’s nothing that’s going to date about the quality of light that you’ve managed to achieve in a building, that is also timeless. But how you detail, how you choose materials in an appropriate way, how the building feels for want of a better word, those things can age, and it’s on that level that you need to be really careful that what you’re doing will stand up to time and will endure.”

McLaren.Excell adopted a preservation approach, expressing as much of the original as possible, and layering new elements with those of the existing mill.

A pared-back simplicity pervades the space which creates a sense of quiet and calm, while also exhibiting strength.

Through the use of raw plate steel, limed oak timber, natural brick, refined hardware and metal accents, the approach is one of honesty. The new materials selected are those that will grow richer as they grow older, with time adding to their own story. Describing McLaren.Excell’s attitude to designing within these circumstances, Robert says, “We always want there to be a richness in terms of material and the context, but it can age, whether its wood, steel, concrete – it can gather history in itself. There’s always an element of pulling, and pushing in different directions, a tension in what we’re doing that takes you beyond the normal practice of architecture or interiors. Every move we make is to try and play with materiality, and proportion and scale and there’s a clear concept with any building like this where you strip back and reveal the existing building, but then anything that is inserted is clearly new and not blurring the lines between the two is critical.” In this way, the connection back to the mill’s original industrial past is clear but executed through its own refined expression that exhibits its contemporary qualities.

McLaren.Excell embraceed the idea that there can be heroism in the ordinary, that architecture can be monumental without being loud.

The subtlety present in McLaren.Excell’s work is one of honed articulation, and one of understanding and respecting materials, craft and light. This is driven by the architects’ appreciation for core elements coming together and shows a true restraint. “There’s a great Smythsons quote (the Smythsons were iconic architects in Britain in the 60s and 70s) and they said “There’s a heroism to the ordinary”, and I think what they meant by that is a building can be monumental, heroic and beautifully composed without being brash and loud,” says Sam. “That’s where I think a lot of the subtlety and the calmness comes from – it’s embracing something that is very pared back, and very ordinary in one sense, but at the same time, [has a] very heroic and significant quality to it. And I think simplicity comes out of that.”

The subtlety present in McLaren.Excell’s work is one of honed articulation, and one of understanding and respecting materials, craft and light.

Executed through this considered and astute approach, McLaren.Excell’s Lower Mill speaks to its own provenance. Quiet in atmosphere yet exhibiting strength in its intent, A Sustained History explores a work of architecture that embraces the building’s enduring history and simplicity.

The subtlety present in McLaren.Excell’s work is one of honed articulation, and one of understanding and respecting materials, craft and light.

‘A Sustained History’ is the fourth film to feature on VOLA’s web-based platform On-design, which spotlights striking architecture projects from across the globe and shares insights from industry professionals. The inaugural film showed Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen – founding partner of Norm Architects – delving into his experience and growing up in Denmark and explaining how design is intrinsic to Danish culture.

Published 6 April, 2020
Photography  Thomas Seear-Budd
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