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Nilesh Mahendra Shah and Pereen d'Avoine
13th September 2017

Russian for Fish: What Makes a Perfect Architect?

 – By Anya

London-based architecture practice Russian for Fish has come a long way since its founding in 2006. Initially established as a means of getting around an architecture competition’s stringent entrance rules (the name was partly inspired by founder Pereen d'Avoine’s lifelong love of goldfish), Russian for Fish is now one of London’s most exciting small architecture firms.

From a studio in Bethnal Green, Pereen d'Avoine and co-director Nilesh Mahendra Shah mastermind the transformation of buildings across London and the south-east, taking on renovations, extensions and new builds for both commercial and residential clients. Since its founding 11 years ago, the practice has quickly gained a reputation for its use of minimal materials and ability to work wonders in compact spaces. Understanding the importance of a human touch, Russian for Fish places collaboration at the heart of each of its projects. An open dialogue between client and architect is crucial.

With a hearty number of recently completed projects to shout about (check out Chestnut Road and Walford Road), and a whole load more currently in-progress, we spoke to Pereen about the day-to-day workings of Russian for Fish. In the interview that follows, the architect discusses what makes the perfect client, the importance of collaboration, and her plans to resolve the current goldfish-shaped hole in her life.
Chestnut Road, Russian for Fish

Russian For Fish was formed as a means of getting around an architecture competition’s stringent entrance rules – a refusal to take no for an answer. Does this go-getting approach feed into your architecture?

We definitely want to make the most of opportunities, both for the practice and for our clients, so if there is a different way of approaching a solution then we are going to check it out. As with most things, positive results are often the product of good communication and talking around a subject, whether in-house, with a client or with various consultants.

What do you look for in a client? Are there certain approaches/characteristics/beliefs that makes them particularly appealing?

That’s a hard one. Different clients bring different things to a project but it is always great when a client has an appreciation for the complexities of our job. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air when working on an architectural project, no matter what the size. Our knowledge has to be broad and our memories have to be pretty elephant-like! A client with an interest in good design makes a great collaboration.

We have had some super brave clients too. We have one client in East Molesey who appealed against the planning committee to get a completely zinc-clad extension on the back of her 18th-century semi-detached home. Another recent client allowed us to install the brightest yellow kitchen we’d ever seen! Optimism is always a plus too. We are definitively glass half full people, that may also tie in with our refusal to take no for an answer!
Tapestry Court Pavilion, Russian for Fish

What do you look for in a project?

Sometimes it’s just a case of loving the client: something clicks and we want to work with them. On other occasions, we have fallen in love with the property. We often see the potential in a property and want the challenge of unpicking it and piecing it back together so that it works perfectly for the client.  Sometimes it’s the view out the window. Lancaster Gate, for example, overlooked Hyde Park, it was beautiful and had a constantly changing treescape. Some projects allow us to venture into furniture or product design in which we get to collaborate with super talented makers, which is a dream.

What would turn you off of a project?

More often it is how we feel about the client opposed to how we feel about the brief.  We are totally aware that you need chemistry with a client. It is a very personal process and we need to understand how they live, how they use their home and what they want from their home. We design their bathrooms and their wardrobes and question how they cook and relax. A client has to trust us, not only with their budgets, but their homes.

NW3, Russian for Fish

Running your own practice is a huge undertaking. What’s the best bit about setting the rules?

It’s a massive undertaking: rewarding, challenging, exhausting and brilliant all at the same time. The best bit is being able to be really hands-on. We are a really collaborative office: everyone knows who is working on what and what is going on an individual project. When there’s a deadline it can be all hands on deck.  

The other fantastic bit is being able to choose who we collaborate with in terms of photography, communications and engineering. We work with people who we like and who we think are exceptionally talented at what they do. We work closely with the photographer Peter Lander for example.  He gets what we are about and this comes across in his photographs of our work. It has meant that although our projects vary in style – we design for our clients, not for us – they still read as a body of work coming out of a single office.

How important are people and relationships in your work?

We couldn’t work without people or our relationships with them. Our clients are what makes us tick. Each project is different, everyone lives in their house and uses their studio differently. It’s impossible to adopt a one size fits all approach and that’s why it’s so exciting.

Farm Shop, Russian for Fish

The name Russian for Fish was partly inspired by your lifelong love of goldfish. Do you still have a goldfish?

Sadly no, Vlad died when I moved to a new house last year. I’ve recently been thinking of replacing him. I find fish so relaxing and my daughter would love it too. She has made her grandparents’ fish very fat, spending hours feeding them in the garden pond! Oops!

How do people respond to the name Russian for Fish?  

With curiosity mostly, we constantly get asked what the Russian word for fish is!  There are also a number of people who triumphantly tell us they know what it is and get the joke.

How do you and Nilesh individually approach projects? Do you have different strengths?

Nilesh and I have a shared vision of the work we want to produce, but we definitely have different skill sets when it comes to work, which is great. I like the interface with clients, working out what their brief is: how they want to live in their homes and what they want it to look like. Nilesh is amazing at making it all buildable and beautifully detailed. We often design around the table sketching over plans and peering over each other shoulders at the computer screen. We are also good at keeping each other in check. Sometimes one of us will get carried away with what ifs.  At that point, one of us may mutter the word “budget” and bring the other one back down to earth!

What is yours and Nilesh’s working relationship like? Is it harmonious? What do you bicker about?

It is harmonious, thankfully neither of us are very confrontational people and we both share the same sense of humour.  We know each other well enough to be frank with each other. I’m grumpy if I’m hungry, so Nilesh probably picks his battles after lunch!

Walford Road, Russian for Fish

What’s your most memorable project and why?

My most memorable project to date is College Road, the extension and refurbishment of a small Victorian terrace house in north-west London. The clients were a couple of graphic designers and it was a really collaborative project. I went to school with the husband and both him and his wife have a beautiful eye for detail. It was also the first project Nilesh was involved with on returning to the office after a few years working at a larger practice.

It was a typical terraced house layout and had previously been extended to the rear, leaving very little garden space. Both the house and extension were in poor condition. We demolished the existing rear extension and built a side return extension. We opened up the ground floor, allowing a view through the house to the garden and allowing for light to reach the centre of the space, which had previously been very dark. Upstairs we remodelled the incredibly small family bathroom and added a small third bedroom. We painted the existing pine floorboards, laying new pine floorboards in the extension only, and used inexpensive commercial brick paving to line the rear garden patio. We used shop-bought kitchen units that were teamed with specially painted doors to provide a bespoke yet affordable kitchen which became the centrepiece of the ground floor.

It is the project that really grounded the practice. We had experimented with cost-saving solutions on City View House, but we really tried and tested these ethos' with College House and realised that it is something that we feel passionately about. So much so that it won us an award at Don’t Move Improve for Most Cost-Effective Project. It also confirmed that Nilesh and I had made the right decision about working together!

College Road, Russian for Fish

What’s been your biggest or proudest moment as an architecture practice?

We were super thrilled to be included in the New Architects 3 book. It was amazing to be featured alongside practices we really admire.

Walford Road, Russian for Fish
Hampton Court, Russian for Fish
Walford Road, Russian for Fish
Want to read more about Russian for Fish? Check out Zetteler’s features on the practice’s recently completed projects, Chestnut Road and Walford Road.
Contact:

Studio 3
De Beauvoir Block
92 De Beauvoir Road
N1 4EN

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+44 (0)20 3735 5855