Architecture is a tricky game. Even this key figure in British hi-tec, the designer of stunning buildings around the world, has had to cope with bad publicity and the rise of the Zaha Hadid generation. So how does he continue to play it so well?

Nick Grimshaw leans back in his chair, the afternoon sun glinting on his trademark round spectacles, admiring his new office. He has had the builders in for five months, revamping his practice’s headquarters in Fitzrovia, one of the West End’s traditional homes for creative types, and extending it to accommodate 120 staff under one roof. His desk now faces a 30 ft glass wall, overlooking a floor packed end to end with architects.

“We are going to have a map of the world etched on the glass in frosted film, with markers for all our projects,” he says. The highlights will be many and scattered, including an art gallery in Spain, a 250 m extension to Zürich Airport, a landmark bridge in The Netherlands and a £27m Plant Science Centre in St Louis, Missouri.

The map will also point to the international portfolio that has built up in the 20 years that Grimshaw has been in business. It is typical of him that this gesture of confidence should be expressed in architecture – the language with which he is most comfortable.

The Grimshaw brand

A youthful 60, with just a streak of silver in his auburn hair, Grimshaw’s pale grey collarless shirt, pale grey trousers and grey soft leather shoes reflect his reserved, low-key personality. He has not courted the limelight like his contemporaries, Lords Rogers and Foster.

“Some people want to have a high profile and involve themselves in public life,” he says. ‘That’s up to them. I prefer to let my buildings speak for themselves.”

Ranked as one of the big four of the 1960s British hi-tec generation, alongside Lords Rogers and Foster and Sir Michael Hopkins, Grimshaw is the only one who has not been ennobled. He is, however, unmoved. “I don’t think one could say a title was central to one’s operation as an architect. We are not one person; we are a firm. I think there is a sense of pride that one gets as a firm from being recognised, and that’s all right, but I think it is neither here nor there, really.”

This pragmatic attitude is reflected in his reputation with the industry. A construction manager colleague says he is very hands-on, and has no airs and graces. “Of all the superstars, he is the most down to earth. He comes on site and when there’s a problem, he’ll get out a piece of paper and sketch a solution that people can work with.”

A new exhibition of the practice’s work between 1993 and 2000, called Equilibrium, opens on 15 September at the Design Museum in London. It showcases “projects since the famous Waterloo International Terminal, completed in 1993”.

By drawing a line at Waterloo, Grimshaw seems to be distancing himself from last year’s furore about broken panels in the terminal’s glazed canopy. Indeed, the exhibition’s notes defiantly proclaim the practice’s emphasis on “structural finesse, sustainability and the employment of new technology”.

Grimshaw himself has an idiosyncratic image of his architecture. “I am very keen on boats. I want my buildings to have the feel of a Camper & Nicholson yacht. It is to do with the longevity of the brand, quality of the detailing – never a nasty finish on anything.”

The practice has come a long way from the low-cost industrial enclosures that made its name, but of all the architects to emerge from the 1960s, Grimshaw has remained the truest to the principles of hi-tec. He concentrates on the intricacies of a building and refining them, combining architecture with product design to flaunt the structural components.

Grimshaw is the driving force behind this fusion between the two disciplines. “I am very keen on the industrial design side of life,” he says. “I am the liaison between the industrial design group and the office.”

Alan Jones, director of engineer Anthony Hunt Associates, says this interest in the articulation of structural components is his distinguishing feature. “He’s somebody who likes to understand what he is putting together – all aspects of it.”

The outer limits of technology

This approach has produced spectacularly beautiful structures, as the Equilibrium exhibition shows. There are the asymmetrical, tubular steel arches of Waterloo International, the snaking elegance of the Ijburg Bridge between Ijmeer Lake and Amsterdam, and the Caixa Galicia gallery in La Coruña, Spain, whose sloping metal-clad facade looks “like a wave rolled up on the harbour front”.

If you are going to have these architectures that create space which is not actually needed or doing anything, the building has to be good enough to carry it off. It is a tricky game to play

Yet for all their beauty, Grimshaw’s buildings have often been accused of projecting a technological image while being technically flawed. The ship-shaped £33.5m Western Morning News headquarters in Plymouth, for example, completed in 1993, featured south-facing window walls that cause glare on the journalists’ screens.

“Yes, that was annoying, because we planted a row of trees, but they just had to grow a bit,” concedes Grimshaw. “We had designed sail-like blinds that the users could control, to create shade, but they had not wanted to buy them until they had seen how the building worked.”

When Waterloo International was finished in 1992, it was feted as a symbol of 21st-century pan-European travel – one of the most beautiful railway enclosures ever built. But last year, when some panels in the glazed canopy started to crack and fall on to the platforms below, it started to symbolise the risks inherent in pushing technology to its limits.

Grimshaw bristles at the mention of Waterloo, but insists that the problems were not a design issue. “No one is suggesting that an architect in 1988 should not have specified toughened glass. There is not an architect in the country who hasn’t specified toughened glass in some situation or another who would not be affected by nickel sulphide.” The reference is to an impurity that can appear in the glass during the toughening process. A mediation process has just started and Grimshaw expects it to bear out this point.

What about reports of impact damage? Grimshaw confirms that there was some near a local pub. Reports of a deer leg hitting the roof are also true. “They thought a hawk might have been carrying it,” says Grimshaw. Despite the surreal humour of these findings, the storm of publicity was deadly serious. A harrowing experience indeed for Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners.

So, would he use toughened glass, rather than the safer toughened laminated glass, in a similar situation? “We would always do what an expert told us to do,” says Grimshaw. “If an expert told us to use laminated glass overhead like they did at the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, we would. You can only take the best advice you can and do what they say. The role of testing and technical experts has certainly increased.”

Grimshaw resurgent

After this storm of bad publicity, projects completed since have been well received, including the £40m first phase of the remodelling of Paddington Station with its state of the art flat-screen signage and furniture developed by the firm’s product design arm. Then there is the £76m Eden project, with its delicate, geodesic domes encasing tropical foliage sited in a Cornish claypit, which has enchanted the public. Or the practice’s £90m spa in Bath with its rooftop pool. This has been hailed by English Heritage as an example of the symbiosis between conservation and modern architecture.

Proof that Grimshaw’s reputation had weathered the storm over Waterloo came when he won two landmark projects in a fortnight: the £200m redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and the hotly contested extension of the Royal College of Art.

Now it seems that Parkview, the Hong Kong developer behind the Battersea project, wants as much of Grimshaw as it can get. President Victor Hwang wants to reassemble the facade, solar shading and water wall of Grimshaw’s British Pavilion for the Seville Expo 1992 in the Battersea complex. He is understood to have made an offer to the Asian businessman who has the pavilion stored in 92 containers off the A40 and plans to use it as a venue for Asian weddings.

So, it seems that, teething troubles aside, hi-tec design lives on – even in the face of the challenge currently being mounted by highly individual younger architects. Four of the new generation exhibiting at this year’s Venice Biennale – Alsop & Störmer, Zaha Hadid, Branson Coates and David Chipperfield – were confident that their individualist, ideas-led architecture was gaining currency over the hi-tec generation’s preoccupation with the building process, structural efficiency and project management. As one said, “Our generation thinks you do that anyway, so let us concentrate on the ideas.” Grimshaw gives this a cool response. “But they have hardly built anything, have they? I think they are slightly forcing ideas on to clients who do not know what is happening,” he says, making no connection with the overheating journalists at the Western Morning News.

“One of the problems with followers of Zaha, not necessarily herself because I think she is an interesting architect but she has some very poor imitators, is that they think the drawing is the building. I’m not sure the right degree of building process is high on their agenda. And with CAD, you can generate some amazing shapes that don’t really do anything for anybody when the chips are down. I think you have to design buildings in your head 100% really, on a conceptual basis. You can spot a building where the spaces have just been fed into the computer and they’ve notched them together in some way.

“If you are going to have these architectures that create space which is not actually needed or doing anything, the building has to be good enough to carry it off. It is a tricky game to play.”

So, what does he think are the next big ideas in architecture? “I think we have a long way to go on materials,” he says. “I have always been interested in buildings changing their skin, materials that can go dark or light or breathe … I think there is a lot of potential there.

“But also I think there is a lot of potential socially in buildings – that they are much more user-friendly places. And the whole home-work idea: I’m quite keen on the idea of designing buildings that can be either residential or offices. Offices might be much more like residential buildings, with nice places to eat and sit around in.”

Having risen above the Waterloo crisis, Grimshaw will continue to play the tricky game of architecture, fuelled by “sheer joy in actually putting up buildings”.

Personal effects

What type of house do you live in and where? I live in a Victorian house in Primrose Hill with my wife, Lavinia. She’s a Chinese expert – she speaks and writes Mandarin quite well. I have two daughters: Isabel, 22, doing English at Trinity College, Dublin, and Chloe, 27, a journalist. And we have a barn in north Norfolk near Burnham Market. Which other architects do you admire? Renzo Piano. He has the wonderful combination of detail and conceptual thinking. I have also come to admire Brunel a lot. There are a lot of people in between, like Charles Eames and Bucky Fuller. Do you have a favourite building? The last building I thought was really wonderful was Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, by Frank Lloyd Wright. I was knocked out by it. How do you relax? I sail. I have two boats moored at Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk. They are only dinghys but I have got a 1934 Olympic boat. And I play tennis. What car do you drive? A Mercedes taxi to get to and from Norfolk. Up there, I have a 1969 Citroën DS, which I am very fond of. What book are you reading? The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It is a wonderful novel about fencing, which centres a lot on the technique and dynamics. What type of music do you like? Primarily classical. I go to a lot of live music concerts and opera, because you can walk from the office to Covent Garden.