The winner of the 2019 RIBA Royal Gold Medal talks to Richard Waite about architecture, recognition, and the profession’s changing fortunes
How does it feel to have been given this honour?
I’d known about this since mid-July, so I’ve had to keep my mouth shut. It is a bit of a thrill, especially to be joining the ranks of all these famous names. People seem to be genuinely happy about it. Although, in a way, it is a personal thing, it seems all the guys in the office have been uplifted by it. And that is rather nice.
What about the praise you have received from your peers, like Peter Cook, who described you as a ‘brilliant student’ and a ‘great architect’?
I liked that Peter said he regularly drove away from his own big local Sainsbury’s to mine in Camden Town, because he preferred it!
Peter was my tutor and is a little older than me. He taught me all the time I was at the Architecture Association. He was an exceptional teacher. He could be presented with 30 projects, half of which were dreadful, yet he could still find some way of encouraging and helping all students make things better. He had enormous patience. I took from him that patience and optimism.
There’s still lots of fun to be had in architecture. But the government and local authorities seem to have a dead hand on it’
Broadly speaking, how has the industry and profession changed over your working lifetime?
The issue is more what has not happened – particularly with respect to public housing and the need to build homes for a large number of people.
In 1968 we finished the Park Road apartments in London, a co-ownership scheme, and everything seemed poised to broker money from government and to try new housing ideas. But it just didn’t happen and we stayed building our rabbit-hutch homes. So with regard to housing, we have had 50 years of stagnation.
Housing is so fraught with politics and economics that it has simply become bogged down. However, we did get some major transport projects to do and that helped me to remain sane as an architect.
Do you fear for the future of the profession?
I’d still say it is a profession worth going into. You can have enormous fun and joy, no question.
Howard Hodgkin, when asked what advice he would give to a young artist, said ‘Don’t even try, there is nothing worse than being an artist.’ I feel quite the reverse about architects. I feel very optimistic. I say cram as many students as you can into the profession.
Even if you don’t qualify, studying architecture is such a good discipline. For instance, people are looking at the re-use of buildings, which isn’t always exactly architecture – it is somewhere between converting your house and a new build.
But there is terrific potential in reorganising and repurposing buildings. For instance the Western Morning News building [which had been threatened with demolition in 2015] is becoming a home for start-up businesses. I hate the waste of materials that goes with demolishing things and putting something up which isn’t much better.
Grimshaw Western News HQ
How would you reverse the marginalisation of the profession?
I don’t think it is necessarily marginalised. Architects can be as deeply involved as they want. But it is no good architects saying they always want a 6 per cent fee and then simply sitting and waiting for the perfect developer with a new job to come along.
What are the prospects for architecture and design more generally?
There is still lots of enjoyment and energy to be found in architecture. But the government and local authorities seem to be a dead hand on it all. Why can’t [politicians] just enjoy good design? The government is not the slightest bit interested in architecture because politicians don’t think it can do anything for their political progress and they just ignore it.
In France they have their grands projets. And when they pull it off, they create really good buildings. What’s more, they are very happy to make a big deal of it and get publicity for their achievements.
What are your hopes for the UK’s big schemes, such as HS2?
There are a lot of lessons that HS2 can learn from Crossrail. But I fundamentally and passionately believe in a transportation spine up the middle of the country.
We are a small enough country to make it possible to travel everywhere in two and a half hours, if you think of the British Isles as a network. And, of course, this could be linked right into Europe – that’s why Brexit is so utterly ridiculous. We are linked anyway. What’s more, I believe rail stations should have a grandeur about them. They shouldn’t be just a Tube interchange. The materials should have a lasting quality. When you are spending £800 million on a project, the difference in spending an extra half per cent on improving the quality of finishes is nothing.It would hardly appear on the accountants’ figures. But there are still people scraping budgets for the sake of it.
What remains for you to do in architecture?
Whenever I have been asked that before, I’d always say a concert hall. But we’ve done one now, in upstate New York [EMPAC]. The New York Times art critic said in terms of its acoustics, it was among the top six venues in the world.
We are also doing a vast gallery in Istanbul (see AJ 19.07.13). We’ve been through hell and high water with it, but we are set to finish next year (pictured below).
I’ve had enough interesting and diverse projects to keep faith in being an architect.
Koç Contemporary Art Museum, Istanbul