Simon Henley on how good architecture should respond to timeless questions

24 Apr 2024  •  Interview  •  By Collin Anderson
Simon Henley on how good architecture should respond to timeless questions
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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 Simon Henley, Principal and Co-founder of Henley Halebrown
In this episode we're in Shoreditch, East London with Simon Henley who is Principal of Henley Halebrown, the office he co-founded in 1995. The buildings realized by Simon’s practice engage with their surroundings and prioritize environmental responsibility.
There is clear a commitment both to craftsmanship and community engagement in the projects, which range from housing to offices but all which share a special focus on social spaces. Henley Halebrown’s projects are well recognized and have been honored with the Neave Brown Award for Housing and twice been shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize.
Listen and scroll as we talk with Simon about starting his practice in the 1990s, his work on adaptive reuse projects, and the importance of community in architecture:
Inside Henley Halebrown's studio in Shoreditch
Henley Halebrown's studio is located in Perseverance Works, a creative hub in an adapted collection of industrial buildings in East London. The hub is home to architecture and graphic design companies, as well as offices for photography and television production. Henley Halebrown purchased a floor of a building in 2005 and has been operating here for 19 years. The studio is naturally lit via large metal framed windows, and the space is filled with study models.
On starting a practice just out of school
Henley met his business partner, Gavin Hale Brown, at school in Liverpool in 1986. Henley describes Liverpool at that time as a great, yet decaying city.
"I lived in a five-story grand terrace looking over a park. It's not the kind of place you expect a student to live. Every day, you walked down these great avenues. We were living in, working in, and visiting fantastic buildings. When we were there, James Stirling finished Tate Liverpool. There were lots of fantastic things going on. There was this legacy and an extraordinary urban fabric."
Following school, Henley and Hale Brown launched a practice which was initially focused on interiors and working with clients like advertising agencies and television production companies.
"Ultimately we were working with people who were going to use our buildings, not speculative projects. Interiors led to adaptive reuse and adaptive reuse has led to new buildings."
Talkback, offices for a television studio, London 1999–2001
The project incorporates four buildings, two on the street and two on a courtyard, to accommodate 250 people, a TV studio, editing facilities and rehearsal space. The project takes its cue from a collegiate research environment with each office given direct access to a central cloistered garden.
"We turned the buildings inside out. We created a garden. We lined that with decks at every level, as a sort of a multi-story cloister and punched all the windows out. Every window became a door so that wherever you were in the building, on whatever floor, you could step outside, and you could cross bridges to get from one building to the next."
"There were waves of young production teams, a bit like undergraduates. There was this continual evolution of research and production. Each of the productions had a kind of face with its own front door that everybody could see. It was a business that wrapped up a whole series of businesses. Each was temporary, existing only for the duration of the production. A lot of the people who worked were effectively fluid. They were moving from company to company and from production to production. So there was a continual sort of flow and turnover of people very, very energetic. We set this in, kind of ironically, a monastic natural garden made of timber."
The project has since been adapted once again into a hotel, a testaament to the flexibility embedded in its design.
"Essentially, we were we were translating what we found into a garden building. We were orientating everybody to this garden and it's very easy to see how a small office could became a large hotel room. Whatever a building is designed for, whether it's as a place to learn, work, or live, you're basically building something for people. In all those various parts of life, a person might really enjoy the strong connection between inside and outside, that quality of light and fresh air.  It is an idea that has gone from project to project, this strong connection between garden, landscape, interior and city."
Copper Lane, co-housing, London 2009–2014
Henley Halebrown designed London’s first co-housing scheme, which consists of six homes. The architecture supports a community with shared facilities, attempting a radical change of the urban home. The project shows that architecture can respond to changing lifestyles and economics, making home ownership more affordable as well as shaping more convivial and sustainable neighborhoods.
The buildings create a courtyard at an upper ground level, while the entire community is wrapped in gardens. 
"It had to be sort of viscerally, spatially, evidently something communal. We planned the houses in way that was completely open plan...which makes for a generous sequence of domestic spaces, though they're still relatively small homes."
Chadwick Hall Roehampton, student housing, London 2012–2016
The project, commissioned by the University of Roehampton, was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2018 and nominated for the EU Mies Award in 2019. It consists of three student residences situated in the grounds of a Grade II-listed eighteenth century Georgian villa and adjacent to a renowned listed estate. The design co-opts the garden, part of this historic parkland setting, to make a convivial plan for the student community.
What had originally been a sunken garden between existing structures became a courtyard with the placement of new buildings on either side. The ensemble forms a master plan and the new buildings, according to Henley, are rooted in the geometry and logic of the existing landscape.
"We were trying to reclaim the logic of how you built in the 18th century....We accepted the inevitability of building fairly conventional structures with concrete frames. But we then built load bearing brick structures around those, completely independent 'ruins'. It actually worked financially and programmatically, building an inner building and crafting the outer walls, the ruins, around it. In a way that became a touchstone for this whole question about how we build, how we make walls, and whether we can make walls, facades and therefore buildings make more sense to somebody looking at them."
Henley describes the materials chosen for the facades as polychromatic. The walls are made from muted brown-red bricks, while the detailing is a brighter red to provide more contrast.
"What we tend to do is use a very narrow palette of color and tone, so that when we do use different materials, that materiality becomes extremely evident.
The program includes a number of common and social spaces. Circulation zones like stairs are open and meant to encourage chance encounters. 
The student rooms are minimalist and standard, yet each comes with a Juliette balcony that creates a strong connection with the garden landscape.
The rooms are not in themselves very generous, but they are very special. So I guess their generosity is not in square meterage, but in the sensation and experience because every room has an eye and an ear and a nose on the world. You know that you are intimately connected with the natural world.
On writing and teaching
In addition to his practice, Henley has spent many years teaching as well as writing, both about his practice and architectural concepts in a more general sense.
"Teaching and writing gives you the time to think, reflect, structure your thoughts, do research, and communicate ideas about architecture. We've been kind of cautious about explaining why we do things and what we do and find it easier to talk about other people's work. And it's a bit like a manifesto in disguise. Almost every time I've written a book or written an essay, in a way, I'm thinking about the things that matter to us, seeing it in other people's work, exploring it. In that way, it seems a less egotistical way to explore things that are important."
As a student, Henley found a book from 1965 in a university library titled 'Multi-story car parks and garages' by the German writer Dietrich Klose. He describes it as 'a beautiful landscape black book, glossy paper, beautiful black and white paper and incredibly fine line drawings and very matter of fact text about car parks.' The matter-of-factness of the book and its projects greatly impacted him.
This is in a period of kind of postmodernism and deconstruction and kind of buildings, which were anything but rational. Yet I found in these buildings a kind of rationality that just really appealed and a kind of discipline in the way they were presented. I made a car park as a project student, and then, well, less than ten years later, I found the book again in a second-hand bookshop and bought it."
The book and its contents represent to Henley fundamental ways of thinking about architecture, and asks fundamental questions about design and programming. He went on to write his own book on the car park, The Architecture of Parking, published by Thames and Hudson in 2007 and which won the RIBA International Book Award for Construction 2008.
I think in a way, we're at risk of forgetting the fundamentals in the amount of information and the speed of technological change and social change... In the process of asking ourselves lots of new questions, we rarely have the time to ask ourselves the timeless questions. One of the things that Louis Kahn talked about was the immeasurable. We definitely live in an age of measure. Maybe we've lived in an age of measure for a thousand years...But now we seem to live in an age of measure in a much more constraining way. And everything has to be known. In a way, everything has to be codified, regulated, has to work. And really fundamental questions, existential questions, are things which come round again and again.
Henley considers his book as a primer. It's written in four parts, about matter, elevation, light and, finally, the obliquity of the ramp and the spatial experience one associate's with that.
Adolf Loos talks about the only type of architecture really is the is the is the tomb or the monument to which I would add the car park, because while people think it's a functional building, it's almost devoid of any function. It's a very simple building...but as a result, it asks a profound set of questions that a designer would like to be asked in a more free way, when making a house or a school or an office building."