Listen to this article
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the title they’d chosen,” says Canadian-born architect Alison Brooks. She is referring to the brief set by the Venice Biennale’s directors for 2018, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin-based Grafton Architects. They have chosen the title Freespace as the direction for invited participants in the central exhibition to follow. In industry parlance, “freespace” refers to the many add-ons which architects incorporate into projects, not because they are in the brief, but because they make the building better for the passer-by as well as for the user. These include anything from a carefully sited bench to a passageway that filters light.
“It’s entirely my agenda,” Brooks continues, “caring about the bits of architecture which enrich people’s lives. We don’t get much credit for it a lot of the time. It’s not about the next really tall building — who cares? It should always be about the elements that people connect with directly.”
In Venice, Brooks is making an impressive-looking installation in wood to immerse visitors in the very details (the façades and roof shapes) she believes are important. Little information about exhibits is revealed in advance of the Biennale but her structure will, like all her work, be perfectly elegant — and socially concerned.
That would be in keeping with many of her projects. Later this year, she will complete the Cohen Quad in Oxford. The fact that Brooks is the first female architect to design a new quad at an Oxford college will come as no great surprise. Neither her profession nor the Oxbridge institutions have been particularly quick to dispense with patriarchy. The surprise is the building itself. The addition to Exeter College, a residential and teaching space on a new site on Walton Street, which will be formally opened in the autumn, is clad in delicately patterned stainless steel shingles. Inside it is all open spaces and extended cloisters. The message: gather here.
“The learning commons,” says Brooks triumphantly of the building’s central hub, which offers six different levels of varying enclosure and openness, “are the first example of a social, dedicated learning space in an Oxford college.” In other words, they are not silent like a library or cellular like a study booth. The aim is to entice students out of their rooms (which, as it happens, are rather fine, with cherry wood furniture and exposed concrete walls) and eliminate some of the pressure of academic life and the insularity of digital behaviour.
Brooks was commissioned for the project on the strength of a portfolio that ranges from the auditorium for a performing arts and business centre in Folkestone in the south-east of England, clad in a curtain of pleated aluminium, to a curvy interior for a new-build spa hotel on the German island of Helgoland, as well as residential work that runs the gamut from sleek private houses to grittier urban regeneration.
A serial prize winner — she’s received all the UK’s top awards for architecture, including the Stirling Prize in 2008 for a housing project in Cambridge — she credits her RIBA award for the VXO House, given to her in 2002, for firing up her career. “I’ll be forever grateful to the RIBA for taking me out of the wilderness,” she says. The house was actually a series of buildings on a lush Hampstead plot, clad respectively in black pebble and timber. An extension in south London, by contrast, called the Fold House, is an exercise in dematerialisation, created from a single sheet of brass and appearing barely to touch the ground.
Brooks is rather like her buildings, coolly refined on the outside, with something more radical going on underneath. The first stage of a project to regenerate a 1960s housing estate in South Kilburn, London was completed in 2015. She prefers the term “healing” to regeneration. Her new housing (nearly half of it offered at affordable rents) is a direct riposte to the failure of 1960s modernist housing: monolithic, monocultural and barely in scale with the city around it. She has introduced new streets, play areas and even a mews, lined with four-storey apartment blocks whose façades are made in pale Dutch brick and dotted with brass porticos and recessed balconies. “Urban housing is the most important type of social architecture,” she says. “It frames everyday life; it forms people’s world view.”
Brooks headed to London as soon as she’d finished her architectural studies in Canada. “It was 1988, and the recession had hit, so there wasn’t any work in London,” she says. “But I’d been kind of steeped in old-school modernism, and I felt I needed to shake that off. The UK was more open and tolerant and welcoming of difference and eccentricity. There was a freedom when I got here. An irreverence in the face of the great modernist paradigm. It was liberating.”
She teamed up with the Israeli designer Ron Arad, who was looking for an architect to work with him on the foyer and lobby of a new opera house in Tel Aviv. The pair developed a flamboyant solution with gleaming brass stairs, walls of brass rods and violet lighting, deliberately at odds with the building containing it. “We were working with complex geometry and double curvature — all done by hand,” recalls Brooks.
While her peers were struggling to find work, she was at the heart of London’s flourishing design culture. By 1996, she had set up on her own.
Now Brooks presides over a staff of 30 in a light-filled studio in north London. She lives in a late Arts and Crafts house, the renovation of which is always the last project on her long list. (Her husband, Charles Walker, whom she met at college, is a director at Zaha Hadid.) “It’s taken us nine years just to expand into the roof,” she says.
Currently occupying her thoughts, along with the Venice Biennale, are a high-density residential scheme in Vancouver and a cluster of residential buildings at King's Cross in London, where the foyers will be communal spaces and Bezier arches will bring refinement to the way the buildings meet the street. A focus, yet again, on “freespace”.