My early years at Glenn Howells Architects were spent working closely with Glenn on design competitions and opportunities. This nurtured my skills in interpreting ideas and developing 3D visual models to illustrate the design. It also bolstered my own design rationale as I began to appreciate the direction that underpins decision-making, and the way that a design can be developed from a clear narrative.
It was not until late 2005, however, that Glenn attempted to establish a clear process in our approach to design. It was ironic that we had protocols and advice to help direct every process in our business – CAD standards, contracts, a finance model, an HR plan and so on – yet we lacked formal design guidance that could be referred to by our many young architects.
The in-house presentation that he gave has somewhat shaped the following years, establishing the principles that informed the projects I have led since then, and underpinning the clarity of my thinking.
The title of the talk was ‘Big to Small, Small to Big’, and it illustrated the importance of considering design at macro and micro scales simultaneously. Too often, we see a big idea diluted through detailing, or designs that are dictated by a build system without a clear idea behind them.
Top:Below Paradise Birmingham, the ongoing comprehensive reworking of a large area in the city centre, masterplanned by Glenn Howells Architects.
Above: Rotunda, Birmingham, renovated and converted to residential use by GHA in 2008 (ph: Nic Gaunt).
Exploration became a key part of my experience, working at a variety of scales from big to small, from the large-scale organisation of places and buildings through to the materials and the smallest building components, collaborating early with manufacturers and subcontractors to better understand the opportunities for innovation, allowing a more crafted and resolved design solution. This approach is now expected of everyone in our team, from a Part I up to partner level.
At the time, I was working on the renovation of the Rotunda, Birmingham’s grade-II-listed modernist landmark. While building on the cylindrical proportions and horizontal language that made this building an instantly recognisable object on the city’s skyline, my concurrent research on unitised curtain walling systems was also evolving through extensive discussions with a number of specialists. This involved everything from the anodising process to establishing the optimum size of panels for transportation, and the testing of the sliding gear on a faceted facade. Despite the technical complexity coupled with the layout challenges of a radial grid demanding a meticulous study of the setting out geometry, the design came together smoothly at all scales.
On the big scale, our projects need to be contextual and respond positively to what is important to their location, and their cultural, economic and climatic contexts. A design is about much more than just the building; its story, and its impact on place and people are important considerations for every project at all stages. Having now spent 12 years on a large-scale project to reinstate Birmingham’s civic heart – the Paradise Masterplan – it has been vital to keep this in mind. The big vision that underpinned every aspect of this development was focussed on reconnecting the city with walkable public spaces, offering a rich mix of uses to foster economic growth, integrating a transport network from metro to cycle hubs, and crafting contemporary designs to complement one of the world’s most important collections of nineteenth-century buildings.
Exploring these ideas has not only shaped my approach to architecture but that of the practice, which has become my extended family and where I am very fortunate to be around inspiring talent. The clearly defined principles applied to all of our projects are now described by the acronym ‘CLEAN’: Crafted, Lean, Elegant, Appropriate and Narrative.