Value the social\

Founded in the challenging conditions of the Thatcher era, Hawkins\Brown has maintained a belief in the value of the social as a fundamental to the art and practice of architecture, reports Lee Mallett.

Hawkins\Brown is from a generation of British practices born into and shaped by the heady and grinding social and economic tensions of ‘Thatcherite’ Britain.

25 years is a respectable milestone. For architects it is usually only around this time that substantial buildings are completed. Hawkins\Brown’s current crop of projects can be used as a marker for a generation in that respect. Corby Cube, Oxford University’s New Biochemistry building and the Hub for Coventry University, are three recent highlights, sharing physical and programmatic idiosyncrasies that are identifiably ‘Hawkins\Brown’. They are all emblematic of the issues contemporary architecture has to grapple with.

You don’t complete 25 years in business, however, and maintain that your work ‘has no identifiable style’ – despite how many architects seem to protest otherwise. This self-effacing motto is frequently heard as architects strive to project caring, non-iconic contextualism and empathetic user-friendliness.

Mainstream architecture practice, excluding the work of recidivist shape-shifters, is a bit like an old-fashioned marriage – only capable of consummation once the protagonists have officially become ‘engaged’, at which point answers about program and form can be debated. Occupiers and clients need to be listened to carefully to pick up fuel for design.

Hawkins\Brown, like their peers, make much of listening and empathising. This has been transmuted in their architecture and practice, into ‘valuing the social’ – a handy moral compass, but also an aesthetic and cultural portmanteau. Architecture should facilitate social needs, personal enjoyment and fulfilment. As Russell Brown points out: “If you made a list of 20 things people do in buildings, most are common to most buildings.” In an era driven by IT and the merging of time zones and activities, the homogenisation of programme for the spaces we live, work and play in, looks inevitable – and is already evident in offices, education, public administration and our homes.

Architecture should facilitate social needs, personal enjoyment and fulfilment.

Today’s corporate clients too – public or private - share similar views that focus on people’s environment - ‘our people are our greatest asset’, ‘winning the war for talent’, etc. That we should enjoy using and looking at buildings, whatever their use, and the only way to get this right is to check it with the client and users through the briefing and design process, has become the key tool in the box. It’s about ‘real’, not token, engagement. Not an approach architects have always supported.

Buildings may indeed be ‘all about people’, but it is an endlessly beguiling task to extract and fabricate a brief for architecture that delivers enjoyment and which contributes to the creation of a successful place, while meeting a budget. It’s a wheel reinvented for each client, and a lesson learnt the hard way here in the UK with its ambivalent legacy of post-war architecture and planning.

What is transforming mature prospects for Hawkins\Brown and their enterprising generation, are the opportunities globalisation is throwing their way. The door to a larger arena is open, not unlike the one that opened ‘overseas’ for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s generation in the idealistic post-war era, prior to the end of Empire. The question for architects like Hawkins\Brown is will they ‘go global’, and what will that mean for the way in which they create architecture, or the precept that architecture might be rooted in place? Are the qualities of contemporary British architecture and practice, forged in the critique of Modernism and dipped in liberal economics and rapid social change, transferable or desirable elsewhere?

In Thatcher’s obituaries she was credited with exporting a set of economic principles (rooted in individualistic personal values) now widely espoused in unlikely places – China’s unexpectedly enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, for example. Hawkins\Brown are just embarking on their first major Chinese project in Chengdu for a private developer. It will be 500,000sqm of space to accommodate the anticipated influx of rural migrants, to house them and their budding businesses in a flexible combination of live/work unitary spaces. Arrangements, we presume, that won’t need individual planning approvals.

It’s about ‘real’, not token, engagement.

To meet this and other challenges the future holds for architecture and practice, what qualities will Hawkins\Brown muster, and where is the evidence for them in their back catalogue?

Looking at the buildings, those features identifiably ‘Hawkins\Brown’ might include for example, thin skinned, economic ‘boxes’ that occupy their sites in a maximal way, into which complex programmes are thoughtfully inserted, with a measure of pleasure, the ‘jam in the donut’ – like Hilden Grange Prep School where some wonderfully interesting teaching spaces have been wrapped in a prefabricated cross laminated timber structural skin.

They have a fixation about working from the 'inside out' to please users with windows that capture views, and not letting the internal program dictate expensive external shapes, but also about drawing the rest of us, and the locale, into the building's experience. This is the social imperative at work. Sometimes the facades are visually arresting – like the disconcertingly organic ‘Rorschach’ etching on Oxford Biochemistry’s elevations.

There is also the cross-fertilisation, cross-programming of uses, notable in the Corby Cube, one of the UK’s rare new civic buildings, which crunches together several briefs – town hall, library, arts theatre and several bars and shops- into one building –liberating another valuable town centre site in the process. The ‘socialisation’ of civic, corporate, educational space, the application of ideas from one sector to another, is a big theme for the future. This is evident in their buildings for Oxford and Coventry Universities and smaller ones to come at UEA and Exeter, all subjugated to fierce economic regimes, but still delivering delights and lessons for other sectors.

The visual delights stem from a willingness to collaborate, not just in user engagement terms, but in recognising that the practice, or a single designer, is never the sole author of a building. Artists, interior and graphic designers, crafts, and indeed the client, can all contribute to enrich a Hawkins\Brown building or place. There is a willingness to put aside the architect’s ego to achieve fruitful collaboration. And this has worked well for them for more than 20 years on London’s intensely public Crossrail project, for example, where working with a multi-disciplinary team, notably engineers, has stood them in good stead.

“It’s always about the architecture that gets built,” they say. “If you come up with drawings that don’t get built, they stay on the shelf, they don't become architecture!” Such pragmatism is characteristic of a generation that has matured in a market where budgets disappeared in the centralisation of the monetarist state, or only momentarily reappeared under Thatcherite New Labour to be fiercely pecked over and shaved within an inch of viability in a contractor dominated process. It has been an unforgiving, intensely competitive era. But calm seas don’t make good captains.

The rapidity of change in a world where ‘change is the only constant’, means Hawkins\Brown and its peers have developed and need to keep developing, their skills, their people, their architecture, to meet changing needs. It is impossible to achieve repose for a mature architectural business without embracing the need to keep evolving. That imperative permeates architecture today, from education through to practice. And architects cannot evolve stuck in front of a screen, or thinking only like architects are supposed to think. They have to be out in the real world, on site, thinking like their clients, thinking like developers, like their users. Socialising, in fact.

That’s the price of being the intellectual team leader in the process of designing and building – and there still isn’t anyone else on the development team capable of occupying that role. Perhaps that is what Hawkins\Brown’s buildings demonstrate – only architects could have invented the things they’ve achieved in their buildings. By valuing the social, they’ve found an idea capable of being a universally understood platform for future architecture and architectural practice. Not that it is their idea; it’s everyone’s idea of what is enjoyed in architecture.

“If you come up with drawings that don’t get built, they stay on the shelf, they don't become architecture!”


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