Simon Smithson has taken up temporary residence in Madrid, where he manages RRP's new Barajas terminal project from a hut at the edge of the airport
'The one constant factor with airports is constant change', says Simon Smithson. 'Our objective was to make sure that the architecture has the robustness to stand up to the inevitable barrage of signage, shops and other transitory elements that will arrive whether we like it or not.' Smithson is the Richard Rogers Partnership associate managing the new terminal project at Madrid's Barajas Airport, a job in which RRP is partnered by the Madrid practice of Estudio Lamela.
The amicable collaboration with Lamela has been fundamental to the process of getting the new terminal, satellite, rail station and car parks built. Smithson was one of the RRP/Lamela team working on the international competition in 1997.During 1999, the project accelerated, with a view to work starting on site the following year. 'We had five months to produce 4,500 construction drawings, ' Smithson recalls. In 2000 he moved to Madrid, where a team of 12 architects, five of them from RRP, works in a complex of huts on the edge of the terminal site. In normal circumstances, Smithson explains, the client (the national airports agency AENA) would not have architects working on the project at this stage. The speed of the project, however, means that the architectural team has to be on hand to resolve innumerable issues of detailed design with the contractors. 'It tends to be a battle in which willpower is our only weapon', says Smithson. But, he adds, 'we are building the scheme we envisaged - the clarity and freshness of the competition scheme has not been compromised'.
Smithson is likely to be in Madrid for at least another year, but he is very happy there, in what he refers to as 'one of the most enjoyable cities in Europe' - and he now speaks more than passable Spanish. The sheer momentum of the project is quite stressful, though, he says - 'by the end of the week we're all totally exhausted' - but this is outweighed by the thrill of running a one million square metre job. 'I doubt that I'll ever build a million square metres in the rest of my career, ' says Smithson. Clearly, this is the job of a lifetime.
Smithson (born in 1954 and the son of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who did not encourage him to take up architecture) is used to living abroad. After taking his diploma at Cambridge (his year out was with Georges Candilis in Paris) he worked for nearly a year at Foster Associates, as it was then. Foster had won the Hong Kong Bank competition and that project preoccupied the office. 'I was doing bits and pieces on the periphery but the rigour and sense of purpose in the place impressed me greatly, ' says Smithson, who was working in a team led by Birkin Haward. 'He is someone who taught me a lot about teamwork; and he had a knack of coming up with a great joke at the end of the day, when everyone was flagging.'
Smithson then spent two years (1980-82) on a scholarship, pursuing a master's degree in urban design at Harvard. ('I'm still grateful to Richard Burton for writing me a glowing reference, ' he says. ) It was very different from studying in England, he says, with a highly structured course, hugely motivated students from a number of disciplines, and a paper to be written every week.
'I discovered landscape design at Harvard, ' he says. 'It was something that had hardly been mentioned at Cambridge.' There was also the pleasure of living in a Sert residential tower, overlooking the Charles River - 'a really beautiful modern building'. Three years with Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, followed Harvard. Next came two years in a very different American city, Denver, Colorado, working for a small landscape and urban-design practice. 'I still hanker for the great plains and try to go back there every year or so.'
Smithson joined RRP in 1991 after a couple of years in the office of Nicholas Hare. Having worked with developer Stanhope, he was recommended to Rogers by the latter. He was thrown straight into work on Terminal 5, Heathrow, which RRP had won in competition in 1989.Many of the ideas in the T5 competition scheme have re-emerged in the Barajas project, while T5 has itself been redesigned more than once. Smithson worked on T5 for two years, then came '20 or 30 other projects, mostly unbuilt'. He says the most satisfying jobs were the Antwerp law courts and the Welsh Assembly, working with Ivan Harbour. He refers to the unbuilt scheme for London's South Bank arts centre, which Rogers proposed to cover with a striking 'wave' roof, as 'particularly painful'.
'The South Bank scheme could and should have been built, ' Smithson insists. 'In contrast, for example, to the Pompidou Centre, there was an inflexible agenda - you weren't allowed to reinvent or rethink the place. The Arts Council is all about administration, not vision, and we had all the arts operations on the site fighting each other.'
Although Nicholas Snowman, who was then running the South Bank, was 'very supportive', the political will to get the scheme built was never there, says Smithson - 'and the £15 million offered by the late Paul Hamlyn was never taken up, which seems unbelievable'.
So five years of work ended in an atmosphere of disillusionment.
The South Bank saga, it is clear, still rankles with Smithson and he feels it reflects a reluctance in Britain to embrace bold ideas. The 'wave' roof proposed for the arts complex bears some resemblance, of course, to the roof over the Madrid terminal - the design ideas in the Barajas project are fundamentally the work of the Rogers office.
For Smithson, Barajas, though hugely demanding and stressful (despite the constant support of Rogers and director-incharge Lennart Grut), has clearly been a unique opportunity. But what comes after Madrid? Will it be a matter of re-engaging with RRP's London office? ('We're rather on the margins here, doing our own thing.') For the time being, Smithson is keen to get the Barajas project done - and only then consider what comes next.