An interest in large-scale urban design took young architect S333 from London to Amsterdam. Six years on, directors Barton Hamfelt and Jonathan Woodroffe say they’ve landed on their feet.

Small architecture and urban design practice S333 likes to think big. It occupies huge, hangar-like offices in a disused tram depot on Amsterdam’s old west side and its passion is urban design on a grand scale. Now, the eight-strong practice is turning its big ideas into reality: its competition-winning masterplan for a mixed-use scheme in the northern Dutch city of Groningen, which includes 900 dwellings, has just started on site.

It is six years since directors Barton Hamfelt, 35, Jonathan Woodroffe, 36, Dominic Papa, 35, and Chris Moller, 39, decided to move the practice from London to The Netherlands after winning a Europan competition to masterplan the 14 ha polluted site in Groningen. The decision is paying off. As well as the Groningen project, a visionary scheme to transform Amsterdam’s municipal rubbish dump at Zaanstad into a 5 ha landscaped public park is soon to be completed. The practice is also busy with other commissions from Berlin to London, where it has just won a competition with UK architect Stock Woolstencroft to design a mixed-use redevelopment of the Tarling Estate in Shadwell for Toynbee Housing Association.

Sitting in studio space that young UK practices would kill for, Canadian Hamfelt and Englishman Woodroffe exude the self-assurance of partners who have landed on their feet. “It is funny that we’ve been going for 10 years and we’re building our first project,” says Woodroffe. “We started in reverse to most practices. A lot of architects start relatively small, like a bathroom extension. We always had an interest in working on larger stuff, combined with our own teaching and research.”

This philosophy explains the absence of the other two partners: Papa, also English, is in New Zealand doing a recce of a waterfront development and Moller, a New Zealander, is giving a lecture in Estonia. “It’s rare to find us all here,” says Woodroffe.

They attribute their success to a combination of their big ideas and a shrewd exploitation of the opportunities The Netherlands offers young architects. Woodroffe, Papa and Moller were working variously at Terry Farrell & Partners and Chris Wilkinson Architects when the recession started to bite in the early 1990s. They began to think beyond their national borders and in 1990 set up S333 at Studio 333 in Camberwell, south London. “We came together to do workshops and research on a different scale to what was being carried out at that time – large-scale urban design,” says Woodroffe. The fledgeling practice entered and won a competition to design a masterplan for Samarkand in Uzbekistan in 1991.

Soon, its attention was drawn to The Netherlands, where in 1990 the government had launched Vinex, a white paper on housing and regional planning, in which a large number of new sites were allocated for about 650 000 dwellings to be built by 2005. Many of the new developments had architectural competitions attached, and the Dutch government had a policy of including quotas of young practices on competition shortlists.

It was no accident, then, that in 1994, S333 entered the Dutch arm of the third Europan. Nor was it by chance that they targeted Groningen. “[The local authority] had invited progressive architects like Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas to build there in recent years. Clearly, they were interested in a fresh approach,” says Woodroffe.

S333’s plan for the Groningen site includes 900 homes, 9000 m2 of shops, 40 000 m2 of offices and 1300 parking spaces. Within the scheme, the municipality of Groningen and three Dutch developers will develop 13 blocks designed by eight architects, including Alsop & Störmer, over the next eight years.

Elsewhere, a £11.2m scheme designed by S333 for 56 houses next to the village of Vijfhuizen will start on site in December, as part of a large Vinex urban plan for 700 dwellings over the next five years. Most young practices in the UK can only dream of landing projects this size. Woodroffe puts The Netherlands’ progressive architectural patronage down to the manmade, artificial nature of its landscape. “Holland is constantly having to change, to reinvent itself. It is constantly turning water into land and now large parts of northern Holland are being changed back into water, for example to create watersports parks. There is less concern about tradition and historicism. They are very confident about designing their country.”

Another feature that attracted S333 to The Netherlands was the culture of collaboration between planners, urban designers, architects and landscape architects, which stems from the historical role of municipalities in reclaiming land and developing and planning whole new districts. This blurring of disciplines is reflected in the practice: Moller still works one day a week as a planner at Groningen local authority. Woodroffe explains that the practice finds pure architecture too limiting: “If you’re an architect, you have to reduce all your interests to the buildable. But what we’re interested in is concepts, processes.“

If being a young architect in The Netherlands sounds too good to be true, S333 admits that it does have its downside. Although the Dutch building programme is massive, and 45 years ahead of the UK’s in terms of development research, planning and investment, says Woodroffe, it is not all progressive, and S333 still finds it hard to win work. “Only about 1% of what is being built here is avant garde. There’s a huge amount which is pretty ordinary,” he points out.

Moreover, the prevalence of system building and prefabrication may drive down costs, but this is often at the expense of quality. “It’s difficult to build really high quality here,” says Hamfelt. “Koolhaas once said ‘No money, no details’, and that’s the culture here.”

Projects also take a long time to get off the ground, pending decisions on government subsidies and extensive public consultation. And the scale of the building programme has outstripped the supply of concrete, causing further delay. This helps to explain why S333 is keen to concentrate on concept design and entrust project delivery to larger executive architects, as it has done with the first phase of the Groningen scheme. “The English approach is that you are the master architect, you control every detail,” says Woodroffe. “We’re more interested in the front-end of the work, the designing and modelmaking.”

So, would anything persuade them to come back to the UK? “We are interested in what’s going on in Ashford where the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is coming out, because it’s not part of London but this England-Continent connection,” says Woodroffe.

In the mean time, S333 will stay small and think big.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family and where do you live? JW: In a typical Dutch apartment, two storeys, open-plan, with my French architect girlfriend and three-year-old son. BH: I live below them with my Belgian architect girlfriend. Which architects do you most admire? JW: I am always fascinated by Koolhaas. By moving between research, constructing, teaching and travelling, he has redefined what the role and behaviour of the architect should be. BH: I recently rediscovered Richard Neutra. He was pretty avant garde on issues of lifestyle. nature and psychological states of buildings. What’s the best thing about living in Amsterdam? JW: The lower stress levels. As soon as I go back to London, I’m immediately aware of how difficult and tiring it is just getting from A to B. BH: There’s a lot of tolerance here. Amsterdam is an oversized village. What’s your dream project? JW: It would be nice to do a mixed-use tower, a vertical city with different types of circulation space and unit sizes.