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Alison Brooks grew up in a rambling old house in Welland, Ontario. As she told me in our recent interview over Zoom out of her busy practice in London, she always felt the house was filled with secrets and ghosts. It was extended and refurbished in the 1950s by an architect obsessed with storage and staircases. It served as “a brilliant playground.” She attributes her interest in architecture to her mother, who loved history and literature and taught courses on Canadian antique furniture and textiles.

When Alison was thirteen, she moved with her mother and two sisters to Guelph, a university city west of Toronto. Before parting with the house, she decided to document every detail. Today she says that exercise was her first architectural act. In high school, she took a course in design and drafting. It immediately felt right. She told me, “I knew that was what I could do for the rest of my life. I was very lucky.”

She studied architecture at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. The school is famous for its Rome-based design program in the fourth year and it had a unique “co-op program” that alternated academic terms with work terms in professional practice. By the time Alison graduated in 1988, she had accrued a substantial amount of solid applied knowledge, including a stint at Diamond Schmitt Architects. That same year, she left for London, where – after working with designer Ron Arad on such projects as the foyer of the Tel Aviv Opera and the London restaurants Belgo Noord and Belgo Centraal – she started her own practice in 1996.

Over the decades, Alison Brooks has built a portfolio of projects with a strong focus on housing design, which she considers the social aspect of architecture and its most important form of civic building. She has completed over 1,000 dwellings across the UK, including the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia in Cambridge. Other prominent built works include Exeter College Cohen Quad in Oxford, Albert Crescent in Bath, the Smile Pavilion for the 2016 London Design Festival, and several sculptural houses such as VXO, Fold, Lens, Mesh and Windward, all in London.

Her work has been exhibited multiple times at the Venice biennale and she has taught at the University of Central London, the Architectural Association and Harvard GSD; since 2018, she has been a visiting professor at ETSAM, Universidad Politécnica of Madrid. (She was also a juror of the 2022 AZ Awards.) In this interview, we discussed her idea of injecting a dynamic character into the reading of buildings, the importance of bringing beauty into people’s lives, the need to shake off everything that you’ve been taught, and why cities should be designed as works of civic art.

Portrait of architect Alison Brooks
Alison Brooks. Portrait by Ben Blossom

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Among your inspirations, you name scallop shells, American barns, op art paintings by Bridget Riley, origami and Brancusi totems. Could you go into your design process and how you typically begin a project?

Alison Brooks

I always start with research and readings from a huge range of sources, and we document the physical, historical, cultural and ecological context of a place, to understand its communities and their deeper histories. It is also a quest to unearth key ideas and references that will trigger a form-generating idea that resonates with meaning and purpose. And many of these references will not necessarily be architectural.

For example, I used a polar bear’s fur as an inspiration for the skin of the Hammerfest Arctic Culture Centre in Norway, which was a competition project. This proposed building had a sort of underbelly hovering above the ground. Its cladding was an array of logs projecting out, evoking the polar bear’s fur, to collect snow and help insulate the building. A black membrane below the logs would help retain the little summer warmth.

We also are using ceramic pottery as a reference for an art gallery project; and the checkerboard roof of the Cohen Quad in Oxford was inspired by the neo-gothic metalwork of the College’s chapel. So, our references are very wide and what you mentioned is just a small portion of what we used in the past. My practice’s way of thinking about architecture is very expansive and it includes many other disciplines. Today, in general, making architecture has become a lot more pluralistic than, let’s say, 20 to 30 years ago. Architectural culture is no longer about a universal theory or revolving around the voice of dominant mavericks. Everything is possible and more voices need to be heard.

Fold House by Alison Brooks Architects
Fold House by Alison Brooks Architects

VB: In your lectures, you present the keywords that describe the kind of work you try to achieve. They are “authenticity,” “generosity,” “civicness,” and “beauty.” Then there are subchapters to those, such as hybridism, inhabited edges, buildings in motion, optical illusion and 1:1. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “optical illusion” and “1:1”?

AB: I am interested in spatial and optical devices that can be employed to intensify the human experience. In the Baroque era there were such techniques as manipulating scale and forced perspective to create illusions and dynamic sensations of space and light, space opening or closing, contracting or expanding, upward movement, or a contemporary concept of weightlessness.

For example, in my Fold House, I tried to create the illusion of a disappearing, weightless architecture, made from a single sheet of metal, to amplify the sensation of being in a garden, in a space with no boundaries. Unlike those “honest” modernists, I didn’t want to be honest. That myth of honesty or the so-called “morality” of functionalism led to the loss of architecture’s ability to be playful and joyful, or to be usefully deceptive about scale and materiality. Prior to the modern movement, architects used all kinds of visual devices and material techniques to achieve certain effects without feeling guilty.

I believe architecture’s role is to enhance our sensations of space, light, and movement, to enrich daily lived experience with unexpected spaces, or geometries and materials, that have meaning and an enabling effect for the communities they serve. I call these “places of desire.” So, I believe in not being honest. [Laughs.] Because honesty in architecture is an oxymoron. Nobody is really honest in architecture. We always try to make things other than what they are. We try to make things better.

The theme of 1:1 is about the joy of detail and celebrating the moments when architects put materials together in unusual ways. It is also about celebrating craftsmanship. Construction detailing is where architects can celebrate their skills and those of the builders and makers. It’s wonderful to consider the nature and form of cities and re-imagine how they might work and yet I can also celebrate, in a small detail, how a piece of wood and a piece of metal can come together.

The Smile pavilion, created for the 2016 London Design Festival. Photo by Paul Riddle
The Smile pavilion, created for the 2016 London Design Festival. Photo by Paul Riddle

VB: And what about inhabited edges and buildings in motion?

AB: Inhabited edges are about celebrating the threshold moments in buildings — spaces between inside and outside, between public and private. I try to amplify and celebrate those in-between moments in the design of those boundary conditions, to make them places to dwell and to gather: balconies, entrance porticoes, and bay windows. I try to make them spatially generous and enticing.

And buildings in motion, I think there is a way of expressing architecture so that it’s not static and that it has an inherent movement within, that starts to break down the ordered, Cartesian nature of most buildings, which is often oppressive. I try to express the collective life that architecture frames. For example, in my housing projects, I work with fenestration patterns that create illusions of movement, where windows appear to be traveling across the façade. Things happen with your perception when you see windows arranged in certain patterns. There appears to be a movement, you can discover a certain directionality in their journey.

So, the idea is to inject a dynamic character into the reading of buildings. This isn’t only related to facades; I often develop this language through irregular or organic plan geometries. And I feel that people relate to organic form, particularly in the context of housing. It is refreshing. I use these design strategies to bring down the typical static, ordered, authoritative language of architecture that you could say started with the Renaissance. That’s one way that I try to break the boundaries and conventions around housing design, in particular.

A rendering of the Hammerfest Arctic Culture Centre.

VB: You have said, “Architecture is an expression of ideals.” Could you elaborate?

AB: This phrase comes from my book Ideals Then Ideas. The main message of the book was to communicate to students and architects to have faith in themselves, their social and political values, experiences, and their own life stories as the starting point of their work. That would help them to choose ideas and forms and go forward with confidence. It is important because you can’t argue with people’s ideals. If you substantiate your work with your own ideals that’s an empowering starting point for the design. That’s what would help to shake off all kinds of dogmas and traditions in the profession. Of course, it is important to look at the work of great architects from the past, but it is even more important to think of who you are, where you come from, and your life experience as a thinker and author. That’s why in the book I declared my ideals: authenticity, generosity, civicness, and beauty. I always make sure that every one of my clients is aware of this position.

Raising the issue of beauty is particularly important to me. To be honest, before I started talking about beauty in my public lectures in 2017, I hadn’t heard other architects talking about it. In fact, the concept of beauty has been pretty much banished not only from architecture but also from philosophy, design, art, theory, and so on. The modernist project wasn’t about beauty. Even subjectivity was not a part of it. But the idea of beauty as a goal is important and the subjectiveness of beauty is empowering for architects. That’s what we can offer, and people need beauty. We are all in search of a beautiful life and beautiful experiences.

Why shouldn’t architects claim that role — to bring beauty into people’s lives? I try to design places that offer a journey through a sequence of what I hope will be beautiful experiences — thinking about design as the choreography of movement through space and light, working with organic geometry, accentuating panoramic and framed views, blurring boundaries between spaces with undulating peripheries. I am also obsessed with bringing light from above — there isn’t enough sky in London. I try to bring these moments of beauty to everyday life.

In my work, particularly in my houses, I try to treat each of them like an essay. I see each house as an opportunity to explore an idea and push it to its limits. to test it and make it a very rigorous statement about architecture that also responds to the client’s way of life and to the specific context.

The Cohen Quad at Oxford by Alison Brooks Architects. Photo by Studio8

VB: You just compared your single-family houses to essays, which require a thesis. Could you elaborate on this idea — a house as an essay, as an autonomous project, testing ideas, and bringing authorship to your architecture?

I believe that when an architect receives a commission to design a project, particularly a private house, fundamentally, that means that the client plays the role of a patron of the architect’s art. So, I see that as an obligation to deliver on that opportunity not just to make a wonderful place of dwelling for this client to live but also to push architecture in a direction that opens up new possibilities. This is what enables us to be understood as artists. We are not just delivering a service, we can produce art.

And I like comparing houses to essays because essayer in French means to try. You are trying and you have to demonstrate with your arguments that your attempts are valid. I like the idea of testing singular ideas. For the same reason, pavilions are seen as the source of seminal architectural experiments – for example, the Serpentine Pavilions here in London where architectural ideas and opportunities are tested and built and made clear and accessible to a very wide audience.

The Fitzhugh Auditorium at Cohen Quad. Photo by Hufton+Crow

VB: Tested without being distracted by addressing a particular function, right?

AB: And that’s important to push the profession to open new ways of thinking about places, materials and techniques. This was in the case of the Smile Pavilion. It tested formal, material, structural and environmental issues. It is very difficult to test something to that degree on a large-scale building with lots of complexities. But I try to do that with every project.

For example, in my Accordia Sky Villas in Cambridge, my essay, so to speak, was to reexamine the 19th-century semi-detached villa, to reinvent the tradition of the eclectic Victorian house. I turned it upside down and gave it new functionality. I created a huge multipurpose space under the curved roof. There is a triple-height atrium at the centre of the house, which evokes a medieval dining room. It is a split-level house based on the idea of freeing the traditional ground-floor sequence of enclosed rooms, to make it much more adventurous, open, and connected. You can see through the house vertically and horizontally out into the garden.

Ideas of permeability and porosity run through all the houses that I have designed. For example, in Windward House these ideas are pushed to the extreme: everything is loosened, organic, and reinterpreted through meandering geometry in terms of the plan and roof form. In a way, I was attempting to make architecture that feels like a seamless and organic part of the landscape, to form a new understanding of the context of that place. So, the idea is to bring everything together to find something new. A feeling of expansiveness and connectedness with the weather, times, history, context, community and culture.      

The Accordia Sky Villas in Cambridge by Alison Brooks
The Accordia Sky Villas in Cambridge

VB: I like your expression, “A city is a form of art.”

It is a reminder to people what their everyday life can be if they consider the city a form of design. And it is true that there are many cities that are works of art. Most European cities are incredibly artful, sometimes through monarchic design and sometimes through organic growth, topography or cultural practice. The way architecture supports the experience of the street plays a major role. In fact, a lot of architecture in many European cities is about forming the space of the street in a very beautiful way. It is about materials, scale, proportions, consistency and creating opportunities for people to share and enjoy space. It is the beauty of these cities that attracts tourists from all over the world. But most of these spaces were designed, or evolved, more than a century ago. We should think about what happened since then. How did we become so bad at designing cities in the 20th century?

I think one of the reasons is that urban design was superseded by urban planning. But planning and zoning are not art forms. [Laughs.] They are not about subjective experience. So, the shift from the idea of the city as a work of civic art or a more organic expression of community to the city as a kind of mechanism to accumulate wealth is a problem. We have become accustomed to cities that are all about commuting between segregated areas designated for business, manufacturing or residential functions. Rationalization of cities into such zones and prioritizing cars over people in a way signaled the death of the city as an art form. Cities in North America, for example, illustrate that so bluntly. Of course, the climate crisis has made it imperative for architects and everyone working in the built environment to rethink the relationship between architecture and nature, as well as create more humane and inclusive places. We are just at the beginning of that project of conceiving a new urban future, a new urban ecology that’s beyond humanism.

Windward House by Alison Brooks
Windward House. Photo by Paul Riddle

VB: You have said that when you work on projects you try not to be influenced by other architects. But there must be some creative approaches out there that you are inspired by. Would you name any living architects who you respect most and why?

Well, if I am limited only to living architects, I would say, one is Steven Holl. He experiments and works in a sculptural and poetic way. Then obviously, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem [Koolhaas]. They are the giants of this era or maybe of the last era [Laughs.] Maybe their era is over and something new is starting, I hope.

The Accordia Brass Building. Photo by Paul Riddle

VB: If a new era is coming, who would you say represents it?

Then I would count myself! [Laughs.] In a way, architecture happens in generations. I could mention some younger architects, especially those who are the offspring of OMA. I would, however, hesitate to focus on those who insist that every building is a statement, an extravagant object. That sensationalism I am not a fan of. In Europe, in general, there is a reaction against bombastic architecture. There is a movement towards architecture that’s quietly doing a beautiful job of being a good neighbour and creating a good context. In North America, buildings are too often conceived to command attention as standalone pieces. The architecture there can be episodic, whereas in Europe architects work side by side with a certain consistency and respect and with deep collective memory. I see the city as a shared project.

“Architects Should Claim the Role to Bring Beauty into People’s Lives”: A Conversation with Alison Brooks

London-based architect Alison Brooks on the importance of beauty in architecture, the need to shake off what you’ve been taught, and why cities should be designed as works of civic art.

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