Van Heyningen & Haward is top of the class in the education sector
The winner of BD’s Education Architect of the Year award talks about how the practice’s values of democracy and individuality guide its work on schools
If ever you were tempted to raise your voice while visiting van Heyningen & Haward, you’d soon realise the error of your ways. Sound waves soak into the overhead canvas sails, passing through the weave and into the timber rafters of the converted warehouse. Any reverberations that make the return journey would be far too feeble to fuel an argument. “Acoustics is a passion of ours; how you tune a space is very important,” says partner Joanna van Heyningen. “We’ve always had a desire to form the character of places by how they sound.”
The office in Tufnell Park, north London, is certainly characterised by a studious calm and hushed concentration. The desks are arranged to minimise distraction, with groups of four staff facing away from each other in U-shaped configuration. The lofty space is subdivided by blockwork partition walls, a vote for permanence where other practices prize flexibility. Book-lined desks are in varnished timber, reflecting light from desk lamps. It all feels pleasantly like being back in a university library.
For BD’s Education Architect of the Year, its office is a useful shorthand for its architecture. In its portfolio of schools, colleges and libraries, VHH designs for the unchanging values of learning and scholarship rather than ever-changing fashions. “In education, you get a new cohort of people every year, and you want them to feel excited about being in the space. It should feel fresh and new every time,” says van Heyningen. “So we put a lot of our passion into making buildings that stand the test of time, externally and internally, and don’t get tired.”
Van Heyningen, who set up the practice four years before her husband Birkin Haward joined from Foster Associates in 1981, can relax in the knowledge that their projects really do deliver a timeless appeal. Projects such as the 1981 Rare Books Library at Newnham College, Cambridge, or the 1995 Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford still look fresh and interesting today. And ideas trialled a decade ago — such as the outside teaching spaces at the practice’s 1997 King Alfred School — have proved to be ahead of their time.
VHH has worked extensively at Oxbridge and in the private schools sector. But the BD judges were impressed by the way it took, for example, the values of Oxford’s Stelios Ioannou classics faculty to City & Islington further education college, or the spatial quality of the fee-paying Latymer school to a state primary in Caerphilly. “The budgets may be less [than Oxbridge], but it doesn’t mean your intelligence is less, or you treat what people say in a different way,” says partner Josh McCosh.
VHH’s portfolio also displayed an impressive variety of architectural forms. Rather than assembling off-the-shelf design ideas, VHH bases its work on 10 “thoughts” or design principles — including sustainability, light and materiality — that are so internalised it’s impossible to tell how they’re going to be externalised. So the same practice that solidifies traditional English values in masonry and brick also designed the metal-clad RSPB centre at Rainham Marshes, a compelling piece of pop culture that celebrates its decontextualism.
There’s a lot of variety in our work, but that’s because people generally understand the fundamentals — a sense of place and orientation, longevity and acoustics
“Creatively, there’s a lot of variety in our work, but that’s because people generally understand the fundamentals — a sense of place and orientation, longevity and acoustics,” says associate James Gallie. “Compared to a lot of practices of similar size, design is quite democratically disseminated through the office — there’s an opportunity for everyone in the office to have some involvement in design, it’s much less top-down than some other practices.”
As a meritocracy, VHH draws in ideas and opinions from a wider than usual spectrum. More than half the staff is female, with the practice recognising that careers that take detours to raise children or explore other interests shouldn’t head for a cul de sac. “I think being a woman principal makes a difference. We’ve always run the practice on merit,” says van Heyningen. The principle of part-time working is also gender-blind: McCosh dropped his hours when his children were younger; Gallie now works a nine-day fortnight.
The trio describe VHH as a family firm that lives by family values, where staff are valued for who they are rather than how well they match a job description. Family ties are strengthened by the practice lunch held three days a week, a throwback to the days when Haward and van Heyningen’s childminder used to cook for staff while looking after their children. There’s also a weekly staff forum, which alternates between discussing design issues and debating how the practice should be run.
Appropriately enough, there’s also a bit of a mother-son thing in the interaction between van Heyningen and her two colleagues, with touching of wrists, good-natured bickering and “what you really mean is” corrections. There’s also a maternal anxiety to avoid favouritism — although work commitments meant that McCosh was the only one of a trio of new partners present at the interview, there’s a request to make sure that all three have equal billing and jointed noses.
VHH is in fact now a practice of two generations. For its first 20 years, it really was a family firm, based in a studio attached to the two principals’ home. Ten years ago, converting and taking on the new Tufnell Park premises triggered a period of growth. In 2005, the two founding partners appointed Josh McCosh, Chris Wilderspin and Meryl Townley as partners. Last year, the trio became full equity partners.
Coinciding with winning the BD award, the restructuring seems to have re-energised the practice and re-awakened its appetite for growth. “The work is coming in thick and fast at the moment,” says van Heyningen. “It’s very exciting and good fun.”
What sacrifices do you have to make, when the jobs get bigger and the fees get smaller?
In the first weeks of 2008, the practice has been commissioned to design two further education colleges, for the Sussex Downs and Chelmsford. Last week, it learned that it has been included in the Learning & Skills Council’s framework list, working in joint venture with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios as JVFE. Although it has missed out on major Building Schools for the Future work — “we’re hungrier and wouldn’t let it happen now,” says van Heyningen — it hopes to secure a commission as part of the Greenwich school framework.
But the practice is aware that its distinguishing features — family atmosphere, self-built offices, design democracy — could be diluted if an influx of projects brings more staff, and longer chains of command.
“We had a partners’ meeting to talk about the future of the practice last night,” says ,” says van Heyningen. “We’re getting really big jobs, but how do we keep the things we care about? And what sacrifices do you have to make, when the jobs get bigger and the fees get smaller?”
No matter what the future holds, the practice is determined to keep its stress on research and ideas, and the variety of its workload in the education sector. As the practice heads into a new chapter, VHH will be guided by its “10 thoughts”, and by working in an office that demonstrates several of them.
With these touchstones to rely on, its clients in education and every other sector should have many more award-winning buildings to look forward to.
Playing a different role: Dana Haqjoo, associate
Tell us about your double life
I’m an actor, and I retain flexibility by working here four days a week. But if I need extra time off, I can work it out. I’d always wanted to be an actor, but when I was growing up in Manchester architecture seemed the more sensible option. In 2001 I was having a mid-life crisis and told Jo and Birkin I wanted to quit. They were very supportive, so we negotiated a way that I’d work part-time and keep a foot in the practice.
How did you make the switch?
I did some training at the City Lit Actors’ Centre in Covent Garden, and worked on a lot of student and independent projects. Then I got an agent, and I graduated to getting walk-on parts in The Bill and EastEnders.
What have you been in recently?
I’ve been working with Omid Djalili in his BBC sketch show — when he presented the BD awards he gave me a namecheck. And I’ve just come back from some filming in Hungary for a British comedy, The Story Of…, that will hopefully launch in Cannes. I play an Arab character — I tend to play a lot of terrorists! It’s great that I’m now on the BBC’s radar, and I’m getting asked to do film parts.
How do you manage to pursue two careers?
It’s a challenge, but the great thing is that I’m at a practice that really accommodates people with flexible lives. I think that stems from the fact that Jo managed a family as well. I’m line manager for the marketing and admin staff, and I also oversee a couple of projects, although I probably don’t work at them as intensely as other people in this role.
Do you tell people you meet on set that you’re an architect?
I don’t tell everybody, I think you have to get to know someone before you mention it. After all I’m trying to be credible in a different industry, so for the same reason I don’t always tell clients I’m an actor.
Photographs Ed Tyler