Alison Brooks on setting impossible design ambitions

21 May 2024  •  Interview  •  By Collin Anderson
Alison Brooks on setting impossible design ambitions
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Welcome to the Archello Podcast, architecture’s most visual podcast series. Listen as Archello's Paris-based Editor in Chief, Collin Anderson, sits down with architects to discuss their careers and projects. Each audio episode is accompanied by a rich visual storyboard which listeners can use to follow the discussion. 
Introducing Alison Brooks, Principal and Creative Director of Alison Brooks Architects
In this episode we're in London with Alison Brooks, Principal and Creative Director of Alison Brooks Architects, the office she founded in 1996.  
The works produced by Brooks' practice are experimental and sophisticated. The projects exhibit forms and materials that are sensitive to their neighborhoods yet unique enough to make one pause and appreciate a building that is unexpected, well designed and invigorating. The practice’s work has garnered awards that range from the RIBA house of the year to the Stirling Prize. 

Listen and scroll as we talk about Brooks' newly-published monograph, her constant process of experimentation, and the evolution of the practice of architecture:
A look inside Alison Brooks Architects' studio in London
The office is located in a former warehouse in Kentish Town, north of central London. It features bright green-painted concrete floors and 4.5-meter high ceilings from which the architects suspend models, such as its Venice Biennale installation from 2021.
"High ceilings is one of the cornerstones of my design approach, so that's something we really love about the space."
On being a Canadian setting up a practice in the UK
Brooks moved to the UK in 1989 on a Commonwealth Visa after graduating from University of Waterloo. She helped found Ron Arad Associates while working on significant projects such as the Tel Aviv Opera. In 1996, Brooks to set up on her own out of the back bedroom of her home. 
"I probably started with a little bit at a handicap because my first projects were a hotel in Germany, that I managed to get a commission for by writing a letter to somebody I'd met, and then the next project was for a German Israeli client. ...I realized at a certain point, that I had to break out and to establish a more solid footing here in the UK. I needed to compete."
She pursued competitions while working on a number of private houses, such as the Lens House. These residential projects, according to Brooks, served as a testing ground for important ideas and helped her to develop a personalized architectural identity.

"Those residential projects served as a kind of proof of quality when I was pitching for larger scale projects in housing, initially, and then later with performing arts, education, and bigger institutional clients."

On publishing a monograph
Earlier this year the Spanish editor TC Cuadernos published a monograph on the office's work. Brooks describes the challenges of such a publication project, which requires extensive curating, searching through archives, and redrawing visuals originally produced in older software.
"All of that curation means a huge amount of effort and time from virtually everybody in the office. But it is also interesting to show people in the office now who weren't there at the beginning the kind of work that we did, and the approach to detailing in particular...For me, it's very important to show that we as architects have to master the art of building, the craft that's involved. And the precision and the care and the rigor of the concept need to be expressed through the detail."
Brooks notes that the office's projects tend to have complex geometries. One reason for this is because sites in the UK are rarely square but, rather, informed by all sorts of social and economic forces that have influenced them over hundreds of years. Her early works also focus on a language she describes as 'plastic' for their attempts to express architectural elements or reduce them to one surface that speaks to a singular material or conception of space.
To achieve this sort of simple complexity requires advanced detailing. Architecture is made up of many layers with various structures and thicknesses, so unifying these elements into single surfaces or forms is something she believes is most clearly read in the technical drawings, for which publications such as this monograph are critical in sharing.
"I think architects, or at least my generation, relied on publication to expand our horizons beyond our schools of architecture or the practices where we were working....And I think it's really important to have a physical object and artifact that documents the process and allows you to reflect on how we've evolved as a practice."
On housing projects
Since her time as a student, Brooks has believed that housing is the social project of architecture and that architects have a duty to design good housing. The subject of her thesis at Waterloo was a regeneration project in Buffalo, New York, studying the sort of vacant housing projects that resulted from failed postwar urban renewal schemes. Her focus on housing and regeneration has carried through to become one of the pillars of her practice. 
"London, like so many cities around the world underwent a lot of urban renewal projects, postwar urban clearance in the name of health and welfare and the whole kind of postwar reimagining of a future society that unfortunately, as we know, was misguided in terms of its urban design and architectural principles. And so when I moved to London, I became aware of the many sorts of social housing projects that are scattered around the city and that were in decay and seemed very obviously as places of segregation."
Brooks has completed a number of collective housing projects such as Newhall 'Be', a re-thinking of the English suburbs consisting of 80 standalone units with sculptural forms. The project was the result of a competition where invited architects and developers teamed up to bid for the plot.
"I set these sort of ambitions which are impossible, I suppose, and just go for it because you only live once, and you might as well go for the absolute ideal and then see how far you get in reaching that ideal. And you need a client who's open to it."
Because it was a competition, it gave Brooks the opportunity to be experimental. She set out seeking to design a beautiful piece of coherent land art. In the planning and layout Brooks sought to reinvent the suburbs by making the home a place of work and a place of production, the way homes were before the industrial revolution.
She describes the contractor who she brought with her as 'brave' in working with her to develop a project with a number of design ideas that are atypical for single family housing developments, such as timber prefabrication, 2.6-meter high ceilings, home offices, and adaptable roof spaces. 
The project features units of varying geometries clad in brick with a rich, dark color. Regarding their form, Brooks credits the Grange Barn in Essex as an inspiration. The barn is one of Europe's oldest surviving timber-framed buildings, built over 800 years ago, which boasts a high, hipped roof with gables and dormers. Brooks says she fused some of these characteristics with those of a typical Miesian patio house as well as those of an English courtyard house, to come up with something fresh, new and beautiful.
"It's another thing I bring from growing up in Ontario, where there are many beautiful barns in North America that sort of nestle into the landscape and which have a kind of solemnity and presence that's really reassuring and sculptural."
On high-rise housing in Toronto
Brooks is currently in the planning stages for a mixed-use tower that is part of an ambitious large-scale master plan in her hometown of Toronto. It is the result of a competition for which the winning team was the only one shortlisted as a collaboration of three design offices, rather than one. Brooks hopes that such as collaboration will result in a diverse mix of buildings fitting for such a large urban plot.  
"I saw this as an opportunity to reinvent the condominium tower in some way in shape or form, because I think there's been a tradition in Toronto, and many cities, to put up standard glass towers that really lack identity."

According to Brooks, the proposal requires an investment by the client in the social, educational, and cultural offerings the project will provide to the Toronto waterfront. These amenities have to be compensated for with height and density to make the project marketable. The tower she is working on is 70 stories in height, proposed to be clad with a glazed ceramic tile cladding. The tower features punched windows that form 'trellises and greenhouses' that enable residents to properly plant greenery whereby the facade might perform as a natural space to be colonized with birds and greenery.
"Toronto's waterfront used to be a marshy shoreline and now it's landfill with huge buildings. How do we restore some of the ecosystems that were once there, address the climate crisis and also...the lack of biodiversity that our urban places now suffer from?"
On Oxford's Cohen Quad

Brooks Architects recently delivered a 5,500 square meter building programmed with social learning spaces for Oxford University’s historic Exeter College, Cohen Quad. The project was awarded to Brooks' office through an international competition. Her design mixed conservation with innovation, retaining the facades of a listed building while inserting a totally new construction behind them.

The expanded building uses a range of advanced and sustainable materials to update it, yet harmonize it with the college’s 700-year-old campus which is built primarily in a mix of brick and stone. The ambition of the brief was bold: to reinvent the collegiate ideal.

"Each college is its own campus and each college represents a community that is the collegiate community, which is based historically on the monastic community - places of education and learning. So it was fantastic to think about that tradition in terms of the pedagogy...and to think about reinventing it."
The project site was limited by many constraints. There was an existing building, Ruskin College, into which Brooks had to infuse all sorts of new educational programs along with 90 student rooms and landscaped spaces.
"The concept is founded on the idea of the journey...moving from one place to another. And the building becomes a way of enjoying the site, enjoying distant views, being conscious of the weather. Moving forward through a cloister evokes the tradition of walking and talking as a way of learning that was part of the monastic tradition."
The design consists of rethinking the traditional enclosed courtyard-based collegiate quad by opening it up and introducing open informal spaces for social learning, gathering, adaptable, flexible rooms that reinforce ideas of community and of home.
The auditorium is a particularly special space with curved walls that are formed by a glulam structure. It terminates at a narrow skylight that seems to flood the space with different variations of light. It performs as a destination at the end of the 'journey' through the building that Brooks imagined as a pavilion that operates like a chapel.
"There are a lot of things that came together to result in that space. The first of which is the fact that on one side of Exeter College's historic quad is a building by George Gilbert Scott, and it's one of the best examples of neo-gothic architecture in the UK...a beautiful jewel of a building."
The space was designed sectionally, a swooping hand gesture while sketching that softly merges the facade with the roof. The window at the top opens the space up to the southern light. Brooks says the design recalls some of her earlier projects where she was trying to make one surface do many things.
"The roof is quite exuberant in that it's forming this curved surface that is a softened form...It's a kind of playful gesture that comes from many different directions, but ultimately is a sort of celebration of what architecture can do. It's always exciting to see ancient timber roofs like barn roofs or ships and the amazing geometries that timber can actually achieve."
She incorporated exposed timber as a reminder of nature, for the beauty of wood grain and its strength. The structural elements give detail, warmth, texture and rhythm to the interior space.
On 'The Smile', an urban pavilion
Cohen Quad was not the first time Brooks had experimented with timber. Her office completed the 2016 pavilion called 'The Smile' in London, which was an experimental form made with cross-laminated timber (CLT).
The project was a direct invitation from the London Design Festival to design a landmark installation. Brooks was asked to work with 72 cubic meters of existing tulip wood off-cuts as a baseline for the project. According to the brief, anything could be done with the wood as long as it attracted the public and demonstrated the value of design and the potential of wood.
The Smile is a 50-meter long inverted arch that kisses the ground at the center and exhibits long cantilevers made possible through the design of a square tube-structure. 
"The brief even wasn't for a pavilion. It could have been an object, it could have been a sculpture. So I was trying to make a sculpture that could be inhabited and educational in some way, that would demonstrate the possibilities of hardwood CLT to perform an amazing feat of structure while also creating space."
The pavilion was accompanied by a side exhibition in the urban square to explain the source of the tulip wood and its particular qualities of being twice as strong and half as heavy as softwood.
"The project is, I think the closest I've come to achieving the plasticity I'm always searching for in terms of the structure, the material, the space, the geometry, all being one thing."
On an evolving practice
Brooks observes that the architectural landscape is changing as architects begin to approach their work differently in terms of sustainability, in terms of social value, diversity and inclusion. She claims this shift has led to a rediscovery of traditional building methods as architects find new appreciation in pre-industrial practices, like working with loadbearing materials. There's a renewed love for mass and weight in architecture, she says, such as expressing longevity through stone or concrete. Although there's still work to be done with concrete, its thermal mass, permanence, stability, and robustness are invaluable.
"It's amazing how the world has changed in the last 25 years since I started this practice...Because of the climate crisis, because of the inequity crisis, there's so many huge issues that we need to address that were lurking in the shadows at the turn of the century and have now made themselves even more apparent."
According to Brooks, technology has played a crucial role in this evolution, because it enables architects to revive traditional techniques and materials which have always been sustainable and adaptable. For example, mass timber and structural timber are materials architects need to 'remaster', working with their natural properties rather than forcing them into unsuitable applications.
Brooks underscores the continuous learning and adaptation within her practice. The office has a sustainability working group, and many of its staff are getting Passive House certification.

"We are trying to demonstrate that architects have an ability to be inclusive, not only in terms of the social and design value we're bringing, but also embracing technology and embracing the kind of metrics and the science of what we're doing."