sweet snell of success
In the league table of leaving gifts, this was of the premiership variety. Better than an expensive knees-up, or a collection of Pevsners, or even a subscription to The Architects' Journal. When Robin Snell left Michael Hopkins, his employer of 12 years gave him his first commission - a nice juicy project, an instant 'calling card', rightin his lap.
The job was to design an entrance building to Hopkins' own, already much- admired London office. Snell's elegant, fabric-roofed glass box - carried out by him alone as a newly-formed one-man band - helped garner a handful of commissions. 'That really sent me on my way,' he recalls, six years later. 'That job announced that I had left the practice and brought me to the attention of the architectural profession in my own right. It was incredibly generous of Michael to do that.'
Arguably, it's no more than he deserved. Having joined in the early days of Hopkins' practice, Snell worked on a trio of its signature projects: the Schlumberger Research Centre in Cambridge; Bracken House in the City; and the Glyndebourne Opera House, on which he was project architect. All won awards. The stories of established architects invariably involve scores of other designers, sometimes credited, sometimes not. By helping Snell on his way, Hopkins was making a very public acknowledgement of the debt.
That was in 1994, and since then Snell Associates has been making slow but sure progress: compare the 40-year-old Yorkshireman's solo career, thus far, to others who have gone it alone, and one thinks less of the explosive, but fitful fame of, say, Jan Kaplicky; more of the quietly developing potential of a Chris Wilkinson.
A couple of those early competition wins failed, inevitably, to get financed, the greatest loss being the Northern Architecture Centre in Newcastle. However, a new glazed pavilion for the Surrey Institute of Art & Design was completed last year: a very beautiful heir to Snell's Hopkins extension, it won a Civic Trust award and confirmed the arrival of the new practice.
Suddenly things are happening apace, with two significant planning permissions being granted this summer: for the redevelopment of the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, and for a new stadium for Fulham Football Club. The Surrey Institute, Arnolfini and Fulham are worth, respectively, £1 million, £6 million and £55 million. Now there's a curve.
'Having worked on very large projects with Michael, I wanted, personally, to start small,' Snell reflects, 'to be able to get involved in every single detail again, the nuts and bolts again; even down to designing the reception desk at Surrey. That was really refreshing. But I also wanted the practice to just take things steps by step. So we started small, have gone up slowly, and now suddenly we've made this big jump.' Fulham is certainly a substantial and appealing project, not to say a challenging one; with a client, Harrods owner Mohammed al Fayed, who will keep it in the public eye.
Having studied at Newcastle, then Sheffield (where his tutors included Cedric Price and Patrick Hodgkinson), Snell joined Hopkins as a raw recruit in 1982, recognising in his boss a shared attitude towards detailing, materials and the use of 'cross-over' technology from other industries; not to mention a fondness for fabric roofs which has become a trademark for both architects.
'I regarded joining Michael as being an apprenticeship,' says Snell. 'I thought I'd be there for maybe three or four years. Not twelve! But the projects that I worked on form a lineage through the work of the practice. I could not have chosen a better three buildings to be involved in. And after those three I did think, now's the time to go. I felt armed with the tools and experience to be able to take on projects on my own.'
Snell's practice has now grown to 10 people, working from a basement office in London's leafy St John's Wood. He's currently looking to expand to a bigger office with extra staff, in part to bolster the team working on Fulham as it develops. The office has a typical blend of experience and youth, from Gary McCarthy (formerly of Aukett Associates), the director's 'right-hand man', to someone still studying at the aa. Significantly, Snell has a deep sense of 'lineage', not only in buildings but in people, which goes beyond the cynical prospect of cheap labour.
'When I joined Hopkins, everyone in the office was raw and straight from college. But we formed a core team that worked on projects from the early eighties to the mid-nineties,' he says. 'At Michael's, there was a philosophy that you 'grow your own', and I think that's important. The influence is two-way. As an apprentice I was very green; I see it with people in my own office now, people who have joined me who are inexperienced. But there comes a certain point when your learning curve flattens out and you start to put things back in. It's part of being in a regime. It's what I love about the office - we all have a contribution to make.'
Surrey Institute of Art and Design, Working Details, pages 35-37