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Patty Hopkins: 'I have always revelled in my varied role'

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Read Patty Hopkins’ compelling speech, given at today’s WIA Luncheon, about her life as an architect and about being the ‘glue and the oil’ of Hopkins Architects

The co-founder of the 38-year-old practice gave the sparkling keynote address at the Women in Architecture Luncheon, held at London’s Langham Hotel today (7 February).

Hopkins reflected on her architectural career, spanning more than fifty years, from starting out at the Architectural Association to running the 112-strong, Stirling Prize-shortlisted company.

The speech in full

‘It’s been interesting reflecting on what to talk about today. Christine Murray’s advice was to tell a personal story. So I am.

‘Everyone comes to architecture differently, men and women. We are all products of our time. I was struck anew by how closely our past personal projects that I organised, influenced the ability of the practice to inspire confidence and attract our major clients. So I thought I would tell that story – but starting even more personally with how I stumbled into architecture.

‘I had a sheltered, boarding school, environment from the shires - a happy childhood with brothers, pony and dog - parents both doctors. It went without saying that I should have a career, even in those unreconstructed times. I’m 71. In my school’s consciousness, that meant the professions, studying at Oxbridge or, at a pinch, London Universities. They didn’t seem to know much about how to study architecture.  

‘I did have a Damascene moment at the age of 15, at an evening school lecture given by an art historian. During his talk, he showed slides of paintings and buildings, which were completely new to me and amazed me. When we emerged late from the lecture all my friends were saying, as usual, that went on so long, it was so boring. I kept a bit quiet, thinking about our different reactions. I had been completely entranced by the images I saw. They literally opened my eyes. Looking up Eli Prins, long afterwards, he turned out to be a Rembrandt scholar and by then he had died. So what did I see? I think he must have been linking Rembrandt to the Impressionists, who were an easy way in to modern art for teenagers.

I gave up my plan to be a vet and resolved to be an architect

‘So I gave up my plan to be a vet and resolved to be an architect, not really knowing anything about what that really meant. I had architects in the family, an aunt, whom I was named after, and a grandfather, who died sadly early. But my decision was based on the excitement I had felt, on seeing those images.

‘I was in the science stream at school. I was rather pushed into it, I felt, because I could do it and the new science labs needed filling. So there I was, longing to leave school and begin life as soon as possible. I found, I’m not sure how, a place called the Architectural Association (AA) that offered an entrance exam, no A-levels necessary. So I badgered my parents to let me take it and I was accepted, aged just 17, as one of five girls in a first year of about 60 students.

‘What a culture shock! I hadn’t even had a proper boyfriend. I arrived in London in 1959, with my tight-waisted dress, full petticoats, with matching handbag, dressed grown up – Mad Men style. Into this world where everyone seemed confident and knowledgeable - if a bit scruffy.

‘So what was London and the AA like at the beginning of the 60’s, viewed with less green hindsight. I didn’t know it at the time, as one doesn’t, but I had hit London at the beginning of the swinging sixties. The AA, at the end of Oxford Street, seemed to be near the hub of things - Carnaby Street, weekly excitement at the Six Bells Jazz Club, and especially the clothes. I’d always had battles, with my lovely mother, when buying clothes. They didn’t seem me – but now I realized why, when I found Mary Quant at her shop Bazaar, Wollens 21 shop, where Mick Jagger once gave me a look while waiting for his girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton and then, of course, Biba. Vidal Sassoon was styling hair to match. And I could run up little shift dresses, with Madras cotton from Liberty, in no time. Was the clothes revolution a post Second World War equivalent to the flapper dresses of the 1920’s – no waistline, shorter, less formal, more comfortable and less restrictive. And that’s how I wanted to feel.

Our preoccupations were closer to urban planning than architecture

‘Many of our tutors, at the AA, had fought during World War II. We were the inheritors of their ambitions for the large scale post war rebuilding of bomb-damaged cities, which were being zealously cleared to make way for a brave new world. Our preoccupations were closer to urban planning than architecture.  Projects were preceded by contextual studies on the surrounding fabric, social framework, density and movement patterns.

‘Design effort went into the development of sections and plans to encourage new patterns of living, often mega structures, the scale of whole cities - macro rather than micro. We wanted to blow a fresh wind through grey old England, inspired by images from Aalto’s Scandinavia and the US. We were also excited by the growing interest in harnessing industrial production to make buildings – Jean Prouve, Buckminster Fuller. Local authority architect’s departments, where AA students went on to work, were building these ideals at Roehampton and Cumbernauld.  There was still a feeling of post Festival of Britain euphoria. I had visited as a nine year old from school.

‘The annual programmes, at the AA then, increased in scale through the years . First year - studio, second year - village, third year - town, fourth year– cities, fifth year thesis project. We were obsessed by the effect of the car on life. In my third year project, I put a complete pedestrian/traffic segregation scheme into my proposal for the improvement of Ashford, then a modest town, in Kent. We had no real thought or interest about their materiality or how our designs would be structured.

‘My thesis was a Community Care Centre to be built using the American SCSD (Schools Construction Systems Development)system. This was very current, it had just been developed by the Ehrenkrantz Group of architects for the construction of dozens of schools in California. 

‘My brief was, in effect, for a large general practice, also doing a lot of emergency and minor operations, with the aim of keeping people out of hospital. The sort of thing that is periodically on the agenda, especially now.

‘I don’t remember now, it’s all a blur, but [my husband] Michael says that at my jury, my year master, Peter Cook was rather disinterested, looking through some slides for a lecture. Norman Foster, on the jury, was very helpful. He said this is exactly what we should be doing, exemplary piece of work and saved the day. This was our first meeting with Norman, soon afterwards Michael, taking a potential job, put his way by his father, a Director of Taylor Woodrow, went into partnership with Norman and Wendy. 

‘But going back a bit. At the AA, I was swirling around in the fascinating  milieu, understanding little, having a great time, when I bumped into a cool mature student, Michael Hopkins. My mother came up to town to see the flat I was moving into – Michael’s rooming house in Queens Ann Street – and by the end of dinner, between them, we were getting married, which hadn’t been on my agenda, I was only 20, Michael 27.

‘Then life got purposeful. Michael, as a mature student, was very focused. We worked every evening - the whole time.  But I discovered that Michael also had another dream. He used to get the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings regular list of buildings in need of restoration.  

‘One caught his eye, in what was then deepest Suffolk. It was a dilapidated building called the Town House, adjacent to the church, built in 1547 as a poor house with meeting rooms for the parish, following the passing of an act forbidding ‘holy day’ festivities in churches. The Parish council was persuaded to accept £100 down and further £100 in annual payments. So with money Michael had earned the previous summer, designing and building a bandstand with Mike Pearce a fellow AA student, we bought it. We started clearing the house on honeymoon. My mother thought we were doing a bit of painting. We discovered that what seemed like a crumbling romantic ruin was actually a highly organized system of construction and services with a beautifully engineered timber frame and clear articulate plan underlying it. Because the original construction was well ordered, with a specific mortice and tenon jointing system, we were able to work out exactly how the house had been built originally. I drew this up for my third year measured drawing programme.

I learnt a respect for building trades done properly

‘We identified the separate components – brick footings, the enclosing timber frame surrounding a central brick chimney stack that warmed the main rooms of house and also braced the frame. There had been two unheated service rooms at the end.  It was an idea so familiar from the plans of Mies and Khan’s served and servant spaces. We struggled away with the house, occupying the middle floor for nearly 10 years, away from the rising and falling water. I loved it – the first time I had done anything with my hands. I learnt a respect for building trades done properly, as our laboriously applied plaster crumbled away rather quickly. 

‘We went on to make the house habitable, keeping to the modernist tenets by centralising kitchen and bathrooms, keeping them freestanding from the timber frame of the surrounding walls. It was our first of many personal projects and the beginning of one of the principal tenets of our practice - the idea of architecture growing out of construction.

‘By 1970, we had three lovely children and lived in a great new terrace house, designed for young families by Neave Brown, in Winscombe Street below Waterlow Park. I practiced from home on projects including the rebuilding of a house in Hertfordshire for Michael’s brother, an exhibition on Medical Care through the Ages for the Hospital Centre and the rebuilding of 13A Pond Street Hampstead for Ron Hall, then a journalist at the Sunday Times. I read recently he has just died. I worked in the mornings with au-pair help. Far from being frustrated, I have always reveled in my varied role. In those days fathers were unreconstructed or maybe in a state of change. They wanted home organised as their mothers had, plus a working wife who contributed intellectually and financially. They weren’t very hands on, unlike the marvellous young fathers of today. But I, and my friends, expected to be able to do everything without much help – after all we followed Shirley Conran’s book – Superwoman.

‘By 1975, we were outgrowing our Winscombe Street house, probably feeling itchy for another personal project. It was a strange time. The property world was in turmoil. Developers were being talked off window cills or worse. Prices had come crashing down.  Everything was for sale. Benham and Reeves, the Hampstead agent had a list of more than a dozen sites, unheard of now - a proper site with street frontages, not squeezed in as they have to be now.

The Downshire Hill site was very interesting.  It was 45 feet wide, three times wider than the Winscombe Street house, which meant we could double our area and live more horizontally on 2 stories - a London site to dream of. There had been a garage and studio on the site, attached to the Regency Villa next door, previously owned by the architect, Frederick Gibberd, whom Michael and I had both worked for at different times. We were able to sell our Highgate house quickly and were then the possessors of a large razed site, but no money.

‘We had the opportunity to build a light and airy contemporary villa, just detached from our neighbours, in the tradition of the Californian houses, particularly the Eames House. It was to be spare and minimal. The idea of a framed structure with servant cores was as strong as ever, but this time it was to be built in metal. The structure could have spanned the 12m x 10m area, of permitted development on the site with out columns, but we opted for a light steel frame, 2m x 4m, more domestic in character, so that a secondary frame to support glazing, cladding and partitions wasn’t necessary. 

‘I acted as the main contractor, co-ordinating the various elements of the building. We used small outfits - a Portuguese and Irish pair for the ground works and the steel frame components were manufactured by metal fabricators on Canvey Island, who had never been involved in a whole building before. Just like the 16th century timber frame, the steel components were prefabricated and brought to site for assembling, this time welded together. 

‘The frame is exposed on the inside as at the Town House, but the infill panels are Teflon coated profiled steel as opposed to wattle and daub and horse hair plaster. Profiled steel also clads the side walls. Carefully proportioned glass panels on the garden and street elevations, giving leafy, reflective facades.  Venetian blinds control views inside and out. 

‘Although it wasn’t originally planned like that, as well as our expanded home, we had made the ideal showcase, which embodied our current architectural thinking, from which to launch a new practice. Michael left the Fosters with some work for Willis Faber and we were off, initially with the help of one student. 

The era of local authority departments building big public projects was nearly over

‘The era of local authority departments building big public projects was nearly over.  It was becoming the time of private patronage – clients who wanted specific buildings for their needs, which expressed their own culture and values. Commissions were awarded by small groups, by discussion at interview, in the architect’s own offices, often with no presentation of ideas, certainly no paperwork to be filled in. They were looking for an architect they felt they could work with and must have had great confidence in their own ability and judgement.

‘Work came gradually from our first commission for a brewery building for Greene King in Bury St Edmunds.  We were able to grow steadily, concentrating fully on each project in hand.

‘The Patera Building System, for a steel stockholder client; Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre; Fleet Velmead infants school in Hampshire; the Mound Stand, Lords Cricket ground; Cutlery factory Hathersage, for David Mellor; Office building at Shad Thames also for David Mellor; Glyndebourne Opera House; Emmanuel College - They were all built or conceived from the Hampstead House.

‘Within eight years we had outgrown the floor of the house and a studio we had taken opposite. We needed a bigger office. So we decided to accommodate ourselves again. We bought a great beast of a massive concrete bunker, on a strange triangular site near Marylebone Station. It was built during the war as an arms or record store. We demolished the front portion and designed a mark two Patera building that was raised in height to accommodate a mezzanine floor.

‘An aside - while the Patera factory in Stoke on Trent was producing the components for our building they went bust and I ended up taking over the factory, which I ran, as owner manager, remotely for a few years, before handing it over, lock, stock and barrel to Chris Lees, the foreman of the loyal workforce, who now runs a very good engineering workshop and still does things for us.  I recommend him to anyone for small to medium scale tendering.

‘I again acted as main contractor. This is how it was then, it was fantastic - masses of space and drawing boards.  We moved in in 1985 with twenty staff. It was another good advertisement for the burgeoning practice. 

‘About 10 years later we demolished the rear of the old bunker building to make space to erect another Patera building on our campus. 

‘We link the buildings with a membrane covered way. It is a great, inner London, campus, which is still serving the practice well. 

Up to recently, we had never worked for developers

‘I’ve talked about the initial inspiration of the practice. We’ve since expanded our concerns to include more diverse building materials and adopted sustainability in it’s widest sense, to include the re-interpretation of existing buildings and brownfield sites. As there are, there were many problems along the way, now called challenges, but what has kept us going was the continuing interest and effort of responding with equal fervour to our client’s ambitions and dreams. Up to recently, we had never worked for developers, always for the end user – the patron. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have been practicing during the earlier buoyant economic period we found ourselves in.

‘I was asked on a public platform, the other day, in a discussion about Glyndebourne, what my role in the practice was.  The sort of question one dreads, how can one encapsulate 38 years into a single sentence. I can hardly remember any of it.  I stumbled out something like - Michael came up with the concepts and I supplied the detail.  So our nice friend Humphrey Burton, who was asking the questions, said ‘Oh you mean like choosing the door handles’ at which Michael exploded – no!  So I asked Michael the other day, when preparing for this talk, what did he think my role in the practice was?  He said ‘the practice wouldn’t have developed without you. You were the glue and the oil’ I didn’t quite know how to take that contradiction, but it sounded a suitably complex description of the reality.     

‘In the early years, we were two partners, working on most projects together – We worked incredibly hard – our children said we put them off architecture because we argued too much. I hope they mistook healthy discussion for argument.

‘And because I can’t resist it - I must mention daughter Sarah who is here today. She has recently moved from the Tate to Covent Garden, working as Project Director of Open Up, and our other daughter Abigail, who runs the architectural practice Sanei Hopkins with her husband, Amir, couldn’t come because she is tending to a client. So you see we didn’t put them off.  [Our son Joel is a writer and director of films. The process of building a film always seems familiar to Michael and me.]

‘As work came in, the practice got bigger, we took on more staff and more partners. I always had a major involvement with specific projects but my role became general rather than particular, more of a managing partner.

‘As well - my activities outside the office as a member of the Arts Council’s Lottery Board and as a Trustee of the National Gallery, where I chaired their Building Committees, gave me a useful understanding of broader issues, which I brought to the practice.

We probably recruit to the office more female than male architects

‘In relation to the specifics of being a woman and an architect - I’ve never really believed in positive discrimination, particularly now when the major battles of equality are won.  I don’t find any young architects, male or female, thinking about the issue.  They are just architects. We probably recruit to the office more female than male architects, who have just graduated, on a best portfolio and interview process.  But it is a fact that women often leave, either temporarily or permanently, to have babies, just when they are getting really useful in the office!  Fathers now play their part much more, but thoughtful parents recognize the importance of the role of rearing children and the need for a prime carer and usually the mother wants that role. I, along with my generation, and I expect is universal, have always tended to feel guilty whatever I was doing.  If I was occupied with parents or children or even husband, I felt I should have been working, and vice versa.  Inevitably some women feel left behind or overlooked on returning to work.

‘How does one resolve this issue? My education in the 50’s didn’t address the reality, maybe because we were mostly taught by magnificent, unmarried women who had lost their potential partners in the first world war. I’m a governor of a girl’s school, where they are not addressing the issue now either. There are constant complaints of promising young teachers leaving to have children and leaving their GCSE or A Level students in the lurch.  Return to employment is guaranteed but it is really difficult to give 100% to one’s work if one is worrying about leaving to pick up children at a certain time.  This continues after the early caring years, perhaps more so during teenage hood, and then one’s parents start needing one as well.  My father lived well until he was 100 and my mother to 94.  These are the components of life for many people, mostly women.  I feel it is important to come to terms with one’s own capabilities and comfort zone.  One should be confident to accept that one can’t do everything – which is not what I thought when I was starting out.

‘The role of an architect is so diverse.  It can mean so many different things -   working on projects with vast differences of scale, working in a big team for a big practice on big jobs, working for self or small office on small jobs, specialization - a useful route if working part time. Perhaps the answer is in this diversity.  There are roles for all. 

I feel so lucky to be an architect

‘Everyone here will understand when I say how lucky I feel to be an architect. Like all the important decisions in my life, I arrived at architecture through a chancy hunch and got gripped by an absorbing interest that gave relevance and an extra dimension to all my experience, and which is my work and pleasure. ’      


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