At the tender age of 42, Stirk has already served five years as one of the practice’s seven senior directors. His latest achievements are the completion of three substantial London buildings for people to live and work in.
They are two City office blocks, Lloyd’s Register of Shipping and 88 Wood Street, and the Montevetro residential tower on the Battersea riverfront. As well as working on the initial design of Montevetro, Stirk has been the director responsible for both office developments.
Despite his precocious elevation to senior director status, Stirk projects little of the celebrity charisma of the practice’s founding directors. Small, slight and softly-spoken, the Leeds-born architect dubs himself “a backroom person”.
Unlike Lord Rogers, heir to a famous Italian architectural dynasty, Stirk did not start his career with great ambitions. A fact deleted – to his amazement – from his official curriculum vitae drawn up by the practice is that he left school at the age of 16 to train in building construction. Only after gaining an ordinary national certificate, after three years of evening classes, did he start an architectural course, studying at Oxford Polytechnic and then the Architectural Association in London.
From college, Stirk moved straight into Rogers’ office, where he has now worked for 17 years. The two City office blocks are the first buildings that he has seen from initial design to completion. His earlier years in the practice were devoted to a slew of scheme and competition designs for grand projects across the world, most of which turned out to be abortive.
His lowly building background, his diffident manner and his capacity to keep his head down and work hard could all have conspired to keep Stirk in the back room of the practice for his entire career. Fortunately for him, things turned out differently.
“On my 30th birthday, I was working late in the office. Richard came by my desk and asked me if I would like to take on more responsibility in the practice. So I was promoted to director.” The step up to the top, senior director level came only seven years after that. Stirk’s special design talents are well recognised beyond the practice, too, as is his break with the stereotype of the arrogant statement architect. “Graham catches flies with treacle rather than with vinegar,” comments Mike Fletcher, Laing Management’s director in charge of 88 Wood Street. “His soft manner wins people over without being threatening. But underneath, he knows exactly what he wants. He’s great at the concept design stage, and he has an eye for the practicalities of construction too – and that’s a nice balance.”
For his part, Stirk finds concept design anything but a doddle. “The idea that you sit down and pull out a standard brand product is far from the truth. We are selling prototypes each time. Design is not a linear process. It is a matter of gradual refinement out of initial panics and many wrong directions. For me, it is a very disconcerting, morale-sapping business.”
Supervising a project on site seems slightly less disconcerting for him, as long as a robust design strategy has been worked out in advance. But even here, there can be sudden upsets. “When the district surveyor said we couldn’t have open risers on the stairs at 88 Wood Street, it kept me awake for two weeks. It would have destroyed the transparency of the stair towers. In the end, the district surveyor accepted our proposal to insert small metal upstands between the steps.”
If this sounds like a typical architect’s whinge against building control, Stirk is quick to put the record straight. “It may look as if you’ve flouted the regulations. But you haven’t – you’ve gone back to first principles to find other strategies for dealing with the basic concern of the regulations. In this sense, the regulations are dynamic, and that’s great.”
Stirk also differs from the practice’s founders in the sense that he has grown up in a professional world where architects are kept firmly in check by cautious clients, project managers, design-and-build contractors and product manufacturers that take responsibility for detailed design. He does not conceal his admiration for the daring, exuberance and rugged rectilinear forms of the early Rogers buildings, such as the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd’s building, designed when architects were still relatively free agents. But what, if anything, does Stirk’s generation bring to the practice?
“We are slightly more pluralistic. We are looser in urban form, and we’ve introduced a diversity of shapes to buildings. We’ve brought new materials and sculptural forms,” he says, referring to the curvilinear timber-clad courtrooms of the newly completed Bordeaux courthouse.
“The younger generation has tried to move things forward in the practice. However, the methodology of design and the demystification of how the building works is still very much a continuation from the original four directors. If we’d lost their clarity of vision, then I think we would die as a practice.” Such a combination of progress and underlying consistency augurs well for a high-profile practice now moving into its second generation.