Best known for a series of buildings which wear their engineering credentials on their sleeve, as well as being linked in with the Brit high-tech pack, Nicholas Grimshaw receives the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture this February, recognising his lifetime’s achievements. We sit down with him for an exclusive interview
Words by Johnny Tucker
Portrait photography by Ivan Jones
Relaxed, stately and highly amenable, the 2019 RIBA Royal Gold Medal-winning Nick Grimshaw — who sits here in the glass-walled office of Grimshaw’s London HQ — seems far removed from the wilfully bloody-minded Architectural Association (AA) student of the 1960s who felt the need to challenge everything, right down to the briefs being set by his then-tutor Peter Cook.
His AA thesis centred on Covent Garden and creating a deeply permeable city-centre university crisscrossed by a network of adaptable travelators. It also involved pulling down the Royal Opera House, which, even for a radical time, was a radical idea, and which you get the feeling he still wouldn’t mind doing — ‘a ropey building’, he mutters in an ascerbic aside. That said, his commitment to sustainability, a core value for him, would probably now save that ‘ropey’ building instead of destroy it.
Key large-span projects by Grimshaw: The Vitra Factory near Basel. Image Credit: Jo Reid & John Peck
As it develops, the conversation is a mixture of gentle, very personal narrative, some diplomacy and the odd unstinting put down for certain projects and people — there’s still plenty of fire in the Grimshaw belly. There’s also still a single-minded sense of purpose that he has retained from the get-go, that sees him still believing in the network ideas of his thesis and still on the original course he set himself of creating legible buildings, where form is defined by function and backed up by experimentation. He is, of course, known for high-tech buildings that wear their engineering credentials on their sleeves — and asked whether he felt pigeonholed as the go-to guy for large-span industrial structures in the Eighties, he replies: ‘Far from it, I actively pursued them.’
Born in 1939, to an artist (mother) and an engineer (father), you get the feeling he was always predestined to study architecture, though it was not a boyhood yearning. He points out that the war years and aftermath saw toys in extremely short supply, so he used to make his own, using offcuts of wood from a local builder’s yard: ‘I loved making things. Bridges… I was obsessed with making bridges — between tables, along the arms of sofas, making spans between furniture and across the bath. I also built towers.’ A visit to the architecture department at Edinburgh School of Art with his brother-in-law who was teaching there, and in particular seeing the workshops in action, did it for him. ‘I knew that was what I wanted to do, right then. That was my moment — the idea of actually making a career out of building models!’
Key large-span projects by Grimshaw: FT Printworks in London. Image Credit: Jo Reid & John Peck
Scroll forward some 50 years and Grimshaw now presides over a multi-award-winning eponymous practice of 600 people, who speak 42 different languages — with offices around the world in the US (2), Australia (2), the Middle East (2), the Far East and Paris, as well as the London HQ. He does worry slightly about the size of the company and the need to feed such an operation with a high level of work, but also believes the structure of the company (an ‘agile network’) and the sheer diversity of the work it tackles, from urban infrastructure and transport, through the arts and education, to commercial development, is a strong buffer against the vagaries of world economics.
It’s a structure that was put in place back in the Noughties, when he decided to start a process of succession that saw the company turned into a Limited Liability Partnership in 2007 with 13 partners. He’s still involved with the practice, but is now an infrequent sight behind the glass wall in the office. How does it feel letting go of something that has your name on it, I ask: ‘It’s not letting go, it’s making it work without me,’ he replies with a ready grin. His answer reflects a deep trust in the people he works with, including partner and deputy chairman Andrew Whalley, and the now 17 other partners, many of whom have been in the practice a long time. The limited partnership reflected a flattened hierarchy that had always existed in the practice — though Nick Grimshaw has always been good at getting his way. ‘It’s all about arguing, and I’ve had a lot of practice!’ he only half jokes. More than one partner at the practice will tell you that ‘Nick has a way of being right.’
Key large-span projects by Grimshaw: Oxford Ice Rink. Image Credit: Jo Reid & John Peck
This is the nature of Grimshaw, from inception to today, it has grown up as a group of people united behind Grimshaw’s architectural vision and ‘generosity of spirit’, who enjoy working with each other and have enjoyed the trust given to them to develop the company through projects in a very organic way. For organic, you can also insert cavalier or buccaneer in the Noughties — when the practice truly began its massive expansion. Prior to the more formal set up of the LLP, the attitude was pretty gung-ho; promising suggestions were more often than not acted upon.
But back in 1965, after graduating from the AA, there was just Nick Grimshaw and one other — Terry Farrell. They set up shop together that year — and projects they worked on together included the conversion of six nineteenth-century terraced houses into student accommodation (1967) and Park Road Apartments (1968).
Park Road Apartments was a highly innovative structure for residential at the time, using a central core more often seen in commercial building, which allowed for a greater adaptability of space. Image Credit: Tessa Traeger
The former project, for the Anglican International Student’s Club, came through family contacts and saw a scheme where Farrell space-planned the main accommodation, while Grimshaw created an innovative spiral tower of toilet and washing facilities that plugged onto the side of the building and linked to every floor, thereby maximising use of the facilities throughout the building. The kit-of-parts structure featured separate bathroom units — created by a company used to making boats and caravans — that plugged into the central spine. The contractor at the time found it all too ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and Grimshaw ended up project managing the scheme, which might have been his first — and last. During construction there was a close call with a very large bolt that fell from above and glanced off his shoulder: ‘I was wearing a hard hat, but if that had hit me directly on the head, I don’t think I would have survived,’ he remembers.
The Park Road Apartments came about because of the need for somewhere to live. London then, like now, was a hard place to find affordable accommodation. So 40 friends and relations came together to create a co-ownership housing group to develop a site overlooking Regent’s Park.
Park Road was able to be developed by friends and family coming together to buy the land. Image Credit: Tim Street Porter
‘It’s a way of developing that would work now,’ says Grimshaw, though you’re unlikely to be buying a packet of land anywhere near Regent’s Park. The nine-storey structure drew on commercial building practices having a central core, which in turn allowed for hugely configureable space around it. This kind of adaptability was to become a hallmark of Grimshaw’s work and was key to the practice winning the Herman Miller Factory project in Bath (1976), and integral to its design.
That building used a demountable cladding system that allowed its fibreglass and glass panels to be reconfigured according to need — and indeed it was many times by Herman Miller. In a testament to the adaptability of the structure, it will reopen this year as Bath Spa University’s new art and design campus.
The highly adaptable Herman Miller Factory near Bath. Image Credit: Grimshaw
Both the Herman Miller Factory and Park Road Apartments are now listed buildings. And Herman Miller was to be the last big building under the auspices of the Farrell & Grimshaw Partnership. After 15 years together, the two broke up very publicly and acrimoniously — and Nick Grimshaw still refers to him as ‘Farrell’ in a clipped tone, gazing into the distance and shaking his head at the very idea of a portico appearing on a factory entrance.
They went their separate ways and Grimshaw & Partners, founded in 1980, went on to create a series of large-span adaptable structures such as the Vitra Factory (1981) — the first building on what is now the Vitra Campus — Oxford Ice Rink (1984), complete with mast and bowsprit (Grimshaw has a love of sailing ship and yacht design for the fanatical form-follows-function minimalism coupled with elegant lines), Homebase Superstore in Brentford (1987) and the FT Printworks in London (1988).
‘Grimshaw baroque’: Camden Council loved the Sainsbury’s building and pushed it through planning
He also created the Camden Sainsbury’s (1988), which was my first brush with one of his buildings. To this day it still delights me with its heavily engineered frame (long-time Grimshaw partner Neven Sidor calls it ‘the start of Grimshaw’s baroque period’). Grimshaw adds: ‘I came up with this very heavyweight, railway-type architecture, which stemmed from one comment someone at Sainsbury’s made which was: “No matter if we even have just one column in the building, no matter where we put it, it would be in the wrong place for planning.” So I said, “How about a building with no columns?” The external tapered cantilever gives you span and then you have the vast rods on the street side to hold it down. That also gives it the drama.’ Then from the canal side it presents something very different with metabolist-like, plug-in housing pods (12 units in all) that complete the complicated site.
The housing units at the back of the Sainsbury’s plot, as seen from the canal behind with its metabolist feel. Image Credit: Jo Reid & John Peck
The Nineties saw a number of interesting completions, with two real standouts: the British Pavilion for the 1992 Seville Expo and the following year the Waterloo International Terminal (there was also another ship-shape structure: the Western Morning News HQ & Print in Plymouth in 1993).
Seville, where natural climate control was to the fore, helped to crystalise Grimshaw’s thinking on sustainability even if it wasn’t a new subject to him by then. He’s always keen to point people in the direction of a piece he wrote in the RIBA Journal in 1980, Energetic Architecture, which aired his sustainability concerns.
Seville got a lot of attention on the world stage, but not as much as Waterloo, one of his most important buildings, and one whose sinuous glass roof is still a marvel to behold. It was also as a result of Waterloo that perhaps his most important scheme came to fruition: the Eden Project. The conversation with Eden’s driving force Tim Smit went something along the lines of: ‘I want to build the biggest greenhouse in the world and you’ve already done the biggest glass house in England,’ remembers Grimshaw.
Sustainability had been a long-term concern of Nicholas Grimshaw and the design of the naturally cooled and ventilated UK Pavilion at the Seville Expo in 1992 brought this to the fore
Eden also came about as a direct result of Nick Grimshaw deciding to avoid going up against all the London architects for Millennium projects and instead opting to bid for the regional schemes. This the practice did and won four, including Eden, the Space Centre in Leicester (2002) and Thermae Bath Spa (2006), which would be dogged by contractor issues and protracted court battles. The Millennium was a pivotal moment for the practice in terms of global recognition and growth.
‘I made an edict, which I don’t often do, that we wouldn’t do any projects in London, because 25% of the architects in the country are in London and we would be competing against them all,’ says Grimshaw. ‘So, I wanted to go outside London where we would be a big fish with the minnows swimming round us, in theory, and it worked. We got more Millennium projects than anyone else.’ He worked closely with now deputy chairman Andrew Whalley on Eden, who had also worked on Waterloo, and who would go on to set up the first foreign office — in New York in 2001. A testament to the quality and power of the architecture at Eden, and the way it expressed the brand and the sustainability message it stands for, is that the practice is still working with Eden to this day and looking at a number of sites for global expansion.
The Leicester Space Centre was a Millennium Project win, which like the Eden Project, used ETFE
With these two magnum opuses — Waterloo and Eden — complete, Grimshaw began to take stock and look to the future of the practice. The name changed to Grimshaw in 2002 — the same year he became Sir Nick — and the LLP followed. He began a long process of stepping back — and a key part of that was deciding to use the skills he had nurtured creating an international architecture firm to sort out London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He had been made a Royal Academician in 1994; a decade later, he ran for the presidency and won. He would be president until 2011, bringing in sweeping structural changes at the Royal Academy to create an institution fit for the 21st century.
Nicholas Grimshaw in his London office in front of the Eden Biomes — a practice-changing Millennium Project win. Image Credit: Ivan Jones
His links with the art world are still strong and he is currently in the process of setting up an annual sponsored lecture by an artist at the RIBA — a mirror to the RA’s annual architecture lecture. ‘It will make architects think about something other than door jambs,’ he quips, ‘and architecture and art is an interesting subject. They call architecture the mother of the arts, but I don’t think artists see it that way!’
And as well as this and his architectural legacy, he has other ideas in the planning, including a philanthropic Grimshaw Foundation, to promote worthy projects around the world. This, however, is still in the planning stage and is something for the future.
The Eden Project and in particular the Biomes were to change the very nature of the practice in the 21st century. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
Much closer to home, timewise (this February — ‘on Valentine’s day’ he chuckles), he will be honoured with the presentation of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, which in its 180-year past has been bestowed upon the likes of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Kenzo Tang, Denys Lasdun, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Correa, Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas and his high-tech contemporaries Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. It’s late in the coming and I personally supported the nomination, which was put forward by Simon Allford, founding director of AHMM.
Although he describes it as ‘a bit of a pot luck thing’, Nick Grimshaw adds, ‘I’m delighted really. I think it’s nice because it’s a lifetime’s work. It’s not a flash in the pan and I got here by sticking to my guns.’
Nick Grimshaw is a single-minded, singular man with a singular vision, and yes, he’s still wearing those glasses.
Simon Allford on Nicholas Grimshaw
Simon Allford, who worked with Nicholas Grimshaw in the early Eighties. Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
Simon Allford, founding director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, was the driving force behind Nicholas Grimshaw receiving the 2019 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, nominating him for the honour and orchestrating the campaign to support the proposal.
‘I have known Nick Grimshaw since I worked for him in my year out after my degree, and a summer after. Back then, in the early Eighties, the Grimshaw office was small. Indeed, there was only ever a dozen of us, but many of that small group were already key figures who have stayed with Nick and gone on to help successfully develop the architectural interests of the practice and ensure they are explored and tested at scale and around the world.
Then, as now, the office was focused on making bespoke buildings that allowed for change through the often conceptual use of systems of design, production and operation. Key projects at the time were the Herman Miller Factory, Oxford Ice Rink and the facade systems that clothed each of them. By contrast I was actually engaged in working on a system building SASH (Standardised Approach to Sports Halls) which was built in many different wraps. It was less handsome than the others but set an important critical frame of reference.
To Nick Grimshaw, the image of the architecture mattered as much as the idea. Indeed, his particular interest in suspension structures was I believe inspired by the romance of the fast Tea Clippers — drawings and photographs of which featured on his (demountable) office wall — and not by structural logic.
An eye for detail: Nicholas Grimshaw checking the flatness of the Herman Miller Factory cladding panels before installation. Image Credit: Grimshaw
The prevalence of such images clearly defined to us all the importance of craft, detail and style. They became the mark of the hand of the practice. This mark has remained key to maintaining the coherence of the practice’s body of work as it has grown into a major international force. Nick, it seems, always knew that an adaptive architecture must also offer a visual image that entertains both its creators and its users.
The one constant, then as now, was a focus on how buildings should be designed from the outset to respond to the need for change over time and in use. Nick, I now realise, always understood not only that the life of a building begins once the architect’s engagement ends, but that it will only survive to be adapted if it has captured the public imagination.
Nick and his office’s own particular oeuvre, within the canon that is loosely described as ‘high-tech’ architecture, is therefore distinguished by strong forms and ideas of silhouette. His office wall, I remember, was lined with images of the Cutty Sark (how pleased he must have been to win that commission!), the cars and domes of Buckminster Fuller and the great infrastructure projects of Brunel. Perhaps Nick was always clear on where he wanted the practice to go, for infrastructure and product design were already there — initially somewhat distinct, yet soon combined.
The multi-awardwinning Waterloo International Terminal cemented Grimshaw’s position in the world of transport architecture. Image Credit: Peter Cook / View
So why does the work matter? Why does Nick deserve the Royal Gold Medal? What does Grimshaw represent? First, whilst it is a global practice it has also built much that can be enjoyed here in the UK. Sadly his early service tower in Paddington, which attracted much interest not least from Nick’s hero Bucky Fuller, has gone, but a suite of factories are still in use, most notably for Herman Miller.
There are innovative apartment blocks in Regent’s Park and Camden Town, a spa in historic Bath and a series of sports buildings including the Grandstand at Lord’s, as well as two major but very different infrastructure projects: Waterloo and Eden. The latter two are linked by scale, ambition and the fact that they both brilliantly and imaginatively resolve very different challenges of programme and form.
The practice’s fascination with a living, sometimes kinetic, architecture led early on to its involvement in the testing out of Fuller’s idea of Spaceship Earth and the weight of buildings as a measure of environmental performance.
The temporary pavilion in Seville in the early 1990s set a benchmark for the inventive consideration of a delightful and generous idea of sustainable design that the practice has continued to explore. Proof, if needed, that Grimshaw is not hidebound by convention or dogma.
Nicholas Grimshaw at the Royal Academy, in 2014, where he was president from 2004 to 2011. Image Credit: Rick Roxburgh
For me, Nick and his practice’s most important contribution has been in working out ideas for making the architecture of hard-working buildings delightful. Nick and Grimshaw’s work (the two identities are the same yet distinct and of course the work is completely intertwined) has remained true to its early project heritage by continuing to make new models for everyday working buildings.
Their greatest exploration of the hard-working city building has been in the field of transport and infrastructure. There, the practice has successfully reminded all of the potential for delight when the art of architecture and the art of engineering are harnessed to work indivisibly in tandem. Grimshaw has synthesised the relationship not just between the static building and movement of heavy transport vessels (trains and airplanes), but also the celebration of the movement patterns of commuters and travellers. All of its transport projects in London, New York, Zurich, Melbourne and St Petersburg, have restated an idea of public room and public place.
Historically, the Royal Gold Medal celebrates the architecture and influence of an individual, and this year it is Nick Grimshaw. But a key legacy of Nick’s career is that the eponymously named practice has transitioned to incorporate a second generation of 19 partners (of whom he is but one!) This reflects his long-term commitment to collaboration: with colleagues, clients, the design team and other designers and artists, with constructors and perhaps most importantly of all with the future users of his projects. Clearly, as his presidency of the Royal Academy of Arts proved, he is talented at designing organisations as well as architecture!
Despite what I say above, I have no doubt of course that, as is inevitable in architecture, much of Nick’s career has been guided by forces of happenstance and chance. But he has proved that in the world of architecture, those two uncertain forces can be mastered by ideas, a design vision, strong leadership and a compelling commitment to collaboration.’