Mark Whitby writes

Working as Michael Hopkins’ engineer

First published by Architecture Today, June 2023
We were saddened to hear of the passing of distinguished architect Sir Michael Hopkins last weekend. Whitby Wood co-founder Mark Whitby looks back on what it was like to work with Hopkins in the early days of both their careers.

Michael Hopkins was an architect whose life was rooted in technology but whose spectrum evolved to take on the challenge of using craft materials, such as lead, stone, brick, precast concrete and timber, in combination with the steel and glass that were the palette of High Tech. These became the hallmark of Michael’s architecture which, while modern, is contextual, honest and enduring.

Michael was a mature student when he joined the Architectural Association aged 23 having already studied at Bournemouth and worked with Basil Spence and Frederick Gibberd. At the AA he met Patty — his wife and lifelong collaborator — who on graduating, left to set up her own practice, while Michael joined Norman Foster. While working with Foster, the practice won a competition for the Willis Building in Ipswich, which Michael led, setting a new standard for open plan collaborative work space. On leaving in 1976, he joined Patty and they set up Hopkins Architects in their iconic glass and steel home in Hampstead, which Tony Hunt had engineered and they had built themselves.

At this point, working initially for Tony Hunt, I was to collaborate on a number of buildings where I was able to witness the Hopkins’ practice transition from High Tech. From the outset, design was rooted in the tectonics of knitting materials together but initially, practical suggestions to use materials such blockwork for a loading bay, were to be greeted with the suggestion that we “knew little about architecture”. Our highlight was the Patera building system which Michael, John Pringle and I evolved with the client Nigel Dale. A moderate success, one still stands at Hopkin’s office, with another in Docklands that has been moved four times, being dismantled ‘for refurbishment’ only last year.

Hopkins went on to win the Schlumberger research facility in Cambridge, which exploited some of the Patera technology, and we were to collaborate again on the David Mellor factory in Hathersage. Built on the site of a gasholder, we reused the foundations, extending them slightly and building a circular, loadbearing stone wall on which the steel roof structure would sit. The wall was essentially brittle and the roof ductile – and the joy was in how we resolved the building’s details. But more notable from Hopkins’ point of view was their development of a prefabricated panellised lead roof.

Simultaneously, Hopkins were shortlisted for the Bracken House competition. When Michael realised that all the other competitors were working with Arup, he asked us [Whitby Bird] to be their engineer. Taking an image of Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, Michael and John challenged us to reinterpret what they believed was a loadbearing steel facade (I was to later discover that the loadbearing steel is in fact in the courtyard). Winning was a breakthrough for Hopkins and we continued with the design, only losing out to Arup when the Financial Times sold the site to Japanese developer Obayashi. Our concept for a cast iron facade was substituted with bronze and red sandstone, and Hopkins’ palette extended even further. Elements later re-emerged in the design of Portcullis House, where — taking a cue from the Old Bailey — the services are routed from the rooftop plant rooms into the floors via the facade.

As engineers, working with the Hopkins’ practice was always challenging. Often one had to accept ‘one’s place’, which was never easy. This came to a climax when I was asked by the Architectural Review to write a review of the of Glyndebourne Opera House in which I questioned the structural logic of a detail. This wasn’t at all appreciated. As a result, the practice only worked with Michael once more, on The Forum in Norwich where I had a back seat. Here Mike Crane, my fellow director, recalls how, with the contractor pressing for design information, Michael came up with a fresh design. When Mike made the point that we had just issued construction drawings, Michael simply replied, “The building will be here a lot longer than you”.

The client paid our additional fees.