The RIBA award-winner talks to Debika Ray about housing and the social and civic purpose behind architecture
Soon after arriving in the UK from Canada in 1989, Alison Brooks travelled through the South Kilburn Estate, a beleaguered development in London. It was an experience that reaffirmed her nascent interest in housing design and local regeneration. This year, she won a RIBA award for a 43-dwelling scheme, Ely Court, on that very estate. It has been lauded for its generous proportions, build quality and public space, and she’s now best known for such residential schemes. But Brooks insists she isn’t just a ‘housing architect’. Indeed, as her London-based practice celebrates its 20th year, it’s taking on an increasingly diverse set of projects, from academic buildings to installations. And, to keep up with demand for its services, it’s inevitable that the practice will soon grow.
ICON For the London Design Festival you’re building an installation at the Chelsea College of Arts. You don’t often work on temporary structures, do you?
ALISON BROOKS I haven’t really in the past, but it’s been great working on something that breaks the rules. And you never know – it could become permanent if somebody relocates it, because it’s a pavilion more than an installation. It’s a tube with four sides, curved floors and ceilings, and apertures at each end that frame views outwards. You’re encouraged to walk around inside and experience the space as a landscape – we’re not used to walking on curved floors, so there’s an element of playfulness to it. It also demonstrates the structural potential of cross-laminated hardwood: it’s a double cantilever, each about 12m long, springing from the point where the structure touches the ground, which is pretty athletic.
The Smile, Brooks’s installation with the American Hardwood Export Council for the London Design Festival. The pavilion has a curved floor that cantilevers
ICON You’re the latest in a line of high-profile architects to be appointed to design a Maggie’s cancer care centre. What will be unique about yours in Taunton, Somerset?
AB Ours will be very rooted in its place and context. Taunton is full of historic castles and country houses with walled gardens, surrounded by a classic, rural landscape. Our scheme draws on this heritage to achieve a synthesis of landscape and architecture. The building will be made of four courtyards and lots of arms that reach out to create viewing platforms. It’s designed to provide different spaces for the activities that will happen there – cooking, tea, classes, yoga, counselling – as well as to be opened up when necessary for large events. Maggie’s is the ideal client with which to experiment, because they believe each centre should be a unique work of art.
ICON Did you have less freedom to experiment on your other major project at the moment: a campus for Exeter College at Oxford University?
AB The site was physically constraining, and height is a limitation in a place like Oxford, but the opportunity for experimentation was very open. As a client, [Exeter College] believes that buildings serve a social purpose. They are researchers, who believe in scholarship, discovery and invention, so were looking to have their minds opened as to what a space could be. In this case, the buildings have an academic role, but they’re also part of the city, so have to work as a piece of urban design. The architecture needed to have intimate qualities, but also create an identity for its community.
ICON Your practice has been celebrated for its housing projects. What is it like working in that sector at the moment?
AB There’s a whole new generation of architects who believe that housing is the stuff of cities. When you design housing, you’re creating a street or neighbourhood – a civic space – so the buildings that frame it should have the qualities of civic buildings. But this attitude is at odds with the market forces that look at housing as places to invest wealth. There’s an inherent conflict between what we’re trying to achieve and these economic forces. As architects, we’re lobbying for alternative ways of valuing property – I’m always fighting for things like volume, build quality and character. We’re making progress, but it’s slow – it needs the government to say that we have to change the way we build.
Windward House, Gloucestershire, (2012) – a private house that includes a triple-height gallery for African tribal art
ICON You encountered something of this conflict on Newhall Be in Harlow, where you argued for the inclusion of homeworking spaces, but they were eventually marketed as a ‘study / second bedroom’. Is this attitude changing?
AB A little. Developers such as Urban Splash are bucking conventions and offering developments in terms of square metres rather than number of bedrooms, while local authorities are starting to be more demanding about housing quality. But the basis of mortgage valuations is still the number of bedrooms, as stipulated in the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ standard documents, so things need to change at the top. The assumptions that underpin these criteria are associated with a lifestyle hardly anybody leads anymore: housing design has not responded to things like multi-generational families, multi-adult households, people who work from home. Newhall was significant in that regard. Some of the projects we’re designing now include home offices or are, say, designed around a cycling lifestyle.
ICON Do you think architects have a role in solving Britain’s housing crisis?
AB If architects were carried right through projects – from concept design stage to delivery – it would streamline the process and more schemes of better quality would come through. We’re working hard to speed up planning consents, because the time it takes to deliver housing is a huge problem. And there isn’t much incentive to speed up: developers can be reluctant to flood the market with too much housing in case their sales rates or prices drop. Time limits need to be imposed and local authorities need to streamline the process by making elements of planning submissions mandatory, so they can’t be changed later. If local authorities were empowered, things would pick up.
Newhall Be, Harlow (2012), where Brooks argued for the inclusion of homeworking spaces
Ely Court, north-west London (2010–15) – part of the regeneration of the South Kilburn Estate
ICON Do you see typologies like private rented sector (PRS) schemes as part of future housing policy?
AB That’s a tricky one, because we should be figuring out a way to build affordable housing for first-time buyers – not giving up on it. On the other hand, if you design PRS developments as robust, adaptable buildings with good flats, high ceilings, good light, outdoor spaces, in the future they could be converted for sale. Really, we need to do everything at once to address the housing crisis. A huge generation of young people is very angry that it has been denied the opportunity to become homeowners, and that might not be such a problem if there was rent control – if people could treat their rental home as somewhere they could live for a long time without rent going through the roof. Cities like Toronto, New York and many on the Continent have rent control, and it’s not as if their whole economy has shut down.
ICON There’s been a lot of talk about the emerging crop of architects being more socially conscious than the previous generation. Do you think that’s true?
AB Definitely. When I came to London 27 years ago, nobody was doing housing. In architecture circles, there were heated debates about modernism, post-modernism, classicism and then iconic architecture, but nobody was paying attention to the huge post-war estates, which were in rapid decline. Now, many architects are making housing one of the major sectors of their practice. With its social purpose and its urban and civic role, you could consider housing the most important thing that we do as builders of a city. I’m encouraged by the value system that’s informing the work of a lot of emerging architects.
Quarterhouse, a performing arts and business centre in Folkestone (2005–09)
Accordia Brass Building, Cambridge (2011) – part of the development that won the 2008 Stirling Prize
ICON Have you planned for the impact of the vote for Britain to leave the EU?
AB We’ve already felt it. A major project in London was temporarily put on hold and, in the meantime, I had to find other things for those working on it to do. More broadly, many of us in the profession are hoping to promote the idea that diversity is what UK design and architecture thrives on. My office is 58 per cent non-British: all my projects have the hands of people from all over the world. Open access to a global workforce is what makes the UK such a great place for design – let’s not shut the borders when it comes to bringing in talent.
ICON You started your career in London working with Ron Arad. Has that period left an impression on your work?
AB My view of design was influenced by Ron in understanding how to work with a material with your hands and in terms of the artist’s way of thinking – it used to be quite different from the architect’s way, which focused just on assembling parts. The alternative is to express an idea through form and reduce the number of elements so the concept comes across strongly. It’s quite an abstract, sculptural, approach, but I’ve always thought of space first: producing a space and journey, which leads to the form, rather than making a form and carving some space out of it.