Where is the jam in the donut? That is the questions central to the work of Hawkins\Brown. It might seem like a slightly odd question, as the work presents itself, more often than not, as being simple, perhaps even reserved. Hawkins\Brown makes boxes, not slithering snakes or exploding bombs. They eschew the relentless search for minimal form as well, instead designing buildings that drink in their surroundings, giving us back forms, colors, and gestures that affirm the new structure’s right to be there, its intrinsic worth, and its ability to activate social interaction. More often than not, that is the jam, hidden within the building’s conception and execution. Sometimes, however, you will find a spectacular space of spectacle, such as the central staircase in the Biochemistry Building at Oxford University. At other times the jam is a more subtle act of opening, like the stalls that face the parking lot that is Gillett Square in Hackney, turning that space into a place of gathering and commerce. Always the jam is a kind of treat, but also something that flows and provides a softening of the hard forms that are inherent in building. It is the attractor and the lubricant at the heart of Hawkins\Brown’s work.
As such, the jam as well as the donut mark a progression of architecture from the making of abstract forms designers impose on daily activities into an attempt to create forms and spaces that are contingent on those goings-on and that have a reciprocal relationship between them. This strategy is not altogether new: we often forget that classical architecture, at least as it was codified at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the end of the 18th century, consisted not only of the parti, or the logical and hierarchical arrangement of parts, but also of the marche, or the manner in which you moved through the structure. The ebb and flow of these two components’ importance in architecture marks the degree to which designers value our experience of space over the establishment of a pre-ordained order. If you can read modernist architecture of the last two centuries as a battle for primacy between these two approaches, Hawkins\Brown are very much in the progression camp.
Always the jam is a kind of treat, but also something that flows and provides a softening of the hard forms that are inherent in building.
Though Hawkins\Brown acknowledge the importance of the work of such firms as the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in the thinking about such issues, I would argue that the roots are just as strongly in the designs of the late Sir James Stirling. This great collagist’s ability to take buildings apart into components, reassemble them into a loose assemblage he organized according to how you would move through the building, and to then discipline the whole assembly based on cues he derived from the context, influenced several generations of architects, even if his more expressive and historicizing forms have disappeared from the design lexicon. Together with the emphasis on play and the riotous sensibility fostered by the group around the magazine Archigram in the 1960s, this attitude gave English architecture a sense of discovery, play, and indeterminacy that still plays through the designs of the best architects.
So it is with Hawkins\Brown. The result is evident first and foremost in what is lacking in this work. Those architects who came to prominence around the turn of the millennium revolted against the empire of expressive structures decreed by the Lords of High-Tech who still dominate large construction in and around London. They are not interested in showing how buildings are made,or in reasserting a sense of monumentality. Instead, they want to make buildings that are light, logical, open, and dependent on what goes into them (function, context, people) rather than what they are made of, to make sense. In London today, there are many children of Stirling and Archigram (and, behind them, the critic Reyner Banham) and Hawkins\Brown are among the best.
In this sense, Hawkins\Brown’s work is also an outcome of the policies of New Labour, even if that political movement has now run its course. Some of the their most remarkable buildings, such as the Cube in Corby, are the direct result of such politics, but many more reflect the notion that an open, technology-informed framework can provide spaces where people can meet and form social bonds while engaged in work or research, or while obtaining social services. The practice concentrates to a large degree on injecting a sense of civicness that attempts to be open-ended, conducive to both social interaction and production, and disciplined in its appearance –as well on making housing and facilities for the new middle and upper middle class created during the Blairite boom.
On a deeper level, the idea that a civic building, but also a laboratory, or a building for people with learning disabilities, can be beautiful in a non-monumental, but function-driven and tightly controlled manner, is central to much of Hawkins\Brown’s work. The jam, as often as not, consists of glorified circulation spaces that justify their existence because they are necessary ways to get to working bits and parts, but that the architects enlarge and even ennoble to make them into places where it is pleasant to be, and where chance encounters might turn out to be the building’s main point.
Hawkins\Brown distinguish themselves exactly by not showing off. They have no clearly recognizable style, nor do they want to show how their buildings are made. They do not turn the rationalization of program or context into abstraction into a rhetorical device, in the manner of many of the new English Dense Minimalists. They do not want their structures to disappear, either. Instead, what this collective seems to search for, and to provide in the intricacy of their facades, the shaping of their forms, but especially in the meanders, spirals, spreads, and loose affiliations of their circulation spaces - is the jam that brings people together. Sticky, gooey, and colorful enough to attract, it is the sweet reward at the heart of a well-baked architecture.
It is the sweet reward at the heart of a well-baked architecture.