“We’re different from normal northern architects” — PARKdesigned
BY Austin Gay
Ed Park had lost heart for working in the corporate world of large-scale architecture before, in 2011, he founded architectural firm PARKdesigned with his brother James.
“It was a chance for us to invest in ourselves rather than working for somebody else,” says Ed.
Their first projects as PARKdesigned were house extensions and remodelling work, something that still forms a large part of the business today. But Ed and James’ experience in commercial practice stood them in good stead for larger scale projects, such as competition entries for sites including Calls Landing in Leeds, and design and visualisation work on the pioneering co-working spaces at Duke Studios, in the empty old Auto Trader offices at Munro House.
“We met Laura Wellington and James Abbott-Donnelly, who basically had this space, and lots of great ideas. They needed someone to get involved with the funding and someone to embellish the ideas,” says Ed.
Duke Studios is now a well-established hub for Leeds creativity, setting a national standard for modern office design. More work followed: renovations at live music venue The Faversham; concept designs for Harvey Nichols’ fourth floor cafe; and an award-winning contemporary extension to a traditional Dewsbury funeral directors, all work that established PARKdesigned’s reputation for finding innovative architectural solutions within established buildings, for companies that wanted to do things differently.
At Canal Mills in Armley, they took charge of a design project that transformed an old furniture factory into an ever- changing nightclub and events space that is now a fixture of Leeds cultural scene. Ed, James and the team were given a demanding three-week deadline to have the nightclub ready for an opening night when a staggering 1200 guests were expected.
“It was bonkers,” says Ed. “And it became like a kind of Challenge Anneka thing. People were queuing outside. It was all hands to the pump; there was a queue of 500 people waiting for this club night to open and we were literally painting and moving barriers to try and get it finished. But we got it done, and now Canal Mills is great.”
PARKdesigned are now working on another historic building on the canalside at Armley, the grade II listed 19th century flax mill, Castleton Mill. The 176-year-old mill is becoming a hub for art studios, design companies, and other creative practices. In their work on this brick and Yorkstone factory, Ed and James have revived the simplicity and allure of buildings from the era, and added a smart modern accent. The skill set needed for designing buildings in this manner calls for a high level of experience and a keen eye for exceptional design.
“When you start working on something where everything is exposed, you need to detail it right,” says James. “We did it at Canal Mills, we’re doing it at Castleton Mill, and we’re doing it for another project at PrimalGym.”
PrimalGym will be opening in one of the vacant modern blocks at Leeds Dock, but although the building is relatively new, the aesthetic is the same: raw, exposed walls and internal structures forming a backdrop to an up-to-date gym environment.
Across Black Bull Street at Chadwick Lodge the challenge was different. PARKdesigned were asked to build a recording studio inside another listed building, in this case a Georgian mansion house built for mill owner John Chadwick, with a grade II* interior.
“I was thinking, how on earth do we get a recording studio into this building?” says Ed. “But thanks to the reputation we have from working on buildings like Castleton Mill, the conservation team at Leeds Council trusts us now because they know we’re not going to cut corners.
“We managed to get permission to punch a hole through an archway, even though the interior is all really ornate and important to the building. We came up with a sympathetic design and it looks cracking. Everyone was happy with the result.
“The jobs that we like to do are these kinds of bespoke commercial jobs. We want to sit back and be proud of what we do, to classify our work as architecture, and not just turning out buildings.”
As the current chair of Leeds Society of Architects, Leeds’ sub committee of the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA), Ed is thoroughly involved in taking new ideas about architecture to a wider audience in the city.
“People are a bit scared to approach architects,” he says. “They think they’re going to ring up and speak to us and we’re going to charge them a fee right away. That’s why we got involved in the RIBA Ask an Architect project, where we meet people and answer questions regarding what we can do, free of charge.”
Just before our interview, PARKdesigned had received an invite to Guerrilla Tactics, a contest hosted by RIBA each year where architectural firms meet in front of an audience and pitch design ideas to a panel of judges. This year’s theme was Reinventing the British Pub; an intriguing opportunity for Ed and James.
“If you’re a small practice you kind of get overlooked if you’re not one of the main ones down in London,” says James.
“It’s good that we’re starting to get recognition by being chosen for events like that,” says Ed. “We’re just a little Northern practice.
“Richard Waite from Architects Journal spent the day with us earlier this year, and he said that we’re very different from a normal Northern architecture practice; that we’re more like a London-style studio, because we don’t just want to build buildings. There are architects, and there are people that just build buildings.”
As well as the larger scale work PARKdesigned is involved in, they still work hard helping out independent businesses in Leeds. Asked by a small family business to redesign the interior of their shop, Ed and James have turned the project into a rebranding exercise that they hope will reinvigorate the growing company; although Ed says that this can be a trying process from an artistic standpoint.
“We want PARKdesigned to grow, so we’re kind of juggling two things. We don’t want to sell our soul, but at the same time we do want our business to grow a little bit and take on bigger projects. But we want to get involved with interesting things, and keep supporting independents.”
PARKdesigned’s clients reflect their own ways of working with independent peers like Milkys, an interior design firm, digital agency Teabag and photographer Joe Stenson, so that not only their client work, but their own practice supports independent partners.
“Working with independents, and our relationship with them, has basically led us to where we are now,” says Ed. “People come to us because we are different.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 19