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Michael Hopkins (1935-2023)

Colin Davies

High Tech pioneer and Royal Gold Medallist whose enduring commitment to honest, practical architecture produced a raft of beautiful and influential buildings

Michael and Patty Hopkins at home in Hampstead.
Michael and Patty Hopkins at home in Hampstead. Credit: Tom Miller

As a boy at Sherborne School, Michael Hopkins’ favourite escape from classrooms and homework was a cycle-ride through the Dorset countryside looking at churches and country houses. From then on, architecture and building were seen as pleasurable pastimes, not dull work but escape from dull work. In the years before he entered full-time architectural education, he worked in the offices of both Frederick Gibberd and Basil Spence, and while a student at the Architectural Association he became a protégé of Oliver Hill, designer of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, who was then nearing the end of his stylistically eclectic career.

The son of builder, Hopkins was a practical man. How a building was built always interested him more than what a building looked like. Le Corbusier, painter and architect, had less influence on him than the British ‘Functional Tradition’ of watermills, warehouses, bridges and viaducts. His eight-year-long partnership with Norman Foster was founded on a shared desire to look afresh at lightweight, factory-made building components as the basis of a new architecture. With separate contributions from Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw, they developed the ‘style’ that was called (not by them) ‘High Tech’.

  • The self-built Hopkins House in Hampstead (1976).
    The self-built Hopkins House in Hampstead (1976). Credit: Matthew Weinreb
  • The Hopkins Architects office in Marylebone, London.
    The Hopkins Architects office in Marylebone, London. Credit: Richard Davies

But it was not a style in the purely visual sense; it was a practical philosophy. The Hopkins House in Hampstead, influenced by the famous Eames house in California, exemplified that philosophy and became the perfect demonstration piece for the new practice – Michael Hopkins & Partners, later Hopkins Architects - that Hopkins set up with his wife and professional partner Patty in 1976. Further elegant, minimal assemblages of lightweight components followed, such as the Greene King Brewery warehouse of 1980 and the Patera building system of 1982, which was later adapted for the practice's Marylebone headquarters.

In 1990, the Schlumberger Research centre in Cambridge added a new material and a new form to the repertoire: the fabric canopy. Hopkins was now beginning to distinguish himself from his High Tech confrères. But the decisive change of direction came with redevelopment of the Mound Stand at Lord’s cricket ground, completed in 1991. Because of the constraints of the cricket calendar, it made sense to preserve, renovate and even extend the existing arcaded base of the stand, designed by Frank Verity in the 1890s. For the first time in his career Hopkins was obliged to work with that most traditional of British building materials: brick. It is no exaggeration to say that he fell in love with it, old-fashioned, heavy and laborious though it was. A lightweight superstructure with a signature fabric canopy completed the ensemble, but it was the solid brick base that had inspired Hopkins. Perhaps the Mound Stand was a milestone in another sense too. He was becoming famous and was beginning to be talked about as the British Establishment’s favourite architect.

  • Schlumberger Research Centre, Cambridge.
    Schlumberger Research Centre, Cambridge. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Glyndebourne Opera House, East Sussex.
    Glyndebourne Opera House, East Sussex. Credit: Martin Charles

But he had not left the High Tech philosophy behind entirely. One aspect remained as a strict principle: truth to materials. In a High Tech building no faking was allowed. If a roof appeared to be hanging by tension rods from slender steel posts, then it was. At the end of the 20th century, in large buildings, brick was commonly used to conceal a hidden steel or concrete frame. Hopkins rejected this deception. If it was brick, it must work like brick, not just look like brick. If there were openings to be bridged, then what was required was not a hidden lintel and a row of headers but a real arch with real tapered voussoirs. And he stuck to this principle, applying it to all materials and structural forms throughout his career.

Perhaps it was his new love for brick that unlocked a taste for other traditional building materials: stone, wood, bronze and lead. At Glyndebourne Opera house, another high-profile building for an English establishment client, the big unified oval of the auditorium sits comfortably alongside the old country house because its brick arcades and lead-covered roof belong to the same building tradition. The bricks were hand-made to imperial dimensions and laid in English bond.

Portcullis House, London.
Portcullis House, London. Credit: Richard Davies

Low energy consumption became another important aspect of Hopkins’ architecture, though here the initial impulse came from employees such as John Pringle, Ian Sharratt and Bill Dunster, for whom the Hopkins office was a career launchpad. The whole form and character of Portcullis House, an extension to the Houses of Parliament (the ultimate establishment client), arose from the principles of passive environmental control. It is as if light, heat, and the movement of air have themselves become building materials that must find their own form rather than have form imposed upon them. The ventilation system, terminating in 14 bronze chimneys, can be read like a logical diagram in the finished building.

But perhaps here another important aspect of Hopkins' architecture becomes apparent: a kind of openness and honesty, a willingness to do the obvious thing that anybody can understand where other architects might resort to awkwardness and passed off as subtlety. Those 14 chimneys might have been the invention of a plain-speaking Victorian engineer. Charles Barry dressed his air ducts up as gothic pinnacles on the building opposite but Hopkins felt no need to pretend that his air ducts were anything but air ducts.

The Olympic velodrome, London.
The Olympic velodrome, London. Credit: Edmund Sumner

Hopkins was not a classicist. If anything his architectural principles were Gothic in inspiration. His buildings nevertheless display certain classical virtues such as regularity, repetition and symmetry. The simple U-shaped plan of the Forum in Norwich, for example, embraces a big, shared public space that would be monumental were it not so brightly lit and cheerfully welcoming. The influence of Louis Kahn has sometimes been detected in Hopkins’ monumentality and also in his logical form-making: ‘what the building wants to be’. He never objected to this comparison. And yet the Velodrome for the 2012 Olympics, its unified form arising naturally from its function, is neither monumental nor Kahn-like. Is it too simplistic to compare its ‘about to take off’ aspect with the flamboyant tents that were such a strikingly attractive feature of so many earlier projects?

The Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre in Sharjah.
The Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre in Sharjah. Credit: Archspheres

In recent years, foreign clients have begun to appreciate the virtues of this most English of architects. As one might expect, they have often been establishment institutions, especially universities, Harvard, Yale and Princeton among them. And there has been a big expansion of work in the Middle East, managed from a large branch office in Dubai. The Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre in Sharjah seems at first to be unconnected to Hopkins’ now familiar formal and material repertoire. But even here the hovering, circular, copper-coloured forms have a typically simple geometry, perhaps derived from the burial sites and natural fossils that lie around.

The London office, now run by five principals, currently employs 138 people. In 1994, Michael and Patty Hopkins were jointly awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Michael was knighted in 1995. He is survived by his wife Patty, his children Sarah, Abigail and Joel, and 11 grandchildren.

Colin Davies is an architect, writer and lecturer. He was professor of architectural theory at London Metropolitan University, and his books include High Tech Architecture and two monographs on the work of Michael Hopkins.

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