WAF Newsletter - AJ Interview with Grimshaw - January 2021

REVISITED: WAF Media Partner the Architects' Journal interviews Grimshaw Partner Mark Middleton

Grimshaw partner Mark Middleton talks about his practice’s WAF award-winning London Bridge Station refurb

What were your key aims at London Bridge and how do you measure the success of the completed scheme?

Aside from improving the experience for passengers and humanising their journeys, our key aim was to connect two divided communities within Southwark. Since 1836, when the railway arrived with the first rail terminus in the capital, the river was cut off from the rest of the borough. Our concourse reunites the ground plane and allows free, safe and easy circulation between the two communities – and will hopefully bring renewed prosperity to the southern side.
It was a great honour to win the WAF award [in the 2018 Transport – Completed Building category]. We’ve been lucky to win quite a few varied awards for the project, from civic and sustainability to construction and architecture. From a client’s perspective that is one way to measure success, but for me it’s to walk around the station and see it used. It is teeming with new life and energy.

What was the most difficult challenge, and what was the greatest opportunity?

The greatest challenge was to construct the building in the heart of London on a constrained site, while keeping the trains running as we built: I likened it to open-heart surgery while the patient is still jogging! In reality, it meant that the staging and phasing of the project informed a lot of thinking about modularity and off-site manufacture, which in turn influenced the overall look.
The greatest opportunity was to create a central London station that was topologically different to all others in the capital. It was mainly a ‘through station’ with a concourse below the tracks, all threaded through layers of history. And amid all this we had to create a legible civic space that was open and pleasant to use. In a way, its toughest constraints were its biggest asset.

What is your advice for other practices taking on a project of this complexity?

You need a strong concept and patience. Willingness to listen and collaboration are also key. Building a project of this scale relies on thousands of people to complete it, so a strong concept is vital for everyone to understand and buy into the vision. You need patience because it takes a long time. We worked on the project for eight years, six of those on site. During that time, we had a leadership resourcing plan to develop our staff and rotate them, retaining knowledge but keeping things fresh for the client.
​Finally, it takes a lot of expertise to achieve this kind of endeavour, and we aren’t the experts in everything. You need to listen and respect the advice and inputs of others; our job is to synthesise all of this into one coherent solution.

How did you approach your presentation of London Bridge Station at WAF?

It reminded me of my days as a student getting crits at college. At WAF 2018 it was my job to stick to time and make the key themes and successes clear to the panel. There was so much to say. I hope I managed to cover it and also make it interesting to the public who were watching, too.

How does having your work critiqued help your future work?

I think it is an amazing opportunity for anyone to see such a variety and number of projects and presentation styles. There isn’t much critique, really, mainly questions to help understanding. The harder enquiries happen in the bars later! I always learn something whenever I see others present. Hearing so many architects talk about their buildings in their own words at WAF is unique and unprecedented. More people should take the opportunity to see it.

Why is it important for Grimshaw to be a part of global conversations – and how does WAF facilitate this?

We are a global organisation, so we have to be involved in the global conversation. WAF practically facilitates this for us, as leaders from all our studios attend. It’s like an unofficial Grimshaw get-together. In broader terms, it’s an award of high standing and attracts the very best architects, both new and established, and from that point of view it’s unmissable.

What were the highlights of your visit to WAF?

Although I enjoyed the headline talks, the best part is moving between the pods and hearing about the diversity of work. It’s probably the most learning I’ve experienced about architecture since I left university.

You were on the WAF 2019 Jury, what do you look for when judging projects?

Clear and enjoyable presentation. I’m not much interested in pontification or theories about architecture, with architects speaking in their own language to other architects. I like to see the problem, the concepts and execution clearly illustrated. I remember hearing the WOHA presentation which won the overall prize. It was a masterclass in clarity and deservedly won … even if they did beat me in the process!

How does winning a WAF award help your practice?

A World Architecture Festival award is significant because of the global competition. It is a gold standard in a crowded award landscape. We are an established practice, so there isn’t an element of breaking out, but I do think it will reinforce our established profile on a global stage and confirm that we’re still doing great and important work.

Original interview by
the Architects' Journal

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