Practice as Neighbourhood

A studio built around people

My first professional encounter with Hawkins\Brown was in 2005, working with a mutual client Urban Splash on their ambitious regeneration of the Park Hill estate in Sheffield. As David Bickle and Roger Hawkins talked us through their proposal, with shirts as riotous as their presentation drawings, it was clear that they had not only the vision and creativity, but also the stamina that would be required to stand any chance of transforming this troubled neighbourhood.

My work has taken me to numerous architects' studios over the years. Sadly, too many seem to conform to old stereotypes, with founders patrolling the shop floor, pushing their teams to maintain a house style, both in design and dress. Fast-forward to 2012, and a visit to the studios of Hawkins\Brown to discuss a new website. Opening the door, the air felt different. The atmosphere was relaxed, democratic and sociable, yet incredibly industrious.

The process of making architecture – of making anything really – is nothing without people. The team at Hawkins\Brown clearly numbers some powerful intellects, yet they are also modest, genuine and playful.

They recognise that creativity rarely works when it is imposed, or from one point of view, and their studio welcomes other collaborators – engineers, artists, designers – and importantly, their clients.

“We believe the greater the mix, the higher the potential for innovation.”

Despite the rise of digital communication, there is still nothing as effective or collaborative as sharing space with humans. This shared ethos permeates our Neighbourhood studio. Directors, designers, administrators, coders, all sit together with drop-in collaborators in a shared, multi-purpose, stimulating environment. We believe the greater the mix, the higher the potential for innovation. We call them happy accidents.

Reflecting their studio culture, Hawkins\Brown's expansive portfolio is rich, diverse and packed with intellectual rigour, yet also expressive, vibrant and uplifting. There is little sign of a stylistic framework. Rather, each project puts the brief at front of house, and project teams work to positively address the problems presented, building sustainable futures and putting users, the people, right at the heart of them.

Architecture is a big investment, for both client and architect. There's usually a lot at stake, and issues are frequently complex. The journey takes money, patience and time. Yet why do so many architects only showcase finished buildings, rather than the process, the journey?

Polished portfolios of architectural photography undoubtedly have their place. Buildings can be appreciated as objects, as perfect sculptures, as concepts, as timeless moments. But among the beautiful images, something is missing. Where are the people? Where is the life these buildings have been designed for?

As Hawkins\Brown say, 'buildings are for people'.

Our approach to creating a website for Hawkins\Brown aimed to let the studio, the projects and the people speak for themselves. Yes, there are finished images of empty buildings, but you'll also find stories, work in progress, anecdotes, tangents, hypotheses and play. Each project becomes a rich tapestry of stories. Each team member has their own page with their projects, and opportunities for their musings, thoughts and dreams.

So what of Park Hill? After a decade of graft, and major political and economic challenges, phase one is now complete and a new community is taking root.

'I love you, will you marry me' reads the now-legendary graffiti at Park Hill, a message of hope now to be viewed in a different light. There have been three Hawkins\Brown weddings in recent years, a vivid demonstration of the studio culture they have created.

Originally published by Architectural Review in the 'Social' supplement, June 2013.


Ben Davies

Date published

10 February 2014