Michael Hopkins RA is a diffident chap with more than a touch of the old-school college professor about him. He’s genial and reserved at the same time. You get the impression that he’d much rather be left to get on with things than sit and talk about them. In fact, it takes quite some time, as we meet over lunchtime sandwiches at his Marylebone studio, to extract from him what exactly he and his 100-strong office are engaged in right now. The answer, when it finally comes, is a lot — all over the world.
Despite his almost wilful avoidance of publicity, Hopkins has had a relatively high-profile period in the UK. The year 2005 was book-ended by the completion of two highly significant London projects. First was the ambitious, vertically stacked headquarters for the medical research charity Wellcome Trust on the Euston Road. Then came the opening of Evelina Children’s Hospital at St Thomas’s in Lambeth, whose innovative design redefines the traditional, ‘institutional’ concept of a children’s hospital.
This is the first hospital that Hopkins has designed. ‘We’re very lucky — we’ve never done one like that before,’ says Hopkins. ‘There are two ways of getting an architectural job. Either you are the world’s expert on that particular sort of building, or you’re going to bring a completely fresh mind to it, along with your experience on other building types.’
The Hopkins office — he, his wife and fellow architect Patty, and a raft of young directors and staff — have always ‘got their jollies’, as the boss puts it, from winning competitions, re-inventing building types and paying almost obsessive attention to detail. He had never done anything like an opera house prior to Glyndebourne, had never done a sports venue before his famous Mound Stand at Lord’s cricket ground, had never done a major headquarters building in the UK on a tight urban site before the Wellcome Trust.
These days, Hopkins’ work is as varied as ever, though there are now some repeat commissions — he’s done a couple of other sports spectator stands, for instance. Of his recent work, his favourite seems to be the Norwich Cathedral Rectory, the first part of a centuries-delayed replacement for monastery buildings destroyed under Henry VIII. This represents a rich strand in Hopkins’ work, which involves placing new buildings in a sensitive historic context. Examples include a restaurant in St James’s Park, the portable ticket office for Buckingham Palace and the latticework-glasshouse aesthetic at the new visitors’ centre for Alnwick Castle and Garden in Northumberland.
Still pending is his contribution to the somewhat contentious re-ordering of the buildings and landscape of Chiswick House, Lord Burlington’s Neo-Palladian villa, built after the townhouse that became the Royal Academy.
Hopkins is a truth-to-materials man, in the Morris/Ruskin sense. Once categorised as being in the high-tech school, he became famous for his tented-roof buildings using masts, struts and translucent fabric. He admits to a continuing love of juxtaposing lightweight and heavyweight elements. Whatever the combination of materials, in a Hopkins building everything is honestly expressed and nothing is hidden or fudged.
The £60m Evelina Hospital is important because of the future it represents for a health service that always has to consider ‘best value’, in the jargon of political accountancy. The achievement of Evelina is twofold. First, it sets a new standard in humane healthcare. This means it deals with whole affected families, not just sick children. Second, it does this for pretty much the same money as an equivalent private finance initiative hospital (PFI). The experiment was made possible because £50m of Evelina’s cost was met by Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity, with only £10m coming from the NHS.
The original Evelina Children’s Hospital was founded in 1869, in Southwark by Ferdinand de Rothschild, in memory of his wife Evelina who had died in childbirth. In recent years, the name had become attached to little more than a few wards shared between the historically linked Guy’s and St Thomas’s. Now it has its own identity once more, and the Rothschild family still has close links.
The heart of the scheme is a fantastic atrium that is home to a little school, as well as a cafÃ© and performance space. The point of perching that space up high is to take in the views across Archbishop’s Park and the gardens of Lambeth Palace. The wards overlook the atrium and benefit from the same view. But even down below, at hemmed-in ground level, daylight finds its way down. There, you discover — unique to any hospital — a seventeen-foot high helter-skelter that is also a sculpture, designed by artist Liliane Lijn.
Evelina’s way of de-institutionalising healthcare through pioneering, state-of-the-art design is already having an impact. ‘We’re starting to get hospital work now,’ reveals Hopkins. ‘We’re currently at the presentation stage for an ambulatory cancer care building for University College Hospital.’ That is some way off yet — funds have to be raised — but a sheaf of other Hopkins jobs are pending.
This summer sees the opening of his visitors’ centre at Alnwick Castle — again, as different in design as it could be from the lofty towers his practice is now building in Dubai and Tokyo, or the university faculty buildings at Yale and Princeton. Only in recent times has Hopkins’ work moved outside Britain. ‘We were really home-spun architects,’ he quips, ‘so it’s a very nice thing to happen at this stage of my career.’