Anarchitect with a difference

Anarchitect co-owner and director, Jonathan Ashmore, tells Rima Alsammarae how he came to find his new award-winning design and architecture practice.

Having grown up in Sheffield, England, Jonathan Ashmore notes that he always had a passion for architecture and the effect that different spaces can have on end-users.

Throughout his years at the University of Liverpool and later London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, he found himself visiting the work of modern British architects like Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins and Nicholas Grimshaw.

His draw to architecture was almost immediate and his innate ability to create bespoke, memorable spaces found its place once Ashmore began working for various architecture practices in London like Sheppard Robson and Project Orange.

“I worked in London for a succession of internationally recognised architecture practices and completed my professional practice studies to become a fully chartered and registered British architect with the RIBA and ARB. During this time, I carved my own strong design language and professional focus leading a handful of award-winning building projects,” says Ashmore.

The first major project that he led from inception to completion was a building in Kings Cross, England. He says of the project: “The building was mixed-use and consisted of music rehearsal studios and new luxury residential apartments. This project really tested my skills beyond just architectural design and taught me how to manage the building of a complicated project on site, to work closely and lead a professional team of consultants and how to achieve and surpass client expectations.”

In 2007, while working at Project Orange, Ashmore began receiving a number of RIBA and international design awards for residential buildings that he led the design and build team. And in 2008, Ashmore would make his first trip to Dubai, securing an offer from regional design mega-house Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ).

Upon moving to the UAE, Ashmore brought with him his passion for an overall architecture and design platform and he began organising nights where professionals could come together to share ideas and experiences outside of work. It was at one such event that the architect and designer would meet Tarik Zaharna, who would co-direct Anarchitect with Ashmore years later.

“We started by collaborating on regionally-based research projects tackling the ideas of context around us, voids in the city and responsive design solutions,” explains Ashmore. “As a result, we instigated, executed and donated the first architectural installation for Art Dubai 2012; this got our research work noticed and new project inquiries started to come in.”

The Anarchitect team started its practice in September 2013 following the commission for a private residential penthouse, which would ultimately win a CID Award in 2014.

Ashmore says: “Our concept to setup Anarchitect came from noticing the industry shift in the region that was a result of the global financial crisis. The economic crash and the challenges that came with it, changed the mind-set of the population and its values. Excess left and we found that the remaining population was making longer term plans and commitments to the region. [Then] emerged a new type of client with private funding and big ideas for their own projects.”

The young practice values design, detail and the beauty of craftsmanship, says Ashmore, which can be admired in every project from the architectural forms to the interior layouts. For Anarchitect, the boundaries of architecture and interior design are blurred, allowing the team to traverse the various disciplines.

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“Our understanding of the architectural process allows us to explore limitless scales of design projects. We define our interior architecture as the design of interior space in architectural terms. We modify, regenerate and re-appropriate existing structural space to better serve a new purpose or spatial experience for our clients,” explains Ashmore.

“This skill to work creatively with existing limited space and structure has been honed for many years working with clients on projects in tight urban contexts such as in London and Beirut. We are now exploring this project genre more and more in the UAE as the market evolves and new requirements and sustainable solutions are needed.”

From commercial to residential, Anarchitect has explored many sectors within the design industry. From residential developments like the award-winning penthouse in Dubai’s famous Index tower, to the second U Energy Gym in Beirut that followed a ware-house concept, to a boutique café called No.57 in Abu Dhabi, Anarchitect’s work has not only reached into different sectors but it has also branched to many countries around the Middle East.

“I am pleased to say for our first full financial year, we turned a small but hard-earned profit,” says Ashmore. “We deliberately chose to operate a lean strategy for the business model where, together with my co-director, we are very hands-on with all of our projects to ensure we delivered a consistent quality of design and execution. It was very important for us to create a portfolio of high-quality built projects in the first year so that our work could speak for itself.”

While Anarchitect took on projects that could be finished within six months to one year since its inception, Ashmore notes that the company’s current business model is not realistically sustainable for proper growth and says that he and Zaharna will be looking to grow the Anarchitect team in 2015. Also, Anarchitect is looking to expand its portfolio of international work in key markets.

Ashmore explains: “We believe in collaboration, working with the very best talent in their respective fields, so we will continue to develop new relationships both regionally and internationally so that we constantly learn as we often discover unexpected outcomes that create unique and enriched projects.”

With over 10 projects in the UAE including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, one in Doha and two in Beirut, Anarchitect is looking to a range of new projects coming its way, further establishing its presence in the region’s interior design and architecture community.

Currently, Ashmore and Zaharna are working on a series of residential apartment blocks in Dubai, the refurbishment of a mixed-use tower, a concept for a series of boutique hotel villas, another U Energy branch for Beirut, a barber shop concept in Dubai and a new cocktail bar and restaurant in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers district.

Additionally, Ashmore looks to continue his role and responsibilities on the RIBA Gulf Chapter committee by putting together a series of talks on ‘small practice’ to support the emergence of young and start-up practices in the UAE.

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