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A salute to Hopkins’ contribution to architecture

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Michael Hopkins thoroughly deserves to be recognised for his contribution to architecture

Each year, representatives of the UK’s biggest practices make an award, presented at the annual AJ100 dinner, to an individual who has made a significant contribution to architecture. This award is not a re-run of the Gold Medal, since it can go (and has gone) to a variety of people, including clients and politicians.

This year, however, the recipient is Sir Michael Hopkins, and it seems a highly appropriate moment to acknowledge the continuing achievement of Michael, Patty Hopkins and an office that for many years has been firing consistently on all cylinders.

The announcement of this year’s RIBA Award winners is a happy coincidence, since it shows the variety of the office’s work in breadth and depth: urban design in a historic market town (Bury St Edmunds); retrofit and expansion of academic facilities (Nottingham Trent); Olympic sport venue (the velodrome); and the creation of civic facilities under one splendid new roof (Hackney Service Centre).

Looking back over the office’s work this century, the striking thing is how international it has become. As late as 2001, virtually all Hopkins buildings were in England, with the exception of the Dynamic Earth millennium gallery in Edinburgh. How that has changed. One of the practice’s biggest buildings, not widely acknowledged, was completed for Mitsubishi, opposite Tokyo railway station. And a major mixed-use commercial development, designed as an opposite to Dubai’s customary slapdash energy-guzzling ugly sisters, has given the Gulf an alternative model. Yale University’s Kroon Hall, a hymn to sustainable architecture, won the AJ100 Building of the Year in 2010; now a clutch of stadiums is under way in India.

The significance of this overseas work is that it has been won on the basis of the practice’s beliefs about architecture, not by abandoning them in a quest for growth for its own sake, or for easy money. The Hopkins ethos is about honesty of expression, the integrity achieved through a very precise combination of design and engineering detail, and a pluralist attitude to materials. Unlike his contemporaries associated with the world of high-tech, Hopkins has relished working with brick and stone, as well as fabric and frame assemblage.

This has resulted in a pantheon of differentiated buildings, ranging from the genuine, one-off stand-alone (for example the Schlumberger laboratory outside Cambridge) to contextual work of a very high order (Norwich Cathedral) or, in the case of the Mound Stand at Lord’s, a combination of both, history and solidity morphing into the lightweight and near-ethereal. A quite different combination is evident in the parliamentary building, Portcullis House, with Westminster tube station.

Below ground, architecture is applied to engineering, while above ground, engineering is applied to architecture, you might say. In any event, this project achieved that difficult urban attribute: gravitas. When it came to RIBA Awards, it was suggested to Michael he should separate the offices from the station, since the station would be more likely to appeal to a Stirling Prize jury. He declined, because to do so would have been to deny the integrity of the concept as a whole.

Of the current generation of buildings, concerns about economy of form and construction have combined easily with the requirement for low-energy and low-carbon buildings, a demand which sits comfortably with the practice’s love of timber, as well as fabric structure. But not to the exclusion of scale and mass: Evelina children’s hospital was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize (2006), reminding us that not to have designed a particular building type before has never been an insurmountable challenge to skilled architects. The same applies to the velodrome, which one can easily imagine on this year’s Stirling shortlist.

So, after four decades of architectural practice, we have an office that is flourishing, rather than diminishing, and working confidently in a manner, rather than a style, an approach, rather than a formula – and doing so at home and across the world. This is an entirely appropriate moment to pay tribute to its founder, Sir Michael Hopkins.

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