Thursday24 July 2014

Profile: Alison Brooks, the architect in residence

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The sector may lack glamour, but Architect of the Year winner Alison Brooks wants her housing to change lives

Alison Brooks arrived in London from Canada in 1989 with a list of architects she was prepared to work for: Peter Cook, Will Alsop, Peter Wilson, Benson & Forsyth and Sauerbruch Hutton.

“If you are going to pick up your life and land in the UK you have to make it worth it,” she reasons. “I wasn’t just going to work for anybody. They were all practices I felt represented a pioneering approach.”

She took her portfolio round each studio in turn and rang the doorbell. Alsop and Benson & Forsyth turned her away at the buzzer. Others welcomed her in for tea. But none had any work.

Matthias Sauerbruch suggested she contact Ron Arad because he had just been shortlisted for the Tel Aviv opera house foyer competition. “I’d never heard of Ron Arad but I followed it up,” recalls Brooks. “They looked at my portfolio, interviewed me and offered me a job the next day.”

Alison Brooks

Source: Scott Clissold

Alison Brooks

She worked on the opera house — whose complex geometry was created by taping Arad’s welding rods to their drawing boards to achieve perfect curves — and the Belgo restaurant chain. Three years later she was made a partner.

But her plans for the practice did not match Arad’s and in 1996 she set up on her own, determined to make a mark in a sector that offers few opportunities to architects of her drive and talent.

“I wanted Ron Arad Associates to become a major force in architecture that took on big competitions,” she says. “We had a lot of fun working together but our ambitions were not the same and I knew I had to leave if I wanted to do urban design and housing.”

Her interest in housing began before she even graduated from Ontario’s University of Waterloo, when she worked on a project for Jack Diamond in a notorious high-rise neighbourhood in north Toronto. But at Arad’s it developed into an almost evangelical fervour.

Taking buses between her Chalk Farm bedsit, the showroom in Covent Garden and one of their projects in Notting Hill, it wasn’t the last gasps of post-modernism that caught her eye but the housing estates she passed through.

“The Number 31 went right through the South Kilburn Estate, which was so unbelievable I decided right there that I was going to try and get into housing design so I could change things,” she recalls. “I thought no one should have to live like that.”

She is now working on a project on that very estate, in north-west London, but it was a long time before she started winning work at the sharp end of the housing market — the kind of schemes that won her the top honour at December’s Architect of the Year Awards and the Stirling Prize in 2008.

ABA’s first major commission was for the interiors of a hotel in Heligoland, off the German coast. But its remote location didn’t exactly lead to mass exposure. “It was very tough when that ended,” she says. “I had to start over again doing house extensions and housing competitions, like a typical young architect in London.”

But what extensions. In 2000 her VXO House in Hampstead created a virtually new home from a 1960s dwelling with the skilful addition of three structures. It was followed by the Fold, Wrap and Herringbone Houses in London and the Salt House in Essex, which display her hallmarks of complex geometry and intriguing spaces.

This grappling with jigsaws was great training for her leap into large-scale housing on the Stirling-winning Accordia project in Cambridge, says Cany Ash, partner at Ash Sakula and an AYA judge.

“She has a definite interest in experimentation in housing and there’s not enough of that,” adds Ash. “She’s also a savvy business person but she hasn’t sunk into the cold, mechanistic world of running a business. She keeps the fun in architecture.”

She hasn’t sunk into the cold, mechanistic world of running a business. She keeps the fun in architecture

Brooks is also determined to keep future residents centre stage, even when this involves a long battle with clients — or “nagging clothed in charm”, as Ash puts it. At the Newhall development in Harlow, Essex, she spent two years pushing Galliford Try and Linden Homes to include ground-floor studies. They’ve become the most popular room in the houses, but had to be marketed as “study/extra bedroom” to convince the mortgage lenders. And this is the nub of the problem faced by Brooks and all decent housing architects.

In Canada and America, lenders assess the value of a property on its square footage, so storage space, studies and lofts will increase its value. But in Britain, where the only consideration is the number of bedrooms, housebuilders have no interest in features that might enhance quality of life but leave the banks unmoved.

Changing the way housing is financed will have a bigger impact on the quality of housing design than anything an architect can achieve on their own, she insists.

“One of the only ways that root and branch reform is going to happen in housing design is if the government introduces a rating system for residential property that’s based on clearly defined criteria ranging from square footage to quality of daylight and materials,” she says.

“At the moment there’s no incentive for developers to build beyond the minimum standards because mortgage lenders are only interested in the number of bedrooms a property has. There’s no choice for buyers. They don’t even know what they are missing.”

Is Brooks herself missing out on the glamour a practice like hers could be chasing? It’s not that she doesn’t want to do more cultural projects like the Quarterhouse arts centre in Folkestone. It’s just that housing offers the chance to have a profound impact on thousands of lives for generations to come.

And, as she says, “you don’t get that with a concert hall”.


Brooks in brief

  • On the drawing board: Exeter College, Oxford, and two housing projects: Dollis Valley and Bath Riverside.
  • In the trophy cabinet: 2006 Stephen Lawrence Prize, 2007 Manser Medal, 2008 Stirling Prize (joint winner), 2012 Architect of the Year and Housing Architect of the Year.
  • Size: Turnover: £1.2 million. She has two other directors, two associates and 15 staff. She would like to expand to 20 or 25 staff for a chance in PQQs.
  • Ambitions: Aside from a radical overhaul of the way housing is financed in Britain, she is keen to design art galleries and museums.
  • Inspiration: In Ontario, her mother would point out the details on her favourite buildings. Her father, a lawyer with architects as clients, was less enthusiastic.
  • Family: Met her husband at university, though they didn’t date until they met up again in London. Charles Walker is head of architecture at the RCA and a consultant at Zaha Hadid Architects. They have two teenage sons.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Couldn't you have got a decent photograph instead of that horrible cartoon that looks like something out of MAD magazine?

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  • You've hit the nail on the head, Sceptical - it's Alfred Neuman's sister!

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  • Lucy Mori

    It's great to see a successful woman architect profiled in the press, and one that is a 'savvy business person' as well - although I contest that being 'business-like' has to be 'cold and mechanistic'.

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