Staying Power

New RIBA president Stephen Hodder prides himself on being a realist and a practitioner above all else. But his resilience might be the most important quality he brings to the job.

· Credit: Carol Sachs

‘Welcome!’ says Stephen Hodder, flinging open the door of the President’s office at 66 Portland Place. He’s hot-desking there the day we meet, this being at the time still ­Angela Brady’s domain. Hodder has sized up the ­office, knows what furniture (genuine modern classics including an Eames table) and art (some of the best from the Photographs Collection of post-war university buildings) he’ll be installing. Being Manchester-based, he needs a London pied-à-terre to be president. He’s found a flat in a Make-designed block hard by. His children (Ollie, 9 and Matthew, 6) are campaigning to visit. Previously an RIBA vice-president who has been much involved in the restructuring of the Institute in recent years, he’s got one key attribute he wants to get across. ‘I am,’ he remarks, ‘a realist.’

The National Wildflower Centre at Knowsley, Lancashire, 2000.  Taking a line for a walk.
The National Wildflower Centre at Knowsley, Lancashire, 2000. Taking a line for a walk.

What this means, he explains, is that he knows that a president with a two-year term can only achieve so much: no point promising the moon, so to speak, if you can’t deliver it. So he has set himself achievable targets for his term and got one of them under way well in ­advance: the wide-ranging membership ­review which started early this year is his baby, and the results will be known by the end of this year. ‘Empowerment of members’ is his aim. Better communication – with ­actual and potential clients in one direction, and the grassroots membership in the other – is ­another. Getting to grips with the education system is a third – in particular, encouraging the bringing-together of theory and practice in a world where demonstrable professional skills are needed more than ever. And finally, cultural outreach, drawing on the invaluable resource of the institute’s collections. ‘There’s a strong message about the benefits of architecture, why architecture is so important.’ 

The fact that his presidential bid was uncontested, back in 2012, suggests that the members see Hodder, with his record of award-winning buildings, north-west region­al base and reputation as a tough-minded ­Institute insider, as a trustworthy figure. He felt a bit short-changed however, having anticipated hustings, so went on his own tour of the country to explain his position to the membership – appropriately enough, given that he was vice-president for ‘Nations and Regions’.

Phase 2 of student residences at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 2005.
Phase 2 of student residences at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 2005.

As in Kipling’s ‘If’, he has met with Triumph and Disaster and treated those two imposters just the same

He’s had his ups and downs, of course. The ups include winning the first Stirling Prize in 1996 for his Centenary Building at the University of Salford. The downs include a much-publicised, protracted and nightmarish legal case, alongside other consultants, over problems with his Clissold Leisure Centre in London. Happily that’s long since resolved, though Hodder did not continue his London office. Another leisure building, the RIBA award-winning Berners Pool at Grange-over-Sands, has stood empty since the trust ­running it went bust in 2006 and is finally likely to be demolished. A cruel fate for such a handsome building. So Hodder has hit heights and plumbed depths, and emerged in good shape overall. As in Kipling’s ‘If’, he has met with Triumph and Disaster and treated those two imposters just the same. 

Architects, who know the risks they habit­ually run, can relate to all that. ‘I’m out there, I’m just a regular member,’ is how he puts it. Well, up to a point. Yes, he’s a practitioner with a small-to-medium size office of 16 ­people who has managed to ride the economic switchback of the past 30 years with no more or less difficulty than any other firm of that size. On the other hand, there are few architects who, for 20 of those 30 years, have had one very loyal repeat client in the form of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. This ­project ­elevated him from regional rising star to ­national prominence, and it was all because of another swimming pool.

Hodder goes high-rise: Manchester’s ‘Student Castle’ addresses the skyline, 2012.
Hodder goes high-rise: Manchester’s ‘Student Castle’ addresses the skyline, 2012.

That was one of his first completed buildings after leaving BDP, the pool building in Colne, Lancashire, a low-budget but aud­acious structure of overlapping, angled roof plates eng­ineered by Tony Hunt. Well ­received, it jointly won the 1992 Building of the Year award run by the Royal Fine Art Commission – jointly with Norman Foster’s Sackler Galleries at London’s Royal ­Academy. The architect judge who saw great promise in Hodder (I know, because I was there at the time) was the sagacious Sir Philip Powell. The building was duly published nationally. What happened next was that the bursar of St Catherine’s, running a competition to add new ­student residences to Jacobsen’s masterpiece, saw it in the ­paper one Sunday. Intrigued, he added Hodder to the shortlist of practices he was inviting. And so occurred one of the great competition upsets of the time: a clutch of well-regarded ­London-based practices found themselves beaten by the lad from Lancashire. Two major phases of new residences, plus a sequence of careful refurbishments to Jacobsen’s buildings, followed. There have been stand-offs along the way, but Hodder is retained by the college to this day, backed by the confidence of the Arne Jacobsen Foundation. He has ­other Oxford projects in hand, including new ­student residences behind James Stirling’s ­Florey building at Queen’s – framed in brick, but wisely not Stirling red brick.

The first Stirling Prize winner in 1996: Centenary Building at the University  of Salford.
The first Stirling Prize winner in 1996: Centenary Building at the University of Salford.

It’s all very different to his most recently-­completed student residences, the 37 storey Student Castle in Manchester. Essentially a cluster of four slender towers of varying height above a podium, it makes a notable ­addition to the city’s skyline and is unusual for ­Hodder – not previously known for ­towers. The project director there, however, was not this Hodder but the other one – his wife Claire, experienced architect, managing director of the practice and the person who helped turned his life round when he hit bad times. Once famed for trying to run every­thing himself, ­Stephen Hodder has, it seems, learned the arts of ­delegation and collaboration. He speaks ­highly, too, of his associate directors Tom Goldthorpe and Kevin Fraser. 

This gives him space for the institute, and more. He’s also taking on a visiting professorship at Belfast University. But he’s clear about one thing: being an architect who builds. The predecessors he admires for their multi-tasking are Sir Richard MacCormac and Sunand Prasad, he says – who fruitfully combined practice, presidency and cultural awareness. 

‘At the end of two years I want to have deliv­ered a few things well,’ he says, ever the realist. ‘And I’m determined to remain a practitioner. I’m known for my work. The people in my ­office still look to me for design leadership.’