25th February 2020

As Grimshaw Architects celebrates its 40th anniversary, arc speaks with Chairman Andrew Whalley about the firm’s past, its present, and its future.

While the principle of ‘Form Follows Function’ seems almost common sense, the idea that a building’s design should correlate to its intended purpose, there are some in the architectural sphere that prefer to focus on creating outlandish, incredibly stylised structures, without much consideration for what their creations will actually be used for.

Such an approach is not shared by architectural studio Grimshaw, which, since its formation by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw 40 years ago, has built its reputation on responding to the needs and resources of the contemporary world, approaching projects with a detailed understanding of the functions they must fulfil, the conditions they have to provide, and the materials from which they are constructed.

“We have a very pragmatic approach to design where flexibility and adaptability become a critical operational requirement of the building,” explained Andrew Whalley, Chairman and Partner at Grimshaw. “That has grounded us in a certain approach to architecture, which is driven predominantly by function and performance.”

This approach has seen Grimshaw, since its beginnings in 1980, expand from its London offices to seven locations around the world – from Los Angeles and New York, to Melbourne and Sydney, to Paris and Dubai – building a vast portfolio of projects, covering everything from airports and train stations to stadiums, office spaces and cultural centres.

With such a wide spectrum of work, across myriad sectors, Whalley believes that it’s important for Grimshaw to take each project on a case-by-case basis, rather than focusing on imprinting their own signature style. “We’re very driven by the programme,” he said.

“We don’t bring a pre-ordained stylistic approach. Some architects do, that’s their signature and that’s fine, but with Grimshaw, I think you can never say what one of our buildings might turn out to be.

“It becomes a kind of recipe – a chemical combination of the client, their vision, our vision and the programme, the building. You bring all of those ingredients together, and then it’s a fascinating journey and out of it comes the unique solution that is just about that one project. Then the next project is going to be different because there’s a different client, a different programme, so you respond in a different way.”

Whalley joined Grimshaw Architects in 1986 after completing his undergraduate at the Glasgow School of Art, before studying under Ron Herron for his diploma at the Architectural Association in London.

“When I finished my diploma, I came out penniless and had to find a job immediately,” he explained. “I was fortunate because I knew somebody at Grimshaw. He said ‘there aren’t many jobs but come in anyway, I’ll get you to meet Nick’. He went through my portfolio and said that they could find something for me to do, so I literally started here the week after I finished at the AA, and I haven’t gone anywhere since.”

Not long after Whalley joined, Grimshaw was commissioned to complete the Waterloo International Terminal, to coincide with the opening of the Channel Tunnel – the biggest infrastructure project in the UK at the time.

“Waterloo was a really interesting project, in that no one had done a major, large-scale station for a generation or more, and it would mark the start of a renaissance in rail for us,” Whalley said.

“It was a watershed moment for us in that it took us into the large-scale infrastructure and rail projects, which is something that we really enjoy because it’s so important. Particularly going forward to a more sustainable future, we need rail, it will be a very important part of that.”

From Waterloo International Terminal, Grimshaw went on to complete a number of high profile rail and transport projects, not just in the UK but around the world. From the London Bridge Station to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station – an environmentally-minded development whose unique, ‘mogul field’ inspired roof contributes to the station being Grimshaw’s first net zero carbon building.

A particular highlight for Whalley though, was the redevelopment of Paddington Station. Completed in the late 90s, the renovations helped to return the splendour of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Matthew Digby Wyatt’s original Victorian design, showcasing its original features, while modernising elements, blending the old and new.

“Working on Paddington Station was a great privilege because Brunel is one of our great heroes, so renovating that and turning what was a rather black hole into something more pleasant to use that had great spaces was really important,” Whalley said. “We worked with Speirs + Major on the lighting, and the light is very important because it transformed the whole experience of the station at night, turning it into a really good public asset and resource.”

The late 90s proved to be a busy time for Grimshaw; as the UK was preparing for the new Millennium they had a number of different enquiries from across the country. “This included the Leicester Space Centre and Bath Spa, but probably the most critical one was the Eden Project,” Whalley said.

Located in Cornwall, since opening in early 2001 the Eden Project has become one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks in no small part to its stunning design. Whalley explained how the project came about: “We were approached by Tim Smit and his partner, who had this amazing idea to build some of the world’s greatest greenhouses. They told us that they didn’t have a site, and didn’t have any money, which normally sets alarm bells off, but it was such an exciting opportunity that we just had to help make it happen.

“It took several years, but we eventually found an amazing site, which was a disused quarry in Cornwall, and I remember when I first saw it, I walked to the edge and looked into it, and it looked like the Lost World. You didn’t see it until you came across this massive crater, so we liked the idea of having something that was just that – you discovered it as it unveiled itself.”

Not only was the Eden Project an important one for Grimshaw because of its status as a new landmark destination within Britain, it also acted as a clear signpost of the firm’s environmentally-conscious, sustainable focus. “It’s something that we’ve been passionate about for more than three decades now, dating back to the British Pavilion at the World Expo Seville, and it’s very much at the forefront of our current thinking. The Eden Project was a natural progression on that, looking at ecology, the environment, plants and how important they are.”

The Eden Project’s design features domes clad in ethelyne tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), creating a super lightweight structure inspired in equal parts by nature and technology. “We’re known for our exploration of technology, but part of that is just about finding the best, most optimum way of doing things,” Whalley said. “I’d also been very influenced by Frei Otto, and that idea of using natural forms as a generator.

“We can learn a lot from nature – the reason why nature is so beautiful, why we all think it’s elegant, is that it never does things unnecessarily, it always uses the minimum to do the maximum, and that gives inherent elegance.

“Quite a few architects started to do wavy forms, but for no apparent reason, which isn’t how we approach architecture. It’s the old adage, just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and in our minds the technology is there for us to create much better performing buildings and environmentally performing buildings, not just about creating different shapes.”

This approach towards creating more environmentally performing, sustainable buildings will see Grimshaw unveil its Sustainability Pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai later this year. The Pavilion, Whalley explained, will follow in the footsteps of Southern Cross Station, in that it will be completely self-sufficient.

“They’re expecting more than 20 million visitors to the World Expo. It’s going to be one of the busiest expos ever, because of where it is, with a very high number of international visitors. So on this amazing world stage, we decided we wanted to do a completely net zero building, that’s not just net zero energy and net zero carbon, but that’s net zero water too, so it generates its own water, recycles its own water, and is completely self-sufficient.

“And we thought ‘if you can do it here, in one of the world’s harshest environments, you can do it anywhere’. It’s been very complicated and challenging, but the client has backed it 100% of the way.”

The role of lighting, and specifically of lighting designers, has consistently played a part in Grimshaw’s work, dating back to the Waterloo International Terminal, where Jonathan Speirs, then at LDP, developed the lighting scheme. And Whalley eulogised the importance of lighting design in architecture: “In the daytime, we obviously have one very large light that gets switched on – in some places more than others. Obviously manipulation of natural light is really important, particularly in our transport projects, because we use it to help people navigate and to give a sense of direction. But when the sun goes down, that’s when the lighting designer’s opportunity emerges.

“I always think that working with a lighting designer is like working with a wizard, because they can do all sorts of magical things, and as lighting technology has developed, it has become more and more a piece of magic, with LEDs and the ability to change colour, they’re so controllable, and the energy consumption has dropped with it as well.

“So we’ve always worked very closely with lighting designers in our projects, and recognise their importance. It’s not something we do, it’s something that we collaborate on.”

This collaborative approach has seen Grimshaw work with a whole host of lighting designers (arc has featured projects from WSP and Cundall Light4 in recent years), and Whalley feels that this approach, rather than sticking to one practice in particular, reaps greater rewards in the long run. “We work with a whole range of firms, in the same way that we work with different engineers, different structural engineers, different mechanical engineers. And the nice thing about working with different consultants is it’s the same as when you work with a different client on a different project, you come up with a concept that’s appropriate to that, with a team that’s appropriate to the demands of the project, that’s tailor-made to that project’s particular needs.”

Whalley was also keen to stress that, because of the importance that Grimshaw places on lighting design, it is something that the firm bears in mind right from the concept stages. “Obviously when you’re coming up with the bare bones and skeleton of the project, it’s just about form creating, but within that, quite soon afterwards you have to think about the whole experience,” he said.

“Not all of our projects benefit from the availability of natural light, so the integration of lighting is absolutely the experience of the space – it’s got to be thought of from the beginning.

“So I think how you integrate lighting into the architecture, so that it’s seamless, and just becomes a natural part of the architectural experience, is absolutely critical.”

Having worked at Grimshaw for the past 34 years, Whalley has noticed how attitudes towards lighting designers, and lighting design as a concept, have changed within the architectural field.

“I would hope that now, most architects, when you’re doing buildings, especially large-scale public buildings, appreciate the importance of lighting and integrated design. But I think some probably put greater emphasis on it than others.

“Sometimes I walk around buildings and it looks to me that lighting came along rather late on. So that’s why it’s so important to bring it in at an earlier stage.

“I think it has changed a lot in the last 20 years though, because when we did Waterloo, bringing in a lighting designer was fairly exotic – lighting designers were for theatre, and seldom used on public buildings, and the array of lighting fixtures available was much more limited.

“But I think that as lighting technology has evolved, so too has the craft and skill of lighting designers, and it’s become a much more integral part of buildings. Seeing the opportunity, if you have an imaginative lighting designer and what they can bring to a project, really transformed things.”

However, while the role of lighting design is becoming more appreciated, especially within Grimshaw, Whalley doesn’t believe there are plans within the firm to introduce its own lighting design department. Instead, he would prefer continued collaboration with separate lighting design specialists. “Some do that, they start adding more things, but the trouble is that would then take away our flexibility to work with different designers. And I think we would lose something by doing that. In the same way that we don’t talk about doing engineering, it’s so important to be able to collaborate with different designers for different projects.”

Looking ahead to the future, with the Sustainability Pavilion at the World Expo almost complete, Grimshaw will continue to push towards being more sustainable in its own efforts, with the firm pledging to make all of its buildings net zero by 2030. “We’ve also appointed Dr Paul Toyne as our Head of Sustainability,” Whalley added. “It’s become a very important part of what we do, and I think it’s very important for the whole planet.

“It wasn’t as fashionable a few years ago, but it’s gone from being something that’s interesting to being imperative.”

This approach will extend to its building design too, as Grimshaw hopes to remain flexible to the changing demands of both the client, and wider society. “We’re very interested in how things can change and how architecture is part of an evolving society. Architecture is very much in the service of society, and how that can influence the future.

“A really important lesson going forward is that if you create buildings that are flexible and that can absorb change, they have a very long lifespan.”

Over the last 40 years, Grimshaw has established itself as a major player within the architectural field, and with its new sustainability goals, the future looks equally bright. Here’s to the next 40.