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Heavyweight Hopkins

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Hopkins 2: The Work of Michael Hopkins and Partners By Colin Davies. Phaidon, 2001. £45

The need to move on, to reinvent oneself or freshen up the act, can drive our most established architects as much as those making waves in Wardour Street. But with all those youngsters (including several ex-employees) snapping at your heels, it takes an architect of the pedigree of Sir Michael Hopkins to prove that it is still worth getting up early and worrying your way towards an (often) stunning solution.

Hence the present monograph, a sumptuous affair, topped and tailed by a pair of excellent jargon-free essays by Colin Davies and Charles Jencks.

In the conventional pantheon of architectural heavyweights, the Hopkins office has found a niche all its own - not usually a smooth-skin merchant, seldom an overdemonstrative exhibitor of servicing systems, and never less than interesting.

There is a sense of Bunyan-esque endeavour in its pilgrimage from the lightweight panels of the Patera building to the prefabricated loadbearing brickwork of Glyndebourne Opera House and of the Inland Revenue Centre in Nottingham, and the tents, first seen at the Schlumberger building near Cambridge, that now come to rest at the Living Earth Centre, Edinburgh.

Here is gravitas in the literal sense of the word: some very substantial pieces of immaculate concrete allied to bricklaying of the highest order, counterpointed by fabric structures which leaven what can sometimes seem overworked and over-earnest compositions.

Is Hopkins our greatest living Victorian architect? Certainly he stands comparison with the likes of Butterfield, Street or Waterhouse, or even Frank Furness in Philadelphia, in the vigorous articulation of his facades.

Others may find echoes of great glazed winter gardens in some of his communal spaces.

Colin Davies argues in his introduction that Hopkins' early exposure to the photographs of Eric de MarÚ in books from the Architectural Press nurtured a love of historic industrial structures, which underpins much of what his office builds.Overall, there is a seemingly unselfconscious vigour and relish in bringing elements together which recalls a phrase of Louis Kahn, 'stopping at the joints, making a line'.

The comparison with Kahn - one of Hopkins' personal heroes - is instructive.

Both architects deploy mass to great visual effect, and both deal (for the most part) with cellular forms of spatial composition, with pochÚ spaces and rooms en suite; but in Kahn's case there is much less interest in the structure in itself, despite his much illustrated ceiling of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Hopkins, by contrast, celebrates and elaborates each element of the structure, almost for its own sake. There is always a lot of stage 'business' going on in a Hopkins building.

There are other revealing differences. At their best, Kahn's buildings have an elemental power which does not depend on their being well built. Many of them are not.

Hopkins, however, is immaculate in the quality of detailing and precision of construction. Moreover, this is often achieved within modest budgets, as in his recent Jubilee Campus for the University of Nottingham - elegant, unforced, and totally free of the puzzling introversions of his Queen's Building for Emmanuel College, Cambridge, or the roofscape of Portcullis House, Westminster, which must rank alongside the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins in terms of spiky difficulty.

As with John Bunyan, the road to architectural salvation climbs ever upward, and there are lapses and backslidings along the way. With the work of the Hopkins office, the journey is strenuous but ultimately rewarding. This monograph is an excellent (if weighty) travelling companion.

Neil Parkyn is an architect and a director of Huntingdon Associates

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