The architect of his own success

The architect of his own success

Glenn Howells, Birmingham’s best-known architect, chats about childhood and career choices, his love of music, and much more. Ian Halstead reports.

Some 450 years after his death, St Francis Xavier is still known for his astute observation about an infant’s formative years: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” Glenn Howells may not have been raised in the Xavier’s Jesuit faith, but his childhood was surely the catalyst for his choice of career.

For more than a decade, almost from the time he learned to toddle, Glenn was immersed in an environment of construction and regeneration of a very domestic nature. Now of course, he’s one of Britain’s leading architects, and Glenn Howells Architects (GHA) has established a 20-year track record of success from offices in Birmingham and London.

Its portfolio ranges from a stone-built arts complex in Armagh to a spectacular reinvention of a 1970s office block in Manchester – which the British Council for Offices recently rated the best regional commercial workplace – and from a visitor centre in Great Windsor Park to a new concept in ‘green’ motorway service stations.

As Birmingham’s new centre arises from the concrete rubble of the old, GHA has master-planned the pivotal Paradise scheme, the new Life Sciences Campus, and created a development vision for the sprawling Eastside area, including its links with HS2 and the new Curzon Street Station.

GHA is heading many other major regeneration projects in London and elsewhere, which in Q1 2015 saw the practice move up to second place in Building Magazine’s ‘Business Barometer’, based on contract wins throughout the UK. It certainly seems Xavier was right … “My dad was a builder, and paid £460 for an absolute ruin of a house in Wordsley [near Stourbridge],” recalls Glen, now aged 53.

“It needed everything doing from the roof down, was surrounded by fields and had huge gardens, so it was a great place to grow up.

“I was surrounded by building materials right from the start, and soon understood how people assembled things. I was an only child, and mum worked in the office at a glassworks, so during the long summer holidays, I’d tag along with dad who was usually working on construction sites.

“He’d served seven years as an apprentice before qualifying as a carpenter, as long as it took me to become an architect, so I learned everything about how a craftsman worked, and how structures were put together.”

Glenn’s dad still lives in the house he created, and although his mother passed away this year, she was at least able to spend her final weeks at their home.

There are unexpected downsides to spending decades in one property though, as Glenn discovered when tidying up a pile of papers there. “I found all my old grammar school reports, and showed them to my daughter, but she wasn’t impressed by some of the comments I’d received,” he admits.

By his mid-teens, Glenn hadn’t decided on a career, and his spare time was taken up playing lead guitar in pubs and clubs with a bunch of mates; from country and western and rockabilly to more contemporary sounds.

Glenn Howell 02

“I was fascinated by music, and there was a lot happening on the Black Country scene, and you’d often see Robert Plant driving past in his gold Rolls-Royce,” says Glenn. He dreamed, as did so many, of buying a new Marshall speaker, and whilst flicking through the New Musical Express to see what price his dreams might have, chanced upon an advert which was to change his life.

Plymouth Polytechnic was promoting its architectural degree course, it really appealed – and Glenn was soon settling down in Devon, combining his instinctive love of design and craft skills with his passion for music. “I fell in with other students who liked playing, and still keep in touch with them,” he says.

“We set up a six-piece band called the Sharks, doing mainly blues and soul. Plymouth had an exchange arrangement with Mississippi and our singer came from there … great voice and real charisma on stage.”

It takes some doing to keep in touch with ex-college mates for three decades, especially in those distant pre-internet days, and friendship is a recurring theme as Glenn mulls over his life.

Two chums from his early days, working for an architect called Robin Spence, run GHA’s London office and another college friend, who moved into the restaurant industry, gave him a much appreciated wodge of work as his fledgling practice was getting underway. GHA even takes the friendship mindset forward and enshrines Glenn’s approach into its day-to-day business model.

“Look through our projects, and you will see the same names reappearing as clients,” says its web-site. “We like to build long-lasting and trusting relationships … and we trust in our collaborators too, so we can work efficiently alongside other consultants.”

Of course, it’s not unknown for similar comments to appear in the business community, but it’s evident that these come right from the heart – not from a vault of ‘on-message’ corporate clichés.

Back in the early 1980s though, Glenn was a long way from understanding how his studies might become the grounding for a career, although his own architectural vision was evolving.

“I thought then that design had lost its way. My instincts were modernistic, and I looked to architects of the 60s and 70s, such as Pier Luigi Nervi and Oscar Niemeyer. They were my heroes, because they designed structural buildings which had integrity and were also very expressive.

“However, there was also a powerful movement in the 80s which put function before form, and insisted that what had gone before should be forgotten. College toughened me up in that respect, because I realised you needed to have self-belief, and that you could put forward ideas, even if they were against the trend.”

Glenn earned a travelling scholarship, and chose to spend a year in Holland with another of his heroes, Herman Herzberger – but unfortunately his timing was a little off. “It was 1982, the country was deep in recession, and as I was carrying my portfolio into his offices, staff were passing me on the stairs, taking their work out,” he says.

”I enjoyed my time in Holland, and still remember going to a museum near Arnhem, and being impressed by its design. It was understated, but exquisite, and the way the architect had used natural light was just wonderful.”

Back in the UK, Glenn worked for a small practice in a Cornish fishing village, but was then advised by his boss to head for London and join a big-name architectural brand.

He got that half right – teaming up with a firm run by Robin Spence, the nephew of Sir Basil Spence, a high-profile architect who had designed Coventry’s new cathedral. Robin himself had won a commission to redesign the Houses of Parliament in the early 1970s, but it was later cancelled, and by the mid-80s, he was working in Hampstead, employing half-a-dozen architects.

“He’d got an unusual business model, in that he would enter any design competition that was going, and then use the money from a few live jobs to fund the next batch of applications,” recalls Glenn.

“He’d won quite a few, and I really started to understand how to enter those competitions, and what it could do for a practice if you won. Robin let us put forward ideas for one in Birmingham, for what later became The Cube site, and we came second out of 150-odd entries, which was a great achievement.

“When the 90s recession hit, Robin simply ran out of work and had to close his business. Two years later though, out of the blue, he tracked me down and paid what he owed me, which was very generous.”

By then, Glenn had established GHA through a London office; and after turning his attention to achieving success in design competitions, he began to build the business into the sizeable practice it is today.

He later set up its head office in Birmingham, which moved to its current location – a multi-storey building in Digbeth’s Bradford Street – in 2000. The head office now takes up 8,000 sq ft on the top floor, with the model-making team on the first floor, a decent sprinkling of tenants in other areas, and the ground-floor left vacant for exhibitions, events and meetings.

“We own the building, which is a great laboratory for what we do and provides a very flexible environment,” says Glenn. “We’ve no landlord to worry about, and with 110 people employed between here and London, we do need a fair amount of space.

“It’s important to work from both London and Birmingham, because many of our clients are based down there, but for the quality of life, we live up here in Edgbaston.”

Imagining how the future Birmingham might look is a subject which particularly arouses Glenn’s passion. He says: “I’m fascinated by what we can all do to make Birmingham what it once was, a fantastic international city. Creating the right linkages will be critical.

The Big City Plan was a great starting point, but people need to stop thinking just about ‘iconic buildings’ and more about making the city into an integrated piece. “I have no problem with tall buildings, but they can’t transform a city by themselves. You need public spaces, and ‘fine grain’ stuff too. You always have to think of context, and how buildings sit alongside other buildings.

“I’m very keen that Birmingham doesn’t have one big idea, then throw it away for another, which has happened. Paradise is all about connectivity, and I like the way that scheme, and the Life Sciences Campus, are being created by public-private partnerships, including the LEP.

”Birmingham has always been defined by water, road or rail, and as we look forward to HS2, we need to be as brave and as inventive as our 19th century ancestors were when they tackled infrastructure challenges.”

Amid such enthusiasm, and eyeing up a massive wall of trophies and accolades, it seems churlish to ask if there was ever a scheme which ‘got away’, but there was. “Innsbruck Ski Jump,” says Glenn, with the nearest he ever comes to a sigh. “We entered a design competition in 1990, and I sold my car to pay everyone for the work.

“They wanted to provide facilities for 50,000 people. We got to the last ten, but they gave the contract to a local firm, which put forward ideas for 10,000 people, and said the others could use plastic macs ...”