The hi-tech historian strikes again

Sir Michael Hopkins' new Inland Revenue building exemplifies his gift for making Modernism cosy and likeable, says Kenneth Powell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The new year honours list contained few surprises, least of all a knighthood for Michael Hopkins, architect of the new Glyndebourne Opera House, the Mound Stand at Lord's, the forthcoming extension to the Palace of Westminster and the Inland Revenue headquarters at Nottingham, which was officially opened yesterday. With such commissions and the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture under his belt, a knighthood seemed all but statutory.

Hopkins, a Royal Academician and Royal Fine Art Commissioner, is clearly an establishment figure. His buildings have won many awards and much critical praise, largely, perhaps, because he is able to match technology to historical precedent. In recent buildings he has employed traditional materials expressively, even lavishly, laying to rest the popular notion that Modern architecture is a thing of concrete, steel and glass. Hopkins has made Modernism safe, English and almost cosy.

Inevitably, the abundant praise heaped on him and his practice has brought with it a backlash from younger architects of a Modern outlook who find his prodigious output hovering on formulaism, reaction and insularity. His entry to the Bankside competition for the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art did not make it to the second shortlist of six international practices and he was not invited on to the celebrity shortlist for the design of the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House, despite the praise he had won for Glyndebourne. Both competitions were won by architects whose commitment to a truly Modern dream makes Hopkins look almost a fogey.

Although 60 this year and at the peak of his career, Hopkins has yet to build abroad. Success at home has certainly changed his style of building. He began, not with tweedy brick skins, but with hi-tech; his own uncompromising steel and glass house in Hampstead, finished in 1976, is something of a hi-tech icon. This led to industrial commissions such as the Greene King bottling plant at Bury St Edmund's and the Schlumberger research centre outside Cambridge. The latter is his best work to date, a decisive, inventive response to an innovative and demanding client. A tented fabric roof encloses a magnificent exterior, as exciting and as original as seemed possible at the time.

The tented roof became a Hopkins trademark, recently re-emerging after some years in his entry for the South Bank competition last year (won by Richard Rogers Partnership). Its best-known outing is at Lord's, where it is used with great verve on the Mound Stand (1984-87).

It was at Lord's that Hopkins first faced a sensitive urban setting, so the hi-tech roof was pitched above an extended Victorian stock brick arcade. This set the tone for the conversion of Bracken House, former home of the Financial Times, designed by Sir Albert Richardson in the Fifties, into a mix of Trad meets Modern. The Mound, Bracken House and Glyndebourne all displayed a puritan streak in Hopkins, a rejection of architectural "dishonesty": when he uses traditional materials, he uses them "honestly" in traditional ways, serving a functional rather than a decorative purpose. At Glyndebourne this has been taken a step farther back into architectural history. The roofs are covered in lead and supported by load-bearing walls, calculated to reassure: they are beautifully done, using handmade Hampshire bricks - a product, like the all-timber auditorium, of an unimpeachable English craft tradition.

Glyndebourne has been the subject of lavish praise, yet the modest showroom and office building designed for David Mellor, the master cutler, in Butler's Wharf, near Tower Bridge, has been all but overlooked. It is such a simple building that its qualities - a fine sense of scale, close attention to detail in the use of steel and concrete - are under-appreciated in an age in which much office design is little more than rolls of architectural wallpaper over a proprietary steel or concrete frame. Here the exposed concrete frame and the geometric grid it forms recalls the Mellor Center at Yale University, designed byLouis Kahn.

Kahn has also influenced Hopkins' plans for the new parliamentary building at Westminster, although such a stoically Modern influence will be hard to detect in the historical references made in the design, which nods vigorously in the direction of old Scotland Yard.

The Inland Revenue headquarters sums up in many ways the degree to which Hopkins has moved from the delightful drama of Schlumberger to a comfortable sort of Modern architecture, as if he had come to terms with the being a major establishment figure, the architect to be wheeled out whenever a building was needed that would serve a new or expanded purpose, but without causing controversy.

Viewed from Nottingham Castle, the blocks form a new yet recognisable part of the city, their red brick cladding blending with the industrial vernacular of the East Midlands. A fabric-roofed amenity building shading restaurant, sports hall and crche, is a nod to Hopkins' radical credentials.

Hopkins is clearly seeking an architecture which, while essentially Modern, addresses issues of context, history and nature. Contemporaries such as Edward Cullinan and Richard MacCormac share this concern, yet the consistency and logic of their work is not evident in Hopkins'. It would be wrong to say he has become an opportunist when what he has done, successfully, is to have caught the mood of many British institutions and given them thoughtful, well-made buildings that are gimmick-free and with great popular appeal. His winning formula has made him the "official" architect of the day. But no matter how worthy, decent and upright, how dispassionate, safe and compromising the Inland Revenue headquarters seem compared to Schlumberger. Of course, Nottingham might have been visited by some architectural horror, and better Hopkins at his most straitlaced than some design-and build horror.

A fuller version of this article appears in the March issue of `Perspectives on Architecture', published tomorrow.