||John Tusa interviews Nicholas Grimshaw
Broadcast: 4th February 2001
JOHN TUSA: Nicholas Grimshaw is the quiet man of modern British architecture. He is of the generation of Foster, Rogers and Hopkins - yet he is probably less well known in a publicity sense than his other contemporaries. Which is odd. Many people know great landmarks such as Rogers' Dome, Foster's British Museum Great Court, Hopkins' Parliamentary building - and the controversy surrounding them. And yet Grimshaw's Eurostar terminal at Waterloo may have touched many more people than any of those three; and his vast Eden Centre in a disused clay pit in Cornwall may become the millennium dome that we all remember - and visit.
And Grimshaw has always built for people and everyday activities - his Sainsbury's in Camden Town in London; his Homebase on the road to Heathrow, the Oxford ice rink, the Western Morning News building outside Plymouth, the forecourt at Paddington station. All these show an engagement with people and with work that is at the heart of his approach to architecture.
Any by the time he has finished converting the disused upturned rotting molar hulk of Battersea power station on the Thames into a vast entertainment and leisure complex, he too will be on the role call of architects who have created a new London landmark.
Some people have called you professionally reticent - though clearly as a person you're not a shrinking violet, and that this expresses itself in the fact that you believe that your buildings should do the talking, but you lecture, you write, you explain. Does putting things into words help you in designing your buildings?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I think that it is true that the buildings should stand on their own and speak for themselves. I am quite keen to explain in lectures though what my philosophy is and to talk about the way I think people should get great pleasure out of looking at details and quoting other buildings and bridges and so on and focusing on details of them and saying, I think people like to see this and this is the sort of thing we are trying to do in our building. So the lectures are sort of illustrating the philosophy rather than necessarily specifically just talking about an individual building from sort of start to finish.
JOHN TUSA: Now as part of what people say about you in general, they say, but you say that you're against landmark buildings and you're against the sort of flashy architects style. Justify what you mean by being against a landmark building. After all it is not as though you put up buildings which people don't notice.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I don't think I said I am against landmark buildings. What I … I am rather against is, buildings which are highly stylised which I think won't stand the test of time and I talk a lot about what I call wallpaper architecture where it is a kind of street facade that you're looking at without understanding the bones and the thinking behind the building.
JOHN TUSA: And when you say highly stylised would you include architects like Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Bilbao or Daniel Lieberskind and the proposed building of the V & A because after all whatever you may say about them, they couldn't be more different from the sort of buildings you put up and the theory you have for why you put them up.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, I think both Frank Gehry and Daniel Lieberskind are sculptors actually. They are three dimensional thinkers who do pieces of sculpture which stand on their own, stand up in their own right, and don't necessarily pay any attention at all to what's around them.
JOHN TUSA: But what about internally? I mean in a sense to call them three dimensional pieces of sculpture is to avoid the question as to whether they are good pieces of architecture.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well I haven't been inside a Daniel Lieberskind building. I have been to the Guggenheim building in Bilbao, and I do think it is rather marvellous both inside and outside. You're right in a sense that it stands for a lot of things which … well it doesn't address many of things I think about all the time and I mean I know Frank Gehry and he sort of tongue in cheek slightly, he says to me, look Nick, you know I don't give a damn about details. Of course, it's not entirely true. For instance if you go into that building you cannot see any relationship between the inside and the outside, it is shaped completely different and there is a very complicated web of structure between which is completely ad hoc actually, it is not a structural form at all.
JOHN TUSA: It just makes these external sculptural shape work as a building. And makes it stand up.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: It holds the outside skin and it holds the inside skin but it is not a structure as such and it could be scaffolding. And Frank Gehry would be the first to say so.
JOHN TUSA: Does that annoy you, because as you say, it couldn't be more different from your approach to the essence of the building, being it's structure, it's skeleton. I mean that's your … one of your fundamental positions isn't it?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I think you have to go back to site in this situation. I mean I think that the Bilbao museum stands as a piece of sculpture on a site and it is a three dimensional object. Very often one's looking at buildings which are in a street scene or are facing one way or a scene in a particular kind of way which is different to that and also the functions come into it in a big way. I mean if you are doing a railway station you wouldn't make it look like Bilbao, for instance. Most people would see that as totally illogical, but with a art gallery which is holding all kinds of disparate shapes of art and pictures and sculptures then you can obviously reflect it in a much more kind of fluid kind of way.
JOHN TUSA: The faint implication of what you are saying is that if you designed a building that was in a free standing, three dimensional site as the Guggenheim Bilbao, that you to might do something which was closer to Frank Gehry, but that is clearly not true, so even on a three dimensional site - and you have done plenty of buildings like that - you're buildings don't come out like Frank Gehry's, they come out like Grimshaw where skeleton, sculpture and your words, structure, order, detail, flexibility. Those are the four words by which you act as an architect are they not?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes and I mean, if for instance I had a concert hall to design, which is something I have never done and I'd love to do - something you know quite a lot about. I would start from trying to understand it acoustically and the way people relate to the playing area and spend hours and hours and weeks and weeks on that kind of shape and feel of that interior and then move to the circulation systems and so on and so forth and then gradually see what the impact of all that on the outside was, bearing in mind that you always have to have a strong acoustic protection from the outside and so on which would affect what you built it out of. So it wouldn't be a piece of sculpture with the concert hall shoved into the middle of it, it would grow from an understanding of the process and I think that would produce some kind of regular structure of some sort, or at least an understandable structure.
JOHN TUSA: And do you think that that is what the public, the viewers, like about buildings, that we like to see some kind of coherence and logic in a building, without absolutely saying that we must see every single bit of the plumbing, but that part of the recognition of a building is that we can see how it stands up, what actually makes it stand up?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well I believe so and I think, you can't always immediately take in the way a building is working, but even if it is at a subliminal level, people do take it in, in some way and if they are in a heroic railway station and they see the arches coming down to the ground to a pin joint like at St Pancras or Paddington, you get a satisfaction out of seeing that detail and you feel you're in the presence of something rather grand and a great piece of engineering and architecture in its own right. But if you ask the average person to say how St Pancras works, I am not sure whether they would be able to draw it for you and I am not sure they'd even know how big the span was or how many trains you could get underneath it.
JOHN TUSA: What do you want people to take from your buildings? I mean you've mentioned railway stations, you've adapted and you're continuing to adapt Paddington Station. Apart from it being an easier place to get around, what do you want the using public to feel about the building by the time you have finished it? NG Well Paddington is a restoration job. I mean our work there has been to try to restore the Brunel structure to as near its original as we can and to make it work in today's much more intensified travellers world, if you like. It was designed as a kind of cathedral like structure, with a small span, a big span and a small span. Very much a tripartite idea, and it had another span added on in 1917, which we're actually working on a scheme to replace with a whole new transportation arrangement which will make the station work much better.
JOHN TUSA: Cue cries of, you cannot destroy this masterpiece of a building presumably? You have to face the fake conservationists as well as the real conservationists.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: [laughter] Well, actually I think the general view is that if this extension, what you replace that with is good enough, then people won't fight for it too hard. I think that's the right attitude. I think there is no point in tearing something down and replacing it with something inferior. So it's a challenge.
JOHN TUSA: Let's go back a bit to some of your earlier days when you were at the Architectural Association and see what light that throws on you … on your work today. There's a quote from one of your tutors, Maxwell Fry - Max Fry - when he examined your thesis about grid planning in Greek cities and he warned you against being mechanistic at the expense of architectural features. Was that a fair warning and was it one that you took heed of?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes I am not quite sure what he was driving at there because he was a pretty precise kind of architect himself. This was a fascination on the historical side with the grid which I had at that time when I wrote my history thesis on Hippodamus of Miletus who was the great Greek grid planner and I sort of translated that into a modern day three dimensional grid structure which covered most of Covent Garden, which at that time, interestingly, had a hoarding around a lot of it and was going to be demolished by the GLC, and it was just before conservation really came into its own and then in the end the hoardings came down and almost the whole of it was preserved.
JOHN TUSA: But I guess, what I read into it was that Max Fry was warning you against being too logical, too systematic, just too devoted to mechanistic solutions, as it were the numerical side of design and architecture, rather than the softer inspirational side. I mean …
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes, I think that in some ways was quite perceptive. I mean take a piece of music, take Bach or something, everybody loves the intricacy of the phrasing and the way it fits together, the detail in fact and you know, the perfection in the detail if you like, but of course there is also a marvellous shape to the whole thing. And what one tries to do is to do both, but perhaps the reason I talk about detail so much is that so many buildings fall down on the detail and the materials and the way they're used.
JOHN TUSA: But you talk about detail and structure actually to be fair to yourself. If you were only a detail man then you wouldn't have the reputation for logic and system in your buildings that you do.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes, absolutely. I think the interesting thing is when you apply the reverse and I think you might find a quote which I do quite often, it is very difficult to find a really good building anywhere which actually doesn't have a good structure and isn't well detailed. And it may be that Frank Gehry has given the lie to that, but [laughter] up to that point, that was true I think.
JOHN TUSA: I say, part of the black and white of you…comes from this sense that maybe you are too logical and mechanistic and they say, ahh yes, Grimshaw, you know, admires Brunel, admires Paxton, the strong engineering tradition. This is clearly an immensely strong part of you, but what do you take from the work of Brunel and Paddington and the Great Western Railway and Paxton and the Crystal Palace and so on, what do you take of their work, what matters of their work to you?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: That's a very difficult question to ask. I suppose I admire them for their thinking, for their daring and for their logic when faced with a pretty major issue at the time. One has to always think of the time people did things. And Paxton's effort with the Crystal Palace was an absolutely kind of inspired thing, partly because of the time it was done in. I mean the period it was done it, but also the time it took to do it. I believe it still holds the record for the most amount of space covered in the shortest period of time. It was an incredible feat of imagination to put that together and one admires that enormously, and similarly with Brunel, his sort of pioneering inspirational spirit and really if you read biographies of Brunel, you actually see not an absolutely straight-forward firm, logical engineer at all, you see an absolutely impassioned creative person sort of surging away underneath, determined to get these things done and not a kind of clinical mathematician at all.
JOHN TUSA: Yes I think you've said about both of them that you admire the clarity of their path from concept to final building and I think clarity is a very interesting word. It doesn't imply that it's a straight path or it is a path without problems, but that they know where they have to go and they get there. You also mention logic in the context of Paxton and Brunel, so what do we have? A sort of overriding logic and a clarity of where they want to end up and then flexibility and creativity as they get there?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: What you want, I think, to see is, clarity of concept carrying through. And I think what annoys me most when walking around a building which I don't like, is if you suddenly see a break in what's going on in the clarity of the way the concepts are working and you think, why the hell did they do that, and what is the logic, what is the point? If you start to see pointless gestures, angled pieces of wall which actually don't do anything for anybody then it starts to really annoy you and I think no amount of hot air in terms of description and so on can let people escape from buildings which actually don't really work.
JOHN TUSA: Were Paxton, Brunel and of course Buckminster Fuller of the Geodesic Dome, they were leaning over your shoulder symbolically when you designed the Eden Centre down in Cornwall which is I suppose in the great line of the English greenhouse tradition?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well in a way, but it's using a very much 20th or possibly 21st century structural system and cladding system and it's also - and I think this is quite interesting relating to the whole idea of order on the one hand and the grand sweep of a building on the other - that we've used a very formal structural system to create an extremely organic flowing shape which comes directly out of the landscape and out of the contours with which we're dealing.
JOHN TUSA: And would you be able to say of that building as well that the structure and the skeleton is the essence of that building?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: In many ways it is and the placing of it in its landscape. It is very important that it is placed exactly where it is and it is leaning on a piece of cliff that it is leaning on. It has been a very, very carefully constructed arrangement.
JOHN TUSA: So even within what is a very restricted sight, which is an old disused quarry, the precise bit of that space that you use and that you don't use, that was an important part of designing the building?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Absolutely yes and that is really always the case in sighting anything, but particularly important there. But what you say about the bones is right. I mean I do see over the years, that building could be reclad with even more wonderful materials than we've got. Materials that breathe and materials that change colour and so on as technology moves on. But the bones will remain as I see it.
JOHN TUSA: What strikes me is the human, animal, biomorphic language that you use about your buildings. Skeleton of course. One of your buildings, I think one in Berlin has been compared to an armadillo. You've written that your buildings must be able to shed their skin and particularly the Eden project it's an organic building. Your drawings for the Waterloo Eurostar Terminal are, as they show, and you say, an arched hand. So it's a very interesting - it's not even a tension - but an interplay between these human images or animal images and the strictness of your engineering.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes well I think that's of course the wonderful thing that nature does. Because it has wonderful structures within it, nearly always. And from the hexagonal structure of a fly's eye to the way a tree stands up and it doesn't fall over. They are perfectly calculated structures and yet there is nothing mathematical about them in a way, anymore than there is about the human frame. You can describe it mathematically but every person is different and they can vary in shape and size enormously and I think that is the fascination of nature really.
JOHN TUSA: Can you remember or perhaps it didn't work like that, at what stage you saw what the Eden Centre was going to look like. I mean between envisaging the final results and the final result emerging from all sorts of other considerations and calculations. What is the interplay between those processes when you think of a building, and conceive it?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: It's very difficult to pin down an exact moment in a design process and of course we work, and I should emphasise this very strongly, as a team. I have always said that my favourite way of designing is to sit round the table, well into the night if we have to, and throw ideas on to the table and fight for them. We … a thing does emerge as a team. But, I think the sight was a terrifically strong influence at Eden. When I first saw it, we came to the rim of this crater and it was completely like a lost world. You couldn't see it from anywhere else because its a crater on top of a hill, you can't see into it, it was almost as if nobody knew it was there and it had enormous impact and some how this idea of the thing, as like a row of bubbles clinging to the side of it…exactly like some sort of cocoon or something which you might have found in nature it had a great appeal and to make that wave and go up and down with the ground and go in and out of the cliff, to devise a structure that could do that, instead of having something rather ridged which was just sort of in a sense dumped there, was I think was the kernel of the idea really.
JOHN TUSA: But there must be many times when you think you have got a strongish image of what the building might be, but when you come to work it out, so that you don't have any of those awkward corners where the logic of the building has not been followed through, there must be times when you have to say, that will have made a marvellous building, but I cannot actually deliver it with the structural logic and coherence that I demand and therefore I have to junk it?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, I don't give up easily. I don't think any of us do, and we get round the table with not just in those ideas meetings that I was talking about. It is not just architects it is engineers very often there as well. And we … there is an interplay between the idea and what's possible, so you push structural ideas around in relation to the architecture that you want to achieve and basically all of our designs are very closely interlocked with engineering and engineering ideas and we are not at all the kind of architect that says this is what I want, can you work out a way of holding it up for me.
JOHN TUSA: And of course you will design where necessary, or perhaps quite a lot of the time, the structural components which are necessary to create a particular building. I mean that's not very common is it, in other architectural practices?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well you work with the engineer on these connections. I mean you have to very well aware of the structural logic. I mean an engineer will not let you do decorative structures, they will only let you do things that really only work as structures and so the interplay is there. The thing has got to be structurally correct before a decent engineer anyway, will accept it.
JOHN TUSA: The average age of your practice, I think, is 31?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: That's right.
JOHN TUSA: And, I mean that's pretty remarkable. How do you handle these young Turks straight out of the architectural schools who presumably, as you do at 28, 29, 30, 31, know everything about architecture?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well bearing in mind that is an average. There are plenty of steady guys of 40 and 45 to hold everything down. But we believe very strongly in bringing in young blood and bright young people directly from colleges and sort of in a way the office in many ways is a kind of training place where they go through working on jobs as … working on a small part and then work their way up and not many people leave us. Sometimes they leave us to set up on their own, but a lot of people work their way all the way through the office and have a very strong feeling of, how we like to do things.
JOHN TUSA: Yes, but do you learn from them as well? Because I know one large and distinguished British practice which says just that. When young architects come to us, the first thing they must do is to learn how we work. Now if your own practice is somebody has said a place of innovation, imagination and invention, that suggests that you are far more ready to listen to what the young new comers have to say and have to offer.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes, that is absolutely true, and it takes me back to this idea of designing round the table and in that situation there is a great deal of equality I think. The engineers that we work with and the young project architects and so on, we all sit round the table together and I think it is open to anyone to speak and argue their case and it does work and sometimes it is quite interesting because a new young architect might come up with an idea that actually has been done in the past [laughter] and we have to slap him down and sometimes he will come up with something completely new and we will say, really fantastic, let's pursue that for a bit and see how it goes.
JOHN TUSA: But who holds it all together because after all the services have one set of imperatives, and there are all health and safety imperatives and there are structural imperatives and the imperatives driven by materials and so on and at some stage somebody has to say, look, this has got to be a building which is beautiful, which is elegant which is structurally sound, which works. Is that one of your key roles that you have to bring these sometimes divergent disciplines together into a unified logical solution? Is that really where you come in?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, the trouble … I suppose the great thing about being an architect is that you have all these different roles you can play. I mean you can play in the orchestra and you can stand up and conduct which is quite nice and you can play many of the different instruments in the orchestra and you can also be the person who collects the fee for the orchestra and deals with the legal complaints if you fail to turn up etc. etc. So you have to be all kinds of people, you know, all things to all men in a way. But …I think in the end the architect is the person who has to stand up and speak for the concept and say, that won't work with the basic concept we are driving forward, you know and usually if you are informed, if you're listening to the others, to the structural guys and services guys and so on, they are subscribing to the idea by that time anyway. I mean it is not often where you … where they will say, this doesn't work, I am not going to be a party to it. They have to be with you otherwise you are no where.
JOHN TUSA: So you are a sort of collective chairman as well as all the other things?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well sort of, yes. I remember for instance with the British Pavilion in Seville, which was very much driven by energy savings where the kind of … that was a kind of, if you like, a mechanical, electrical services idea. Seville was the hottest city in Europe and we felt that rather than just throw air conditioning at the thing for six months and then hope for the best that it would be fascinating to make the building a demonstration of how you could save energy, even using modern materials and modern construction and even temporary construction. And everybody subscribed to that. Everybody, you know, the engineers, everyone who was involved were driving that concept forward and it was really the driver for the whole building.
JOHN TUSA: And that is a building that was also designed to be dismantled and packed away and perhaps reconstructed somewhere else?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well the original idea was that the components could be used in the third world, the pumps and the water tanks and so on could be … could form little nuclei for the water supply for various … for 30 villages in the third world, that was part of the original concept.
JOHN TUSA: But that didn't happen did it?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: It didn't happen.
JOHN TUSA: And in fact it is now going to be reconstructed that building isn't it?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well it is still lying in component form somewhere on the North Circular road by the canal and the hope is that it will form the centre of a new complex and it will be used for huge large scale entertainments, and for Asian weddings attended by thousands of people.
JOHN TUSA: I was going to say, does that worry you, but of course I know that it doesn't because you are well known for saying that the point about buildings is that they are going to be used for many different purposes and that you design them so that they can be built for many different purposes. It strikes me that it shows a considerable lack of vanity about your building, is that you don't mind, or indeed you are probably just as interested in what the second and third uses are as what the first use is?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Absolutely. And I think if a building is worth having, it will go on and many, many examples from the past about buildings being used for other things. For instance, if Sainsbury's in Camden town turned into an icerink, I would be perfectly happy and in fact I think it would be rather thrilling, it wouldn't worry me at all because so much time went into the structural idea of creating a clear span which in some way was expressed on the street. And any kind of use which required a wide span would go in it very well.
JOHN TUSA: I wonder whether you might wonder what has become of it now. I speak feelingly about this place because I often shop there and in the early years it was clear Grimshaw inside, neat, cool, clear, logical. It has now become a sort of hideous multicoloured bazaar. Is your attitude to that, that's their business?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well it was always designed in a way as a kind of market hall if you like. As far as I know it is the only Sainsbury's that hasn't got a flat roof, it has a gentle arch to it which gives it more of a market hall feel. And no, I think that one has to accept the, shopping has its own mores and in fact we were rather fascinated learning about it at the time in the way that the aisles had to be laid out and how more popular things need bigger space in front of them and so on and so forth. There is an absolute iron logic to shopping which probably has its variations and changes kind of regularly over time, but basically I think very much you have to accept that.
JOHN TUSA: But you also accept that you can't be a sort of perpetual style and design policeman over what goes on inside your buildings, years after you have had them signed off?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Absolutely, I think they have to be strong enough to stand up to almost anything people can throw at them really.
JOHN TUSA: You've also said that the important thing about buildings is that they have to be democratic or their purposes or your impulse towards them is a democratic impulse. What do you mean by that?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I like the idea that people can manipulate their surroundings and it can have an affect on the place they're in. And I think it is quite important. I think if you feel a building is so rigid that it is just imposing itself on you and you can't change it. All you can do is live your life as the building tells you to. I think there is something very, very overbearing and difficult about that situation for me.
JOHN TUSA: But there is the image and maybe it is cultivated by some architects that I'm the architect, you the client have given me an idea of what you want. I will now tell you what the solution is and you'd better follow it.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well that's not the way that I would see things and I hope since we turned to the issue of clients, I mean, I don't think you get a good building unless the client is really with you on what you're doing. I think a solution imposed is never really a happy one and probably one that won't last.
JOHN TUSA: I'm told though that the client, Sainsbury's, that there were some very senior people at the top of Sainsbury's who didn't think your Camden Town is really at all what they wanted from Sainsbury's stores.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, I think the people we were working with there were pretty well behind the design and of course the getting of the planning permission was a bit of coup in the first place because Camden had turned down four or five previous solutions to building a supermarket on that site and we got it through in breakneck speed first time around. So there was a certain amount of satisfaction about that whole side of things.
JOHN TUSA: Yes, I think the planners said to you that they wanted a good strong modern building. I mean planners, they are often down cried for things that they do, but the message was a very uncompromising one wasn't it.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes, I thought it was a wonderful message to get as an architect. The other thing is of course is that the building has been pretty damn successful. I think it has one of the highest turn-overs in the country over Sainsbury's, so it doesn't seem to put anyone off.
JOHN TUSA: So whatever certain people at the top thought, it's done alright in bottom line terms. You've been quoted as saying that you hate contrived folksiness, monument making and forced regionalism. If those are on your pet hate list, what other architectural hates do you have? Up turned match boxes and concrete towers?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, I am strongly of the belief that one always ought to try to design in the age you live in with the materials of the age you live in and if you actually look at the average high street, when planning authorities which are often pretty retrogressive, say they want a building to fit in, what do they mean? I mean the buildings normally span about 500 years in the average high street. So what do they expect you to fit in with. Up to the early part of this century, there were no controls on fitting in, people just simply did the best thing they could with the materials of their age and that's why I think the buildings have a certain kind of credibility and people accept them for being good buildings and I think that's what we ought to be trying to do and I think to look back down a high street and try and pick out a style which a planning authority might appeal to a planning authority, is frankly an appalling thing to do.
JOHN TUSA: Yes, these parody styles, which we all know what they are - again I think they were named in connection with the Camden Town planning application that Sainsbury's had previously tried LEB Georgian, Bypass Tudor, Surrey Farm House and Hi Tech Pastiche, and I suppose just those categories which we all know and recognise have being the blight on British architecture for what, 50 - 100 years?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Yes, probably since the war, the last 50 years anyway…after a brief period after the war, a sort of monumental Corbusian type architecture has been a gradual sinking back to this pastiche and copying, particularly in the area of housing, which is slightly depressing. I think that good modern architects haven't really turned their attention to housing, particularly individual housing in this country at all or haven't been asked to is perhaps a better way round of putting it.
JOHN TUSA: Yes, would like it if Barratts came to you and said, will you design us a series of buildings with which we can build estates and from which also we can make money?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, if they said, we want to give you … as long as they work properly as houses to give you a creative free hand, I would be very interested, but I wouldn't be subject to their normal, what they consider to be normal kind of formal regulations.
JOHN TUSA: But I mean they would say, people want the pitched roof and all the other characteristics that you have on most housing estates. That is what people want and they don't want glass and metal and so on and so forth. Do you think that's right and if it is, why do we still want these rather cutesy traditional buildings?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I don't think people have really been offered the choice. And so therefore, I don't think they know what possibilities there are. I think that the real answer to that question would be to build a small pioneering group of houses and see what happened and allow people to actually have a choice and see if they were excited and see if they sold.
JOHN TUSA: Is this something that the British are particularly bad at? When you work on the continent, is there more sympathy for modern architecture for imaginative contemporary design?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I think it is definitely true. If you go into counties like Spain and Italy and Germany particularly, there is a great deal of respect for the architect as a member of society and as a valuable member of society and a respect for creativity in many ways or for the creative role they play. In this country it's much more complex, in this country we have a national sort of overall distrust of professionals, whether they're lawyers, accountants, doctors or architects. It is universal in this country. I don't know where it grows from, but it certainly not nearly as extreme abroad and particularly architects are respected for their creative ideas, whereas here, that comes if you like at the end of the line, when you've battled everything else out about cost and time and, you know, the creative value of the buildings is almost the add on at the end.
JOHN TUSA: And the first thing which the treasury cuts.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, you could argue that, but of course one, one doesn't give up easily.
JOHN TUSA: In a recent book about your partnership, it is said that the practice is not complacent, you're still explorers, you're still reaching out. What sort of directions are you reaching out?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well, there are still buildings I'd love to do like the concert hall for instance, I mentioned earlier, or a theatre for that matter. There are buildings in the arts which would be lovely to have a go at. So there are new building types and I think somehow we've got to a point where we are very trained at kind of pouncing on a new subject and really enjoying it and enjoying the dialogue that you have with a new client and I think if you meet a new client who is enthusiastic about what they want to do and what they want to achieve, it is one of the most inspiring things. You get together and you toss ideas to and fro and you spark off each other and you can't achieve a good building without that sort of relationship. But there are plenty of people out there and more and more people I think who are seeing the value that they can get out of a building and a lot of our clients have used their buildings as almost like trademarks or in some way as part of their identity.
JOHN TUSA: Years ago as a student, you wrote, that technology could improve efficiency but it should transform the world morally. Do you have any feelings that it has achieved any moral transformation?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I don't remember ever saying that.
JOHN TUSA: [laughter] That is what you are quoted as writing.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: [laughter] I think that possibly, thinking in the Buckminster Fuller mode there where he was enormously influential in talking about the haves and the have nots as he put it. And of course, technology can do an enormous amount for the Third World and the nations which are deprived and it is not used nearly enough for them. It is used far too much for the rich nations to get their cars to go faster or to do things which work perfectly well a little bit more slickly and a huge amount of investment and technology goes into making our world even better than it really is and I feel very strongly that a lot of that technological input should be diverted to improving the lot of the people who don't have so much.
JOHN TUSA: Back to your feelings about architecture as an instrument for democracy.
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well I think so and I think also economy too and that the diversion of funds to help the rest of the world is not actually anything like the sort of scale problem that people think it is and in fact I think the right sort of interventions at the right sort of intellectual level could make an enormous difference to people's lives.
JOHN TUSA: Are we frightened of technology?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: I think there is a sort of inherent … I should say that there used to be an inherent criticism of technology in that it was a sort of, the exact opposite to creativity in way. And it was a sort of damper on creativity. I think now, with everybody's connection to the computer age and so on, almost the reverse has happened. In lots of ways people think that you can't be creative without understanding technology and I think that is a very, very important switch that has possibly happened over the last 50 years and it goes right across the arts, sculpture, film making and everything else that … there is a strong feeling now that technology is there to be used to help you be creative.
JOHN TUSA: How far do you think you are recognisably the same architect as the one who set out at the Architectural Association and was chided by Maxwell Fry or possibly too systemic and rigorous, can you recognised yourself as the young man you then were?
NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW: Well I think very much so. It is difficult to put your finger on the core of what your practice is, but I do think I've stuck to those principles. I think that rigour is something you have to apply to everything. Whether you're doing an abstract painting, a building or whatever, you've got to be able to justify the concept you're working with and so that it is not completely thrown on the table and say, well there you are, that's what I wanted to do at the time and I don't accept that as a way of proceeding and I don't think any really serious building or work of art come to that, can escape having that kind of rigour behind it in my view.
JOHN TUSA: Nicholas Grimshaw thank you very much.