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OSA REVIEW: Hawkins/Brown, OxArch Talk

As part of OxArch Careers Week, Harbinder Birdi from Hawkins/Brown talks about the value architecture graduates bring to their award winning practice

(C) Hawkins/Brown

“Go to Clerkenwell, where all the architects drink, and flirt with someone”


Exploring Hawkins/Brown’s CrossRail project, Harbinder Singh Birdi talked about connectivity; physically and socially, within and out of the design studio. Joined by ex-Brookes students and now Hawkins/Brown employees, Andrew Davis and Robyn Thurston, he highlighted the specific role architects can play in urban transport and the role of students within their practice.

This engaging and enthusiastic lecture became a key event for the School Of Architecture during OxArch's Careers Week. It painted a picture of the experience a student might have in practices such as Hawkins/Brown and the role one might have in the working environment. Birdi’s well humoured address - “Go to Clerkenwell, where all the architects drink, and flirt with someone”- mirrored the relaxed way in which he suggested students approach finding the right practice for them. The practice has opened an office in Manchester, and they are currently hiring - a factor perhaps partially responsible for the lectures high attendance. However, the value placed on each individual employee was made clear, as he implied it was opened so as not to loose talented employees needing to relocate.

Throughout the lecture, Birdi emphasised the importance of connecting people of all levels in the design process. He explained Hawkins/Brown’s unique studio structure – the office team is divided into “studios”, groups of under 20 people. Each of these is assigned to a sector, and a specific project within that sector. The studios deal with projects as a team composed of Part 1s, 2s and 3s, allowing for a working environment that juxtaposes the ‘Master Architect’ hierarchy.

Describing the impact that the Crossrail project will have on London and the West-East connection, Birdi showed a number of impressively complex renders and images (created by Part I students) of “the Machine” - a huge development project stitching together the oldest underground railway network in the world with new, high speed trains. Speaking of the importance of keeping the system operating throughout the construction phase, he compared it to performing “open heart surgery” on the city. This backdrop clearly illustrated the benefits in safety and speed of offsite manufacture.

Although the scale of the CrossRail project might seem to dwarf the user, there are many aspects on the more human scale. Hawkins/Brown have pedestrianised the streets around station entrances, creating public squares for people to inhabit. The office collaborates with artists such as Daniel Buren and Mark Wallinger on the project, commissioning them to design artwork which will become part of the public realm also becoming 'wayfinding' and orientation aids. Attaching an amusing anecdote to every decision, Birdi justified the black walls and a darker colour palette within the station by describing Soho as a night time playground where ‘people arrive at 11:30 at night, party, then get the first train home at 6am’.

(C) Crossrail

Birdi has clear appreciation for the role of students within the development projects and the office itself and the value they bring, affectionately introducing all the Brookes alumni currently working for Hawkins/Brown and the projects that they are working on. The students present in the audience were reminded that they are of key value to employers and to know their worth.


“the only thing that matters in business is you”


Birdi reminded us that we should be pro-active in the time we spend on placements – if there is experience we would like to have within a different field of design, we should ask. He warned against jumping from practice to practice trying to gain very different experiences and instead advised on finding a practice where we are valued, somewhere we are happy and truly connect with the practice. Speaking from the perspective of the role of an employer, he also emphasised the importance of respecting and allowing the student employees to develop and pursue their interests – attributing the offices high rate and level of Part III passes to this. On reflection, connectivity was at the heart of Birdi’s lecture and illustrated the way in which Hawkins/Brown approach design and their working environment.

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