Listen to this article
There exists a terrific photo of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw in full 1970s regalia. Floppy, long blond hair, a handlebar moustache, velvet jacket, kipper tie, a rose in his buttonhole and tinted John Lennon glasses. It is a little unfair to mention it, but also irresistible.
Grimshaw and the High Tech architects of the 1960s and 70s exuded an air of English eccentricity tempered by an admiration for engineering and industry. Practical dreamers. It was all very English: a cocktail of Victorian industrial vim, bohemian London loucheness and a ruthless, businesslike efficiency. Its stars became internationally renowned and heavily decorated: Lords Foster and Rogers, Sir Michael and Lady Hopkins and here, ensconced in his Camden home, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw.
At 79, Grimshaw has shed the flamboyance and looks remarkably boyish. But he still sports the owlish glasses which define artistic sensibility for a certain generation (Hockney had them, too) and particularly architects. They are the post-bow-tie signifier of architect-ness.
My arrival coincides with that of a box of books, the newest monographs ready for him to sign after his acceptance speech for the RIBA Gold Medal, which he was awarded on February 14. It is the same award that Le Corbusier, IM Pei, Edwin Lutyens, Frank Gehry and other wearers of architectural spectacles have won over the past century and a half.
Grimshaw is probably best known for the Eden Project, a froth of bubbly domes across a dramatic abandoned quarry in Cornwall. Even in its name there is a hint of a 1970s utopian, sci-fi future, something of the future dream/nightmare of Silent Running or Nasa’s ill-starred Biosphere. It was one of four Grimshaw millennium projects, seeded by money from the National Lottery and an explosion of architecture: some magical, others aimless.
The Eden Project was definitively the former. But there was also the National Space Centre in Leicester with its pillowy, Puffa-jacket tower; the Thermae Spa in Bath; and Birmingham’s Millennium Point, which Grimshaw describes as “concrete Meccano”. Which brings us back to the beginning. When I ask how his interest in architecture started, Grimshaw sits back. “I suppose like all boys back then I built tree-houses and dugouts, and of course there was Meccano.”
The colourful, bolt-together kit of parts that could be assembled, dismantled and reassembled in almost any shape limited only by the imagination (and the amount of parts) seems to have had an outsize effect on postwar British architecture. High Tech, you might argue, is scaled up Meccano, an architecture which revels in its engineering components and its flexibility.
“If you look at the Herman Miller factory [which Grimshaw designed in 1976], it’s now being converted into the Bath School of Art and Design. I love that idea that buildings can be reused, I think it’s wonderful, and it’s how we designed it, so that, inside, anything could be anywhere.
“At the time” he says, “factories were designed with a brown glass box at the front with the white-collar workers, the office — and a shed at the back for the blue-collar workers who made things, no natural light, nothing. It was awful.” This built expression of the British class system was, he says, one of the embedded ideas they were trying to escape.
“There was this rather socialist idea, I suppose, that everyone should work together, everyone should have the same, good conditions. And [US furniture manufacturer] Herman Miller had pioneered the open-plan office and had worked with [Charles and Ray] Eames, they were very forward-thinking.”
Grimshaw may now live in a Camden garden square but his former home was more avant garde. Like the Herman Miller factory, 125 Park Road is now listed (protected), an elegant tower with curving corners rising from the western corner of Regent’s Park, overlooking the US ambassador’s residence.
Its corrugated metal cladding and rounded corners were inspired (Grimshaw’s partner at the time, Sir Terry Farrell, told me) by the functional chic of a Citroën 2CV. In what now seems a distant era, the costs were 100 per cent funded by local government grants and a bank loan. “We didn’t have to put any money in at all,” Grimshaw says, “Which is just as well, we didn’t have any.
“Some people have suggested that those flats were the first lofts,” he says. We might now associate loft living with New York artists taking over former industrial buildings but 125 Park Road envisaged a similar flexibility to the Herman Miller factory. The flats could be sub-divided as their owners wanted and be as large as they needed — even an entire floor. “It was really bare bones,” Grimshaw says. “There was no interior fit-out, the lighting was just bulbs sticking out of the walls on bare flex. But it cost £360,000 for 40 flats.”
Did that architecture emerge from necessity? “Yes, I suppose it did,” Grimshaw says. “The 1960s took quite a time to get going. It was quite bleak, a period of extreme austerity, hellish concrete towers going up, much of it was like eastern Europe. I sometime think it was the utilitarianism of the postwar era that led to it, you had to make and do.”
Those exposed ducts and cables came from necessity — it was cheaper than boxing it all in. I think there’s been too much credit for the ‘wonderful poetry of ducts’.”
That exposed aesthetic settled into a kind of fetish. Flats built above a supermarket and alongside the Regent’s Canal, not far away in Camden, are a good example. The curving metal façades and the high-tech supermarket made a deep impression on the city in a period of mostly Post Modernist exuberance.
When I ask about why the Farrell and Grimshaw partnership ended, he says: “We were doing a lot of housing and suddenly pediments started appearing everywhere. And that just wasn’t my thing.” Then he turns a little sheepish and says: “That’s a little unfair, but we’d been doing our separate projects in the office and it was quite a clean break.”
Grimshaw’s biggest breakthrough came with the commission for the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo, a sinuous, serpentine glass roof elegantly following the curves of the Victorian engineering.
Completed in 1994 but then closed when the new Eurostar station opened at St Pancras, it has now been revived as an integrated part of London’s busiest terminal.
It still looks good. Yet a new interchange in New York has had even more of an impact on transport. The Fulton Centre with its dramatic light funnel sucking space deep underground has radically transformed the dark and incomprehensible Lower Manhattan subway interchanges.
The first new piece of public infrastructure to open after 9/11, it has already become part of the downtown landscape. The recent £1bn renewal of London Bridge Station has also transformed a piece of subterranean city. “We get great satisfaction from our transport side — which has grown quite big now — that we can claim a kind of improvement in the human condition.”
London Bridge has seen the massive Victorian arches retained and made into a feature of the cavernous public space. “We have to look at demolition,” Grimshaw says. “It’s such a wasteful process that I think we should think much more strongly about what we build.”
‘It’s a terrible thing to say but [in the 1970s] we didn’t give a damn about conservation. The GLC [Greater London Council] had bought about 135 acres in Covent Garden and our proposal was to build a series of ‘centres’ connected by travelators running at three different speeds. We thought people would live in the country and travel into cities for ‘intellectual stimulation’.
“Now” he says, “I’m getting more and more impassioned with sustainability. Architects should be compelled to put in proposals for how their buildings could be converted later, from offices to flats for instance. We need to stop looking at buildings as expensive handbags on shelves.”
Grimshaw also designed the building that held the presses for the FT in a then deserted Docklands area. It was converted into a data centre when the printing presses moved out. “I was glad about that, too.” he says. “That building used to look huge but now, amongst all the towers, it looks rather small.”
But it is still there. Humming with digital financial information as it once buzzed with printed news. Grimshaw’s buildings do seem to be able to absorb the future.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published