The winner of the inaugural Ada Louise Huxtable Prize tells Laura Mark how she found Norman Foster a job on Stansted Airport and got Nicholas Grimshaw for Waterloo Station’s international terminal
How does it feel to win the Ada Louise Huxtable Award?
Surprising at my age.
How have you seen the industry change?
I had almost a design management role, but that has disappeared. Clients really ought to have this, which encompasses absolutely everything – not just architecture but the interiors, the graphics, the corporate identity and everything else involved.
You worked with Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw early on in their careers. Did you feel it was important to find new talent for those jobs?
I wasn’t the one who actually commissioned them. I searched for them and put them before the board but I didn’t commission – the board commissions. I was involved in all the projects of course. It was very important to find new talent. Foster wasn’t that young but certainly for Grimshaw it was his big job.
As architects have they both developed as you expected?
They have grown enormously. I’ve a very good relationship with Nicholas Grimshaw. We lunch to catch up and congratulate ourselves; he has gone like wildfire. It is what I expected from them though. I also gave the first job to John McAslan.
It’s now more than 20 years since Stansted completed. What do you make of its evolution?
We wanted to keep commercial enterprise at bay and that is why it was controlled underneath the umbrellas. Now that has gone berserk – as it has at Heathrow.
Do you think it needs someone to control its development?
While the government is in flux with the futures of any airport, we can’t hope for that.
What do you think of current plans for airport expansion?
It ought to be an extended runway at Heathrow and at Gatwick but nobody is likely to bite the bullet.
How do you think Grimshaw’s Waterloo station is doing?
We don’t know its future and it is crippling to see it sitting empty. I’m not close enough to [Network Rail] any more to know what they intend to do with it. Nicholas Grimshaw is horrified. He must worry. Everyone worries about it; it has to have trains. I quite liked it when we got the Eurostar to Paris from Waterloo. St Pancras is not the same. It has become a shopping mall.
Are train stations becoming too commercial?
Yes. When Waterloo was up for an award it was criticised for not having enough commercial space. That was the point – we didn’t want it.
Crossrail needs a ‘me’
Do large infrastructure projects like Crossrail need a strong design lead?
Sure. There has been a lot of fuss about things like the Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road and look what they’ve got – the new entrance is terrible. It must have a strong design leader to produce good architecture. Crossrail needs a me. I’d co-ordinate all of it and make sure nobody was out of step with the urgency of getting it right.
What do you think of HS2?
It’s a tremendous opportunity. I could do it with my eyes shut. It could possibly be better than Crossrail but is yet to be proven.
You are credited with ‘paving the way for women working in high-level positions’. Did you feel it was a man’s world?
I had no management training. I came from nowhere. They took me on at British Airports. They didn’t know if the role was important and were getting a hell of a lot of criticism, at Heathrow especially. So I moved in quite strongly and developed ranges of what I call ‘ancillary furniture’ pretending to be corporate identity. I worked on seven airports. Gatwick and Heathrow were struggling and Stansted was a shed.
You can tell good architects by attitudes and energy
What was your time like at British Rail?
When I took over there were 300 architects; there were 50 when I left. I was not very popular. I got rid of them because they were not getting things together. The good ones remained. You can tell them by attitudes and energy. I’m full of energy, still. Maybe there should be an energy test for architects.
The judges said you were ‘amazingly supportive of the architects you worked with’, how did you get the best out of the architects?
I gave them a breadth. Architects and designers are very practical people. I introduced them to another approach which was that you weren’t there on your own as an architect – you were part of a design team. Most of them knew that anyway. So it was just very useful to have somebody who recognised that in them. Perhaps that is why they were there.
What about advice to architects pitching to clients?
Simplicity. Understand what is required and link the architecture with many other things.
If you were working in the same position today, which architects would you go to?
Right now if I was doing Waterloo again I’d go back to Grimshaw immediately. He has done many stations since. I read the AJ, and I would rely on others like my son [who is an architect] to recommend practices. I’d draw up a shortlist. Of number one importance is to always look at their buildings first - don’t ever go on paper. Then I would interview. Obvious things like them being the size appropriate to the job would come in to play. But then two people can do the power of ten – as they say in Japan. I’d look at smaller practices as well. I like names. I don’t like initials or quirky things. I like names so you know who set up the practice and who you are dealing with. That is quite important. I would look at the practices corporate identity and their website.
How important do you think organisations like Open City and the Design Council are for promoting good design?
The Design Council has faded. Cabe has faded. Open City seems to be spreading throughout the world, which is very good. It all helps. If there were somebody in the government that could take that responsibility and grab the opportunity that would make a difference. The demise of the Design Council and Cabe is desperate because they had influence and now it seems they have none.
What do you think of current developments going on in the city of London?
Some are good. Some are abysmal – most actually. The Cheesegrater is excellent. The Heron Tower is quite good. We’re over the Gherkin now. There is a hell of a lot more layering up going on now.
Is it more difficult for women in the industry now?
From the client side – yes it is. It could do with a lot more feminine energy.
What is your favourite building?
I’m tempted to say Mies van der Rohe, but I’d have to find a building for that. It must be Barcelona Pavilion. It’s a designer’s gem. Every aspect of it is so beautifully detailed.
1975 - 86 Worked as design manager for the British Airports Authority
1981 Appointed Norman Foster to work on Stansted Airport
1985 - 88 Became a member of the London Regional Transport Design Panel
1985 Made an honorary fellow of the RIBA
1986 - 91 Appointed as director of architecture and design for the British Railways Board
1989 Commissioned Grimshaw to work on the International Terminal at Waterloo station
1991 Foster’s Stansted Airport, which she commissioned, was completed
1991 Awarded an OBE
1992 - 2010 Chair of Open City
1993 Grimshaw’s International Terminal at Waterloo station completed
1996 - 2000 Named a member of the Design Council
2001 Appointed as an enabler at CABE