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‘The house was very important’: Patty Hopkins looks back

Pamela Buxton

Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects, remembers luck, confident clients, amazing partners and the joy of doing practical things

Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects.
Patty Hopkins, co-founder of Hopkins Architects. Credit: Janie Airey

Patty Hopkins co-founded Hopkins Architects in 1976 with the late Michael Hopkins, and was the joint recipient of the RIBA Gold Medal with him in 1994.

You took up architecture on a ‘chancy hunch’. How did this come about?

I was at boarding school where there were Tuesday evening lectures. Unusually, on this particular evening there were slides, and the lecturer, a Dutch art historian, showed lovely, just amazing images of buildings and Rembrandt paintings – I can’t understand how he related them to each other. I remember that all my friends thought it was boring, but I thought it was brilliant, and decided I wanted to become an architect. Before then I was studying sciences, which I wasn’t really that keen on but the school had to fill its new science labs so I was channelled into them. Apparently I’d previously said I wanted to be a vet.

Sixty years on, do you think you made the right decision?

It was definitely the right decision. I can’t imagine having done anything else.

You studied at the Architectural Association in the 1960s. How do you look back on that experience?

I went there much too young, at 17, and was quite overwhelmed. I took the AA entrance exam in the middle of my A level studies and thought ‘good, I can stop doing those now and go there instead’, so I stopped. Coming up to London for the first time in 1959, I was bewildered and excited, and there were lots of diversions. I did enjoy the AA but I wasn’t a very good student to begin with, and only really started concentrating properly when I met Michael and moved into his shared house. Everyone else living there was working so hard, so I did too, and I got going and got through. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I knew enough to make the most of the AA – I think it would have been much better for me as a post-graduate course.

Michael and Patty Hopkins in 1994.
Michael and Patty Hopkins in 1994. Credit: ITM Publishing Services Ltd

What type of architecture inspired you as a student and young architect?

The AA’s focus at the time was still the post-war thinking of re-building our cities – the bigger picture of redevelopment. A bit later, our references were US architects such as such as Louis Kahn and the Eames, and Mies.

You met Michael Hopkins at the AA but didn’t set up in practice together until 1976. How did that come about?

We always thought we would work together, having met at the AA. Michael first worked in various practices and then joined Norman Foster and I kept my hand in doing work for family and friends, while having three children. We completed this house [Hopkins House in Hampstead] and decided to start our practice upstairs while the family lived downstairs – this made childcare much easier.

The practice expanded into a second studio up the road before finding a site in Marylebone, where we built our own office using the Patera steel system, which we had designed. We ended up buying the Patera factory – I ran it remotely when we were building the studio. I liked that – I enjoy doing practical things. I also organised all the trades as the contractor on the house.

What kind of work did you hope to do when you started out and what were the biggest obstacles to overcome along the way?

We didn't really think ‘we want to do this or that’. We were lucky at the beginning in that we grew gradually. We started the practice at a very depressed time, which is how we got the site for the house. At the time public sector commissions were dwindling, and in the 1980s it was the private clients that had the confidence to build, and we had a series of nice ones. There was a time when work seemed a bit slow, but as we were never that big we didn’t ever have to lay people off. One year we went in for about nine competitions without success, and then won the 10th one, which was for Glyndebourne opera house, just when we were beginning to worry. Not everything was by competition – we did get some projects just by interview, which was rather extraordinary. You can’t imagine that happening these days.

  • Hopkins House, Hampstead, London, 1976.
    Hopkins House, Hampstead, London, 1976. Credit: Matthew Weinreb
  • Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre, Cambridge, 1992.
    Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre, Cambridge, 1992. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

The practice’s first project – Hopkins House in 1976 - is now Grade II* listed. How important was the house for the practice?

It was very important, winning awards and giving us a little bit of a name. We also had a lot of client meetings here. The design of the house wouldn’t suit everyone, but it suited us. It could accommodate us when we had the practice here as well (which wasn’t originally the plan), and also when we were able to expand into the whole house as a family. Then, when the children had grown up and left home, it was a very nice pad for the two of us. More recently, Michael and I could live in the upstairs when he couldn’t manage the stairs. I think of it as an apartment rather than a house in that you can see exactly where everything is when you come in. There’s a legibility, which I think is how we always designed our buildings.

What do you regard as the practice’s breakthrough projects?

Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre (1992), then Glyndebourne (1994). The Mound Stand at Lords (1987) was another very important and useful one.

Looking back over the decades, what buildings are you most proud of?

Bracken House (1992) was very interesting. The Japanese client couldn’t get permission to completely redevelop the site and wanted us to see what we could do with what was there. We replaced the middle and used sandstone on the plinth to tie in with the original listed Alfred Richardson buildings on either side. That was a definite turning point in the use of more solid materials. Then there’s the rather sweet David Mellor Cutlery Factory (1989) and a little museum for them in 2006. We’ve now had quite a few of our buildings listed which is nice, although usually it happened because someone wanted to do something horrid with them!

Lord’s Cricket Ground Mound Stand, London 1987. Credit: Richard Bryant
Bracken House, City of London, 1992. Credit: Martin Charles

Were you and Michael ever comfortable with the ‘high tech’ tag you were given?

I never really minded it – I thought it was quite nice. It’s dropped away now – and all the people who were labelled high tech at the time went on to use other materials.

Did you feel the approach of the practice changed over the years, and if so, in what way?

Yes, as we got bigger projects and had a bigger office.  The briefs changed and needed a different approach – you wouldn’t build a Schlumberger in the City of London. We’ve had amazing partners who were very necessary to our expansion and endurance. 

What has given you the most satisfaction in your work at Hopkins?

I’ve enjoyed being a major part of the office, and being able to influence it in some way. I enjoyed the camaraderie and our office building very much. I’ve also enjoyed being able to do my own things over the years, serving on various committees and being able to concentrate on my family when I’ve needed to. I’ve never been 9-5 – actually it was much longer days. I still go into the Hopkins office a bit – I’m on the board of trustees for the EOT. I’m kept up to date but I’m not part of any current design work.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently along the way? Or maybe there’s a ‘one that got away’ project?

Not for me personally. I don’t feel any regrets.

Glyndebourne Opera House, near Lewes, 1994.
Glyndebourne Opera House, near Lewes, 1994. Credit: Martin Charles

Michael once described you as the ‘glue and the oil’ of Hopkins Architects. You were jointly awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, but have you ever felt that your contribution hasn’t always been recognised by those outside the practice – especially when you were airbrushed out of that photo with Michael, Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Richard Rogers and Terry Farrell?

It was nice of Michael to say that, although it is a bit contradictory. You can’t really be glue and oil! I’ve never worried about how I was perceived in my role – I’ve been useful, and happy doing it. And I wasn’t at all worried about all that silly photo nonsense. There’s no doubt that nothing would have ever happened without Michael – I’ve been very aware of that. I’m happy to have been a central part of it.

Do you think your time in practice over the last 50 years has been a good period to work in as an architect?

I think we were jolly lucky in terms of timing. In the 80s, we were fortunate to have confident private clients. Then we had the millennium, when we were just the right size to pick up some of the Millennium Commission lottery projects such as The Forum in Norwich. I was on the Arts Council lottery board and was quite involved in all that – it was a good time. The practice expanded internationally, and Michael and I enjoyed going out to meet clients in Dubai – where we have an office – and in Japan, China, Athens, India and in America, where we were fortunate to work on four different universities after our name was passed on by successive clients.

There have been some struggles getting things right – it makes a big difference if you have a good project manager who is sympathetic and on your wavelength. Otherwise there can be confrontation from the very beginning, which is no way to produce a good building.

Inland Revenue Centre, Nottingham, 1994.
Inland Revenue Centre, Nottingham, 1994. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

Do you think the profession took too long to get to grips with the need to design sustainably?

I think our office would say we did pick up on that need, with projects such as the Inland Revenue Centre (1994) in Nottingham, for example, which was the first British project to receive maximum points under the BREEAM assessment.

How else do you feel the profession needs to change?

I think the key to encouraging a more diverse intake into the profession starts with schooling – there need to be more opportunities at that point to give kids the chance to go on to study architecture.

Architects famously never really retire. And are you still working on any design projects?

I do have my own projects, with some office back-up when I need it. I recently added an annexe to a house in Cornwall that I completed in 2019. I’ve also made extensive additions to properties in Suffolk. I'm now wondering what my next project will be.  We’re really lucky as architects – our daily life is surrounded by our main preoccupation – buildings.

What is your most treasured possession?

Now I’ve lost Michael, it’s my family. They’re not really possessions but they are mine. I’m not really a very possessions-conscious person – although I do like my houses!

As told to Pamela Buxton

Read more about architects’ reflections on their life and times from Ben van Berkel, Ken Yeang, Piers Gough and Eva Jiricna