Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, discusses his architectural interests, his ambitions for the Royal Academy, the divergence of form and function in contemporary architecture, and the rise of sustainability.
Pleasures of the Presidency
‘It is healthy for the Academy to have somebody still practising their art to be President,’ wrote Sir Nicholas Grimshaw prior to his election as President of the Royal Academy in December 2004. Grimshaw will continue to work as an architect. It is an ambitious undertaking, but he is no less ambitious for the Royal Academy. ‘When the RA Forums on landscape were going on [in Spring 2003] I thought it would be rather wonderful to be President here [because the Forums were] fascinating — the level of discussion which the RA could really excel at. It was the absolute epitome of the best thing the Royal Academy can do.
Sir Nicholas Grimshaw PRA
‘Our patron George III had a particular eye to the integration of art, otherwise he would have had four separate institutions [for painting, sculpture, architecture and print-making]. I’m very keen to bring music to the RA and integrate it with these wonderful rooms. Back in George’s time they would have been echoing with instruments playing. It would be wonderful to get that going again.’
The RA is already ‘a top quality exhibition venue’ but ‘with Burlington Gardens we have some wonderful new exhibition spaces… It could also be the 21st century end of our operations, and that might involve film, photography and digital media.’ More specifically ‘we might do a dance series there to coincide with the Rodin exhibition [in September 2006]. They would be commentaries on Rodin, showing the physicality of dance compared with his wonderful sculpture.’
Art in life
Art runs through Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s life. His daughters and sisters are involved with art in various ways, his mother and grandmother had works in the RA’s Summer Exhibition, while his father-in-law is the distinguished art critic John Russell. He began studying architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, where he ‘did life drawing, studies in colour, lettering, shadow casting. It gave you a breadth that a straightforward architecture school wouldn’t have,’ before completing at the Architectural Association, ‘great philosophical talking shop where we did a little bit of architecture now and again.’
The RA offers the opportunity to pick up those sort of discussions. ‘One of the enjoyable things about this place is that the architects seem able to talk to each other in quite a different way to how they normally do. They feel a bit of brotherhood here, which they don’t when competing in the rough and tumble of the outside world. Here you get talking to artists and sculptors, and that’s really, really interesting.
‘Architecture is at the interface of so many different arts, and I am very interested in these boundaries, and that they should be discussed rigorously. A house is a place where you have to live. It is not necessarily a piece of sculpture, or a work of art, though it could be. But it has at least to represent a place where you can sleep, eat and wash. Any design should stand up to some kind of analysis. I would like to see the RA as a forum for criticism.’
Sir Nicholas Grimshaw CBE PRA, Interior View of Fulton Street Transit Centre's Oculus
Art in practice
In his design projects Sir Nicholas Grimshaw takes a particular approach to the relationship between art and architecture. ‘Personally I’m rather against works of art plonked on or in front of buildings. It’s much more satisfying to work with artists and integrate their art into buildings. In New York we are working on a huge transport interchange at Fulton Street. It has a great dome, and James Carpenter, an artist in glass and metal, is working on panels for it, capturing light with different effects of shade and colour. It’s a real collaboration.
‘There are all sorts of links in my work. The latest phase of the Eden Centre has a huge rock in the middle, carved all over, as the centrepiece of the building. We are working on an art museum at La Coruna to house an existing collection, and we are designing an experimental media and performing arts centre for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Albany, upstate New York. There the building itself becomes part of the experimentatio. We are working on a superb concert hall where the acoustics will be like a demonstration. It’s fascinating to have a building where all the arts are mixed together, like dance, singing and modern jazz. One of the most interesting things they did is on the media front. It was a play where half the actors were in one place and half in another. Then they filmed it and integrated the two halves. I find the relationship between people, performance and buildings fascinating.’
The art of architecture
‘It took me quite a long time to get into architecture, but I always had a great interest in structure, and to some degree that leads towards sculpture. Architecture is, in many ways, a form of sculpture. One has to have a strong sense of three dimensions to be an architect at all, as well as a sense of colour and materials. Edinburgh College of Art had a fantastic metal department where I learnt to weld, and became interested in how pieces of metal went together.
‘But the strategic breadth of architecture also fascinated me, especially when you add the social dimension. One of my first projects was a children’s playground in a rough area. The basic problem was how to stop the children destroying it, so we designed it so they could build it themselves, and they could destroy it themselves. Understanding what caused the children to feel that way added strategic dimensions, about people and society.
At the Architectural Association, he ‘became interested in giving people the tools to change their lives,’ and as a young architect he gained a reputation for putting that into practice. In his famous factory for the Herman Miller furniture company ‘the occupants could change the position of panels to put more glass in’, while the elegant Park Road tower, overlooking Regent’s Park, ‘had no structural walls, so you could plan the apartment how you liked. What that kind of thinking does is, on the one hand, teach you to think strategically and, on the other, to distil your thinking to the essentials.’
The Airside Centre, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, at Zürich International Airport Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners
Form and function
‘The most significant thing to happen in architecture in the last 25 years,’ says Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, ‘is that quite a proportion of people in the architectural world have decided that form does not have to follow function. That is a huge change of heart, meaning that the same type of building or style can apply to many different uses. For Zaha Hadid almost exactly the same forms and shapes can be a fire station or an institute for architecture. Bilbao follows almost the same line. The outside has no relation to the inside at all. There is a mishmash of structural members with no official geometry to them.
‘This is the philosophical issue of the time. The real question now is whether criticism and philosophical discussion will be applied in the same rigorous way that it has applied to architecture in the past. I don’t think that is happening yet.
‘Rigour really becomes necessary to relate new architecture to historical culture. Our Spa in Bath has in my view a serious rigour of height, scale, proportion, rhythm and material. There is a kind of musical score in the town already and if one is serious about doing a building in harmony with it, you have to take notice of it. But you don’t have to copy what’s there. When writing a new piece of music you recognise what’s gone before but you recognise the age you live in. I want to think that a good architecture critic can look at it and say where it fits in and where it doesn’t. We have the most appalling construction difficulties on it, but when it does open, it really will be a fantastic experience to lie in the rooftop pool looking over the misty rooftops to the hills around.’
Into the future
During his Presidency, Grimshaw wants to see the RA consolidate its position as a cultural force in Europe. ‘If we can act more as a body we could have a lot more to say about the role of art. We should be talking about wide-ranging things like the meaning of art in society. On the spectrum of ‘culture, media and sport, between football and painting, I suspect our society leans more strongly towards football. But football is the ‘beautiful game’, and speaking as somebody who watches it, it can raise itself to the level of art. If you mapped classic goals on a football pitch you would see some very beautiful moves.
‘In the future people will become more interested if not obsessed with sustainability. It’s going to start shaping buildings, architecture and our way of life. It will even start shaping our landscape and the kind of vegetation we have. I hope it will permeate right through art, sculpture, architecture and everything we do.’
And in addition to being President, Grimshaw intends to keep working in his practice. ‘I love to be in on the beginning of a project, to throw ideas on a table and fight for them and to see how a conceptual idea emerges with colleagues, an engineer, and someone representing sustainability, so all the environmental issues are covered around the table. You have to argue over what the project is about, to draw on the table and the whole kernel of a building can emerge in one day. Then you have to hone it and hone it and hone it, ease it into place, cost it and do all those kind of things.’