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Hindsight: Stephen Hodder on the unquenchable pursuit of design excellence

Words:
Pamela Buxton

The founder of Hodder Associates and later Hodder + Partners considers how early success with Colne swimming pool in Pendle, Lancashire led to the project of which he is most proud - The Welcome Building at RHS Bridgewater

Stephen Hodder, founder of Hodder and Partners and president of the RIBA 2013-15.
Stephen Hodder, founder of Hodder and Partners and president of the RIBA 2013-15.

Stephen Hodder, 65, founded his practice in Manchester in 1983. Hodder + Partners is the incorporated continuation of Hodder Associates, which he established in 1992. He is a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and chair of the Construction Industry Council.

Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?

Without a doubt. I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was 11 years old and, from then on, I’ve been unwavering. I’m passionate about what I do, whether in practice or in education. Architecture has been my life.

I’ve always found immeasurable enjoyment in the process of generating an idea, sketching it and realising the vision. I’ve come to realise how privileged we are as architects to contribute in that way.

What sparked your interest in architecture?

When I was 11, we moved from the north west into a new house in Nottingham and I met the architect. That ignited the idea of being an architect, which was cemented some years later when I had work experience at a small architectural practice while in sixth form. My art teacher made me aware that Norman Foster and Leslie Martin had both studied at the Victoria University of Manchester, so that was always my first choice. I studied there from 1975 to 1981.

What ambitions did you have when you set up your practice 30 years ago?

I set up on my own in 1992 after two years at BDP and seven years in practice with a final year colleague. I was motivated by an unquenchable pursuit of design excellence and that has never changed.

Hugh Pearman wrote a four-page piece in the Sunday Times magazine, posing the question whether Hodder was the new Foster... so there was certainly no shortage of expectation

What was your breakthrough project?

We won an open competition to design Colne swimming pool in Lancashire for the Borough of Pendle. That was a coming together of all the knowledge we’d accumulated from working on quite modest projects: the process of working with people and how to deliver projects. It was a typology we’d never worked on before and in today’s risk-averse industry I’m not sure a young practice would be appointed for such a project. But we ended up winning the Royal Fine Art Commission/Sunday Times 1992 Building of the Year jointly with Norman Foster’s Sackler Gallery. To win alongside an architect I admire hugely was even more remarkable. Hugh Pearman wrote a four-page piece in the Sunday Times magazine, posing the question whether Hodder was the new Foster... so there was certainly no shortage of expectation.

Colne Swimming Pool, Pendle, winner of the 1992 Royal Fine Art Commission/Sunday Times Building of the Year Award.
Colne Swimming Pool, Pendle, winner of the 1992 Royal Fine Art Commission/Sunday Times Building of the Year Award. Credit: Photo: Jonathan Moore

But there wasn’t just one breakthrough project. The Fellows at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, read about Colne and invited us to compete in a competition to extend Arne Jacobsen’s masterwork and that was the start of a 20-year relationship spanning both new-build and conservation projects. Then there was winning the RIBA Stirling Prize in 1996 with the Centenary Building for the University of Salford, which we couldn’t have delivered without the experience at St Catherine's.

  • Extension to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, a development of 54 study bedrooms, completed in 1994.
    Extension to St Catherine’s College, Oxford, a development of 54 study bedrooms, completed in 1994. Credit: Photo: Peter Cook
  • Centenary Building, University of Salford, winner of the Stirling Prize for Architecture in 1996.
    Centenary Building, University of Salford, winner of the Stirling Prize for Architecture in 1996. Credit: Photo: Dennis Gilbert
  • Stephen Hodder with the Duke of Edinburgh, taken at the opening of the Centenary Building in Salford.
    Stephen Hodder with the Duke of Edinburgh, taken at the opening of the Centenary Building in Salford.
  • Phase II of the extension to St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Completed in 2005, the development comprises 132 study bedrooms, a new porters’ lodge and four seminar rooms.
    Phase II of the extension to St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Completed in 2005, the development comprises 132 study bedrooms, a new porters’ lodge and four seminar rooms. Credit: Photo: Martine Hamilton Knight
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What project are you most proud of?

While I’m proud of all of the above projects in terms of practice development, the building I’m most proud of is one of our latest - The Welcome Building at RHS Bridgewater for the Royal Horticultural Society. It’s won 14 awards - our most ever - which is extraordinary given that I’ve been in practice for nearly 40 years. We won the competition in 2016 for the architectural interventions, including the new visitor centre, for its fifth national garden, located in Worsley, Salford.

It’s a legacy project for a remarkable client, who encouraged us to push the sustainability boundaries. We had a wonderful design team and a fantastic contractor - BAM - who really understood the importance of the building to the RHS and to the community of Salford. Everyone pulled together. The progress meetings were a joy. And the way it’s been received has quite genuinely surprised us.

  • Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley. The horizontal composition responds to the horizon defined by the Bridgwater Canal.
    Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley. The horizontal composition responds to the horizon defined by the Bridgwater Canal. Credit: Photo: Peter Cook
  • Interior of the Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley.
    Interior of the Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley. Credit: Photo: Peter Cook
  • Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley the RIBA North West Building of the Year, 2022.
    Welcome Building at RHS Garden Bridgwater, Worsley the RIBA North West Building of the Year, 2022. Credit: Photo: Peter Cook
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What has given you the most satisfaction in your time as an architect?

The Welcome Building at RHS Bridgewater. A lot of our buildings are for the private sector, but this is a truly public building and seeing people using and enjoying it as we hoped is the most satisfying thing you can achieve as an architect.

What has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?

The changes during my time in practice, such as the advent of computer-aided design, 3D modelling and BIM, have been seismic. Managing that transition has been an opportunity, but also a challenge. We’ve also seen huge changes as an industry in how buildings have been procured and that’s been equally challenging. As Sir George Grenfell-Baines of BDP recognised all those years ago, everyone in the design team needs to collaborate closely to fulfil the responsibilities that we carry.

Another obstacle in the early days of the practice was retaining staff - we were often seen as a stepping stone to more established practices, although that isn’t so much of a problem for us now.

Have your priorities in practice changed over the years?

No - I’ve always been very tenacious in hanging on to the agenda I set out at the start: designing buildings appropriate to place and context that fulfill client needs; and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Second best is not good enough.

Is it easier, or harder, to get high quality projects built now than when you started out?

For our projects, it’s become harder because of the shifts within the industry, which sometimes means you become disconnected from the client.

The making and crafting of buildings is so fundamental to what we do. Although it becomes more difficult to hang on to that quality as we work on larger-scale buildings, we strive hard to do so.

What do you think has been the secret of your practice’s success?

Hard work. I also think we’re good at brief development and at communicating with our clients. We’ve become good collaborators and good listeners and that’s also been very important to our success.

You were president of the RIBA from 2013 to 2015. How do you reflect on that time?

I still bear the scars! I had a really challenging first year dealing with issues that didn’t relate directly to architecture, but in the second year I overcame that and was able to focus on my aim of getting the Institute to be more outward facing. We invited 500 client organisations into the Institute to listen to their views and that fed into our Client & Architect document on the essential client-architect relationship. I was also involved in the start of the education reforms and I launched a competition for the ground-floor gallery at 66 Portland Place, which was won by Carmody Groarke. That really helped to get more members of the public and school children into the building.

I’m absolutely glad I did it. I don’t regret it for one moment. There’s no doubt that engaging with the Institute and the regions improved me as an individual and I hope I contributed to the profession, although others can be the better judge of that.

Looking back on your work over the years, who has been your biggest influence?

The work of Arne Jacobsen. I was first introduced to his work as a student in my fifth year and went down to Oxford to visit St Catherine’s College, never thinking that I’d be appointed to extend it 13 years later. He was a second generation modernist who took a humanist approach to evolving the language of modernism, incorporating a greater understanding of human behaviour and materiality.

Working there was like having a living library next to me. I learned so much and it informs our practice today. Working with the Arne Jacobsen Foundation and becoming friends with his grandson, Tobias, has been a delight.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

After the RIBA Stirling Prize we were catapulted forward and were invited to compete for quite significant competitions that we were ill-prepared for and didn’t win. On the back of those I opened an office in London. If I had my time again, I’d organise this differently. While we had some very ambitious, energetic and well meaning people working there, because of my inexperience, the set-up was all wrong and, when recession hit in 2007, I closed it. I wish I had put in a different structure so that I would have been able to keep the office going.

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

It’s taken far too long. And now we need crisis management to put in place the measures to reduce energy demand and carbon emissions in delivering net zero new buildings by 2025.

I’ve just finished a two-year term as chair of the Construction Industry Council, during which time I elevated the climate crisis agenda. We now have 40 professional institutes as signatories to a common action plan, which includes establishing a co-ordinated CPD programme to upskill all professions.

Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?

While we’ve never sought to specialise, it’s increasingly hard to break into new sectors without requisite experience. But I’d dearly love to work in sectors where sadly we’ll never be given work, such as a school or a theatre. That would be a joy. We shall see.

What is your most treasured possession?

I do own a beautiful Porsche 911, but I think the question should actually be what do you value the most. For me, that is family life because that came to me late - I had my sons at 47 and 50 with my wife Claire, who is managing director of the practice.