Sir Michael Hopkins, architect of many popular modern buildings in the United Kingdom, has died at the age of 88 from vascular dementia.
His wife Patty, with whom he established and ran the London-based practice Hopkins Architects said in a statement: “Michael was obsessive about architecture and tenacious in refining a design until he was absolutely satisfied with it. He was usually (and annoyingly) right.” Viewed in purely stylistic terms, Hopkins’s work is considered, along with Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, part of the High-Tech movement that dominated contemporary architecture in the UK beginning in the 1970s. Unlike the work of his more famous contemporaries, however, Hopkins’s buildings each have individual character, emerging from simple yet bold architectural ideas as much as from relationships to context.
After graduating from the Architectural Association, Hopkins began working in partnership with Foster in 1968. The Willis Building in Ipswich—the acme of his time in the office—featured a curtain wall comprising hundreds of sheets of tinted glass, which reflect back a surreal image of the historic city on itself. Zaha Hadid once remarked it was atypical of Foster’s architecture but “a timeless classic.” With typical dry humor Hopkins told an interviewee from the Foster Foundation that his erstwhile partner had been preoccupied by his new hobby of gliding at the time, implying that his own role in the design was key.
The Willis Building (1975) in Ipswich, England, is an early project of Foster Associates; Hopkins played a key role in its design. Photo by Archer Photo/Shutterstock
Hopkins established an independent practice with his wife in 1976, one year after Willis was completed. Perhaps the practice's first great achievement was the astonishing Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre (1985), with its high-tension steel cable roof. Though some have unfairly seen it as an attempt to ape Norman Foster’s Renault Distribution Centre or Rogers’s Inmos Microprocessor Factory (both of which have similar roof structures), the building should be understood instead as a celebration of the 79-foot-wide test drilling-rig which stands at the heart of the building. Schlumberger is a fusion of concept, structure, and program so tight that one cannot see where each approach starts or ends.
Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre, Cambridge, England (1985). Photo by Valerian Guillot/Shutterstock
Describing his method, Michael Taylor, a principal at Hopkins Architects said: “With Michael, the conversation that led to the buildings always began as a voyage of discovery typically centered on establishing a sense of place.” Hopkins aimed for work that “would appear calm and make immediate sense to the end user,” he explained.
It is this strategy, as opposed to the familiar style of Rogers and Foster, that opened up Hopkins to high-profile commissions in sensitive sites in the UK. He was not wed to particular materials or forms either. The new opera house in the august surrounds of Glyndebourne (1994) was built largely of load-bearing brick, with the main auditorium of the building semi-subsumed into the slope of the gardens which host summer picnics. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1992 and knighted in 1995.
Portcullis House, London (1999). Photo by Benjamin Brading/Shutterstock
London's Westminster Station, Jubilee Line Extenstion (1999). Photo by Nano Anderson, Flickr
Hopkins also had his failures. Portcullis House (1999), a parliamentary office building located opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, still hasn’t shaken Jonathan Glancey’s critique of it as “cacophonous.” Yet, the Westminster Underground station beneath it, which Hopkins also designed, is one of the most-loved modern structures in London. Passengers percolate down a central well within a concrete box wall, in a concourse laced between a massive diagrid of beams and buttresses; the design speaks to the importance of the subterranean in London’s identity. Equally loved was the velodrome of the 2012 London Summer Olympics; by some distance, it’s the best building at Olympic Park. Clad in cedar, the lightweight, double-curving, cable-net roof structure is a vertiginous inversion of the track within. The velodrome became a symbol of Britain’s new love of the sport and the unexpected success of the 2012 Games themselves.
Olympic Park Velodome, London (2012). Photo © AC Manley
While Rogers and Foster readily exported their work across the globe, Hopkins was more modest in his ambitions, finding success in campus architecture in the United States during the latter days of his career. He oversaw the cross-campus overhaul of Rice University in Houston, which involved the design of ground-up buildings but also the expansion and redevelopment of several others. Central to the effort was a new circular refectory with a belvedere and wooden ceiling that serves as a communal hub. More campus work in the U.S. followed even as Hopkins himself was retreating from the practice.
Kroon Hall, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University. Photo by Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons
Following news of his death, sadness across the architectural profession in the UK has been widespread. Patty Hopkins said: “He made the world—and the buildings so many people live, work, and learn in—more beautiful.”