Thursday, 2 December 2010

Glenn Howells - Landmark Cities: Birmingham has huge opportunity to get it right

Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects
"Freeform, organic and creative" is how Glenn Howells describes their approach to architecture.

"Culturally we're very different - we work very well when we stumble upon the looser connections."

It's clearly an approach that's been working - Glenn Howells Architects is 20 years old employing over 100 people across two offices in Birmingham and London.

"Our approach is to think of design as being positively bi-polar - simultaneously thinking of the micro and the macro to reach structures that are very rich. By considering the components of any design very early we're able to come up with organic designs where small elements can inform the larger form.

"We don't pursue the idea of having a masterstroke for the shape of a building that informs the inside. We start thinking smaller and allow a larger shape to come out of this. 'Form out of process' is the key.
"We're also very interested in what makes up the component materials - whether these are wood, plastic, concrete or anything else. Understanding our materials is very important to us. Otherwise we are in danger of losing the authentic elements of strong language going through the buildings.

"We've never really done landmark signature buildings....few of these buildings are part of the bigger picture and we don't work in isolation. A dimension that is often not mentioned in an architectural design brief is 'time' - perhaps we can be building for 200-300 years hence and most buildings should be multi-valent, that is making connections so they can be used in different ways. For example our own building here, it's not that beautiful from the exterior but it has huge flexibility of use.

"If we keep doing what we have been doing here in Birmingham: building and then de-constructing to build again then we will end up with something very ragged, with nothing left that is 'stuck together'.

"However I am encouraged that we are slowly turning towards a longer term, evolutionary process rather than the former revolutionary one. The Birmingham Big City Plan is a very different document to what we had before, because if we strip it back to the essentials it is underpinned by

1) Accretions of buildings over many years
2) How we move around this city in the future as pedestrians and cyclists - and not as a motorcar

"This is a huge change in direction for the officers and elected members not to feel the pressure to do everything in 5 years and that it is not all about big buildings.

Eleven Brindley Place, Glenn Howells Architects
"For me the key issue for cities is how to get 1+1 = 3; it is not about landmark buildings, but about landmark cities.

"Looking forward two generations wouldn't it be great if Birmingham had been 'glued together' and we had managed to leave behind some things which actually joined up and made sense.

"We have the largest local authority in Europe and so we have the capacity to do this, perhaps unlike London where people forget there are 32 boroughs operating.

Birmingham has a huge opportunity to get it right. We need patience and ambition to see that it does come together. However there is, here and now, the chance to be able to contribute to something greater by working with a longer time horizon.

Glenn Howells is a Visiting Professor at Nottingham Trent University and an External Examiner at Sheffield Hallam and in giving lectures he has realised his interest in trying to provide a context for architecture students today. "I have been trying to say to them, you are not here to do something which is a remarkable building and 'all about me'. I believe that if we went back to 1962, for example, architecture might have been about 'how do we make life better?'

"We have lost the skill to do excellent ordinary buildings and yet most of any city is about this, as is most of life."

Of course over 20 years the Glenn Howells practice has accumulated some prestigious projects to its credit from the early competition wins such as the Custard Factory in Birmingham, Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford to the Dream Factory in Warwick, The Market Place, Armagh, the Rotunda refurb and Eleven Brindleyplace in Birmingham as well as Lime Street Gateway Liverpool, Timber Wharf Manchester, the Savill Building, Windsor Great Park and 55 Degrees Time, Dubai.

Gloucestershire Gateway Services Area, Glenn Howells Architects

One of the company's smaller but striking projects is the Stroud Motorway Service Area which has been designed and managed by a father and daughter team (Westmorland) with two such projects already under their belt. Their concerns are for the whole integrated approach, combining craft skills and the most contemporary sustainable technologies, echoes a theme running through the core of Glenn Howells Architects. Their aim being to fuse the best from the old with the best of the new, for example by working with designers such as Gordon Crowley, a roof manufacturer inventing timber connection systems, crafting his timber with inordinate care and skill in Lincoln.

The Savill Building Windsor Great Park
"Most of our projects are all to do with collaboration. We don't have a 'guru' approach... but a common set of principles which anyone can plug into. Within the practice there is no hierarchy in terms of who can have ideas.

The Savill Building, Glenn Howell Architects
To illustrate this Glenn points out that the Savill Building was "borrowed from 3 other designers...we took our client to see them and made no secret of this.

"Uniqueness is perhaps overrated in architecture. By understanding older buildings we can learn from them all the time. The longer I am in this business the more time I spend looking at and studying older buildings.

"We try to encourage young people not to distinguish between creative elements and the various aspects of production. We encourage a gentler approach to design, involving a blurring of production and design. We try to give people an understanding that design is a slower evolutionary process that we are all part of, all the time.

Working with Kevin McCloud

The Triangle, Swindon, Kevin McCloud and Glenn Howells Architects

Glenn met Kevin McCloud a few years ago when Kevin was first thinking about the Triangle project in Swindon. They started discussing his ideas for a housing project and wanting to do something ordinary but very different, with sustainable values whilst remaining desirable, comfortable, somewhere you'd want to live.

"Houses are like a very good pair of shoes and shouldn't be like a loud cravat. I can't think of anything worse than living in an 'eco-home'. The word home has some special meaning and says something about you, not about some designer.

"Over the years we have done terraced housing well in UK. It's both a simple and a sophisticated thing. A surprisingly high proportion of our housing stock is terraced. The Victorians and Georgians did terraces 'par excellence'.

"We wanted to re-visit terraced housing.... To re-explore one o f the most successful housing types. In this project Kevin is using hemp and lime, not cavity walls, as a low carbon responsible alternative building material. Hemp is actually cannabis mixed with lime. We've also spent quite a bit of time thinking about how it looks in focus inside - the walls will be thick like an old cob wall.

"Kevin McCloud has seen so many buildings that he has a huge internal reference library which is great when you're trying to do something different. The amazing thing is that this is being built for the same cost as social housing - at £100 per square foot. Good design doesn't cost anymore at all, just takes a lot more work."

Glenn Howells is also building part of the athletes village for the 2012 Olympics and a ground breaking new housing development in East London. "The 7000 new homes in London are an antidote to the Torremolinos approach. We are trying to re-create the tissue of what are successful urban developments through grain characteristics and building types. Our studies into this have evolved over many months and we have now reached an even finer grain study.

"We have come up with housing plans which focus on the user and what it feels like to live in these houses which include a ground floor with a dining room and kitchen, a first floor with sitting room and two further floors with two bedrooms on each. We are trying to get away from a mass produced approach back to the irregularities of older parts of London."

My Favourite Library – “The British Library in Euston Road, designed by Colin St John Wilson. It has been slated because the outside is not so good, but inside it is amazing for the quality of approach and the layout, however the outside disarms you.  This will be around in 200 years, as it is made of stone and brick.”

Favourite building
“When you go into his work the proportionality and weight of everything is perfect - ideas revered in Renaissance times as expressed in Leonardo’s famous ‘Vetruvian man’.  Brunelleschi had a perfect understanding weight and mass.  He dematerialises it in some places and in other places this mass ‘crushes your chest’.  Even then he has used coding throughout the building in a very modern way...For example in his approach to what’s infill and what’s structure. We didn’t invent integrity and structural expressionism in recent times! Walking through Brunelleschi reinforces the view that we are part of a continuum. The more we are able to use elements in buildings with the environment not to redefine it but to use it gently the more we will get the most out of our planet.”

55 Degrees Time, Time Residential Development,
Dubai, Glenn Howells Architects

Design Event 9th December, 'Birmingham Big City Plan - Quality Developments for a Competitive Future' 3pm Birmingham Institute of Art & Design. To attend email beverley.nielsen@

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