Last night all six of ‘the Brits’ featured in RIBA’s The Brits who built the modern world exhibition came together to tell the stories of their careers
Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael and Patty Hopkins, Terry Farrell, and Nicholas Grimshaw spoke of the opportunities that came out of the welfare state when they first began their careers to the growth of global architecture, in a one-off talk at the RIBA recorded for BBC Radio 3.
Norman Foster: We all have our own escape routes – mine was a bicycle. I would discover new worlds outside the area of Manchester where I grew up. I left school at 16 but didn’t go to university until I was 21. Because I didn’t have a levels I couldn’t get a grant. I had to work my way through university but it was probably the best thing that happened to me.
Patty Hopkins: At the AA we were taught by architects who had worked during the war. The conversations were about rebuilding our environment.
Richard Rogers: I didn’t know I wanted to be an architect until I went to the AA. I became an architect because I couldn’t become a doctor – I didn’t have any A levels. The British have terrible problems with modernity. I didn’t have that.
Nicholas Grimshaw: I had a strong reaction against Victorian frills. There was a huge pleasure and delight in simple shapes. The period when I grew up was pretty austere.
Michael Hopkins: The war was a major influence on our lives but we are a very fortunate generation.
NF: After the war there was a revolution in terms of meeting the demand for schools and housing. It was a tremendous challenge. The post war period was a mixture of extraordinary achievements and very questionable statistical responses resulting in buildings like Roman Points, which never involved an architect. We all have our own interpretation of that period.
Terry Farrell: My parents moved to Newcastle when I was eight years old. When I moved there were eight houses on the street whilst I lived there 2,000 more homes were built. I grew up on a construction site – it was my playground
RR: The welfare state drove me to be socially responsible. Going to the states was hugely influential for me. The world changed. New York was going through its most dynamic period of development. It was the first time I really understood what architecture could do for the spirit.
PH: London was incredibly exciting. I arrived at the beginning of the swinging sixties.
MH: It was assumed we would all work in the public sector.
NF: There is the heroic inspiration and the can-do attitude of a generation of engineers. The optimism, the belief in a future beyond their lives. The investment in infrastructure – whether it is railways or Bazalgette – who built the sewer system. It’s that big thinking which you find in Asia today, and is totally lacking here where everyone just dithers around. Which explains why we are all attracted to where the opportunities are, where the action is. That’s what architecture is about. You go to Asia and you come away energised. IT is about an attitude and mind.
TF: I’ve always been fascinated by difference. China and Hong Kong are appealing because they are places of exploration and newness. A place to find yourself as much as to find out about other worlds. It’s completely different to anything you’ve ever seen before.
NG: We are running quite a big office in New York. In America you have to start stripping away your cynicism. You still feel when you go to America that it is a land of opportunity. If you put out new ideas people are going to listen to you.
RR: London is more exciting than New York. There is life here. More people are coming here from abroad. It is time we stopped these barriers of nations.
NG: People are always going to be magnetically attracted to centres of culture and power. There is no known way of controlling that.
NF: London is a global city and it is thriving. But it needs protecting. It should have a tidal barrier in the estuary, Heathrow should relocate, and I could go on…
RR: In the last 20 years London has become a real global city. It has happened in the last 20 years because we have opened our gates. We have had a positive invasion from cultures from outside. But it is not sustainable. London is a bubble. It is not sustainable because there are so many cities outside London which are going downhill.
NF: Buildings are hugely important. That’s why I’m an architect. Infrastructure is even more important than individual buildings. It is the glue which binds everything together. The optimistic future of architecture is that it is more holistic.
NG: We need to push the envelope and make people see things in a bigger way. We need to think about how buildings change and evolve. Buildings can do a lot more.
RR: Architects are being marginalised. Architecture has got to be involved with urban planning. Education has to change. Our vision has to change. If we are truly going to be valued we have to change.
'In conversation: The Brits who built the modern world