Architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw speaks about sustainability, art, and community
In 2002, Grimshaw stood for the presidency of the august Royal Academy, an institution he has subsequently liberated from the financial doldrums to its rightful position of admiration and respect. Sir Grimshaw recently sat down with RECORD editor in chief Robert Ivy for a leisurely conversation on architecture, energy-conscious design, and the relationship of architecture and the arts. His remarks are summarized below.
On Green Architecture
He has been talking and writing about the subject since 1979, when he wrote an article for the RIBA Journal entitled “Energetic Architecture—A Belief.” If everybody took the fuel used to drive to work and walked instead, he argues, it would pay to heat the office building. “Modern Industry isn’t antisocial and polluting. Light industry sits comfortably in residential areas,” he observes. “If more people lived within 2 miles of work, they could easily walk. However, most people won’t accept it as concept. But working from home, going in twice a week, would help. It would save huge amounts of time.”
“I find theoretical, environmental projects fascinating. In 2003, we designed a tidal scheme [North Wales Tidal Energy Project] off the coast of Wales, where there is a 24-foot tidal drop. You let the water in, hold it, and let it out through turbines.” Offshore Tidal Impoundment (OTI) is a new approach to renewable power generation. It exploits the low-head turbine technology of tidal barrages while avoiding their adverse environmental and navigational problems. OTI structures are designed to be self-contained, located on the coastal shelf a mile or more offshore. “At Las Palmas, we are involved in an evaporative scheme for a fresh-water-current desalination reactor with evaporative cooling that produces fresh water.”
On Integrating Green Architecture
“Every building should be treated differently. In 1989, we designed the British Pavilion for Expo ’92 in Seville,” he explains. “We chose to run water down the face of the structure to cool it. Solar cells harness solar energy, which drives the water pumps. “At the Rolls-Royce Manufacturing Plant and Headquarters in West Sussex (2003), on the edge of a place of natural beauty, we designed the biggest grass roof in England. The project features cedar louvers, which look like airplane wings, with beautiful cast fittings at the ends. It is a combo of traditional details supporting a green idea.”
Trained in architecture at the University of Edinburgh, Grimshaw cites the university’s “strong tradition of engineering” as shaping his own worldview. “It was part of the art school. Art and engineering had joint classes, and that’s where they taught us how to weld.” He states, “In engineering, there is a higher level of conscience and belief in environmental design than in the architectural world. It is not affecting architecture, particularly in the U.S.” When asked for specific examples, he mentions that he sees “few changes in the shape of buildings today, despite the environmental need. (Undifferentiated) glass buildings are still going up.”
“On the whole, architects don’t invent; they learn how to use things.” His firm, however, hopes to “lift” the design to the level of innovation by looking for new materials. The previously mentioned Waterloo provides one example. “The joints at Waterloo were made with the lost-wax process by a slip-joint manufacturer. It was a boost to manufacturing.”
For the Eden Project in Cornwall (2001) [RECORD, January 2002, page 92], the largest plant enclosure in the world, consisting of eight interlinked geodesic domes, or biomes, the challenge was to let the maximum amount of sunlight in. The ETFE pillows made of translucent, high- performance foil that forms the skin proved “more efficient than glass. I had never done a structure at that scale,” he insists. It has worked well. The material has proved so strong and resilient that a 4-by-4 has been driven on it.
“Today we have handbag architecture—it’s all about shape-making. You can pay 700 pounds for a handbag, with wonderful stylistic objects.” He thinks that people have to decide what it is that our society really needs. “I cannot see the thrill of doing an arbitrary shape that looks like it was hit with a sledgehammer. At the least, facadism really is a disregard for construction.”
On the Royal Academy
“There is a slight madness to the enterprise.” In this historic body founded in 1768, there are only 80 members—no more academicians. “When the last president of the Royal Academy resigned, someone said, ‘You have to stand … [for the office].’ It had not occurred to me. I have always been culturally fascinated. My father-in-law was John Russell, the art critic for The New York Times and the London Times. My mother and grandmother got paintings into the Royal Academy. I talk to artists. I understand their shows.” Grimshaw became involved in a governance reorganization. “It was real architecture. It works in circles, like astronomy, and the way people interrelate. That is the architecture of an organization. The Royal Academy brings the artistic force and the artistic face back to the practice. In return, it raises all kinds of issues for us architects.”