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sure-footed serenity

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Glenn Howells likes to design around the most essential elements of architecture, materials and light. He prefers to get under the skin of a building rather than wasting time and effort on the twiddly bits by deborah mulhearn. photograph by paul shinton

Glenn Howells was in the process of realising he didn't want to live above the shop. 'I have drawings on my dining room table all the time and that's fine, but having a whole bank of computers downstairs is something else.' Because he needs to move both office (outgrowing Birmingham's Custard Factory) and house (still renting despite being back in the city for 10 years) he'd been toying with the idea of combining them in a city centre location. But then he saw a house, an old Buddhist retreat that had been personally approved by the Dalai Lama.

'They put all their energies into the garden rather than the house, which is exactly what I want.'

Doubtless the plan is to put his sure, serene stamp on the house. Howells, whose hat-trick of clear, uncluttered theatre and arts centres in Armagh, Warwick and Hereford, has been widely acclaimed, has never strayed from his Modernist principles. At college - Plymouth School of Architecture - in the early 1980s, he ran into trouble for 'trying to keep things simple at a time when there was a lot of confused Po-Mo around and some of the best Modernist buildings were being trashed.' Luckily he had a staunch supporter in tutor Adrian Gale, and later Robin Spence, nephew of Basil Spence, who he worked for in London until the 1990 recession hit.

But Howells is no abstract theorist.

'I'm quite suspicious of drawings', he says.

'They don't get under the skin of a building. For me a building goes far beyond what can be conveyed in a drawing.'

Before committing pen to paper, Howells encourages his staff to think long and hard about construction methods and materials. 'It frustrates me when students want to discuss broad philosophical issues without knowing even the basics of construction.' Process is all important, and the practice always has various panels and prototypes mocked up before making any decisions. For the Armagh Theatre and Arts Centre, for example, 57 roofing panel prototypes were made using models, mock ups, computer visualisations and sunpath models (see page 28). And Howells took clients and councillors from Armagh to London to look at buildings similar to what he was trying to achieve.

Howells' confidence with building materials and the management of space must stem from working with his father, a local builder near Birmingham, in his holidays.

'I was used to watching him handle and manage materials, and I always had a bunch of nails in my hand. I admire the master builders and architects like Brunelleschi, who came up through the trades and also Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a tremendous respect for materials. He was also amazingly prolific, generating up to 100 projects a year without any loss of quality. I know what a marathon effort it is to keep just one project on track when you've got QS's trying to get you to use rot-free plasterboard or whatever to save money.' He cringes now to think of how he must have embarrassed his father when he was a know-it-all college boy. 'But now it's come full circle. I didn't realise that he was passionate about Frank Lloyd Wright too. Recently he gave me a framed piece of honeycomb he'd found in a roof somewhere, as if to say, 'you think you know about structure.'' Howells came back to Birmingham from London to work temporarily on the refurbishment of the old Bird's Custard Factory but is now in the enviable position of having prominent new public buildings in most parts of the UK . He modestly puts this down to luck but in fact several of these projects were won in open competitions. The practice now numbers 14, including Howells, and a partnership is imminent. 'I want to recognise the input of other staff members, ' he says. The Market Place in Armagh, the Courtyard in Hereford, and the Dream Factory in Warwick - Britain's first purpose-built theatre for children - may offer a stripped back, uncompromising Modernism but they are also accessible and airy.

Timber Wharf, a new housing scheme at Britannia Basin in Manchester's Castlefields (won in the Urban Splash competition against prestigious practices including Novo and the Rotterdam Group) and a private house in Majorca are now on site. Manchester rain and Majorca sun obviously demand different systems and structures, but whatever or wherever the scheme, how the building will rise from the ground and respond to the elements is always at the forefront of Howells' mind.

'I think architects are put under a lot of pressure to come up with something novel every time, but doing things simply and getting them right is hard enough without making things complicated and unnecessarily decorative. Mortise and tenon joints or a 450 roof take a lot of consideration. We've been lucky to have clients like Urban Splash who understand that buildings can be simple and don't need all the stitching on top. It's down to the quality of the building.'

Influential buildings can often disappoint close up, says Howells. He spent three months on a pilgrimage to Italy as a student ('living off supermarket beer') and found that the most interesting architecture was often what you saw on the way to the famous building. In Holland, he found the opposite experience and enjoyed the democracy of the architecture. 'I was amazed to see queues of ordinary people waiting to get into the Schroder house. The Dutch have managed to keep their architecture simple and not abandon the Modernist principles of the 1920s and 30s. In fact there is a continuum from Berlage through to Dudok, Duiker and Oud, up to something like the Kroller Muller museum. They have a much more cohesive socialist programme, and never seem to try too hard.'

Perhaps surprisingly, Howells does not shy away from design and build. 'People recoil from design and build as if it was some illegal sexual practice, ' he laughs, 'but it can work perfectly well if you are clear about what you want. A building is basically a structure and light-admitting surfaces. Why all the twiddly bits?' The Dalai Lama would surely concur.

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