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Henning Stummel - Henning Stummel Architects

5th Sep 2014

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Henning Stummel Architects is a small practice that delivers a hard-to-rival sense of personal attention. Fronted by Henning Stummel himself, who brings to his practice a wide breadth of knowledge through his education at the TH Darmstadt, ETH in Zurich, as well as collaborations with Norman Foster [1992-93] and David Chipperfield [1993 to 2000]. Henning has lectured and taught at various places, including directing a design unit at Cambridge University. The practice has been published internationally and received numerous awards such as a Housing Design Award [2004], Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA] Building of the Year: London Region 2005. It reached the finalist stage for the RIBA Stephen Lawrence Award in 2005. More recently the practice has been awarded the 2008 Daily Telegraph / Homebuilding and Renovating Award and the 2009 Grand Designs Award for ‘Best Conversion’. 

In line with marketing one of his properties, we thought we'd catch up with one our favourite architects...

Henning, what inspired you to work as an architect?
Lego at age four

Where did you learn your skills?
I studied architecture and town planning at the technical universities of Darmstadt, Germany and Zurich. Working with David Chipperfield was like an extension of college.

You have won numerous awards, notably from the RIBA, how important do you deem awards within architecture?
Awards are wonderful recognition. Moreover, they help to promote good architecture by the thoughtful creation of a better environment. Unfortunately though we have a disconnection between architects and a large part of the public, so promoting very good work is important.

Which architect influenced you to start such a career?
Louis Kahn. There is a spiritual dimension and a timelessness to his work.

What was it like working for some of the UK’s architectural heavyweights? 
When I joined David's office, there were seven of us. We were all kids out of college from all over the world and it was like going on an adventure. David wanted to seize every opportunity and set out his position; What does a contemporary brick building look like? What about a contemporary concrete building?... He had enormous faith in us and we were determined not to let him down. We understood that our work was on the cutting edge of architecture.

Who makes up your team at Henning Stummel Architects?
Our office is very small; often it's only Eliana de Sousa from Porto and me. Eliana has been been working with me for five years, so we know each other very well. Sometimes we have a student and my wife Alice Dawson, who is a line producer for British feature films and helps us in between her projects.

What has been your biggest career challenge?
Starting the own practice - it's a chicken and egg situation. You need to have a built project to show to clients....

In turn, what has been your biggest career highlight?
Winning the RIBA London Award for a 15 sq m extension back in 2005. I took me eighteen months to gain planning permission on appeal for this small intervention. This recognition, which came as a complete surprise, was very gratifying.

What architectural trends can you foresee?
Our profession is evolving rapidly. London is becoming a much more densely populated city. Buildings are becoming more of a consumer product with a shorter lifecycle to be replaced more frequently. Post-war buildings are rapidly disappearing [and sadly this includes some really nice buildings]. The environmental agenda continues to be very important and hopefully this will further more compact and walkable cities with a better public realm. As for the appearance of buildings, the façades are only the outer layer of a complicated, highly insulated and air-tight sandwich. The outer layer should be resilient, durable and waterproof. There are many ways of achieving this. I've wrapped one building in cedar shingles, another in corrugated metal and a third in a standing seam metal.

How do you think your Swiss roots have influenced the architecture you produce today?
I was born in Frankfurt, but spent some of my childhood in the UK. I'm a first generation immigrant who really loves London, wants to fit in, but looks at it with the eyes of a foreigner. As a child in the seventies I was often in denial about being German, I wanted to fit in. Later I discovered the precise architecture of Schinkel and Mies van der Rohe and I realised an affinity and finally an inkling of pride about my heritage. At heart I am quite German: I like to be methodic, and I absolutely love things to be well crafted, simple and durable.

Where are you based?
I'm in the process of moving from Camden to Shepherd's Bush, where we're building a great new house for the family. The new neighbourhood has lots of ethnic and independent food stores and I enjoy the whole food thing - the purchase, the preparation and finally the consumption, so I'm looking forward to this change 

What other city / place could you live in in terms of architecture?
I found Lisbon hauntingly beautiful. Berlin, which I visit regularly, has a great vibe. It's cosmopolitan, but much more affordable than London, so you come across more experimentation.

What building or structure do you wish you had designed?
I don't think in this way. Fantastic heritage is handed down and we owe a debt of gratitude to the people that worked hard to create special places. A personal favourite is Sir Denys Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians. It is a both beautifully composed and crafted. An audacious masterpiece, completely unique, but respectful of its context. 

Do you enjoy working on more city-based projects or in the country?
It doesn't really matter. It is one of the challenges of our time and place that almost every context is somehow complex and challenging. Usually we work with a sequence of models to better understand the surroundings and to test our ideas. It is an exciting process. Incrementally you find out what a building would like to be like. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t an architect?
I would be at a loss.

What inspires you daily?
Seeing projects taking shape and dealing with great people who help me get there: my builders, consultants and my clients.

How do you switch off?
I start cooking. I love family meals

What are you currently working on?
Finishing three new houses in London and commencing two conversion projects in Gloucestershire

How did you spend your summer?
We travelled around some historic Tuscan towns and then chartered a boat and sailed around Elba.

What does the future have in store for Henning Stummel Architects?
I don't want to be ahead of myself. Currently we complete about two buildings every year. This could increase, but ultimately I'm more interested in quality and not the quantity. Hopefully we will produce some buildings that will stand the test of time and bring joy to people for many years to come.

View Henning Stummel Architects on the Domus Nova Architect Guide

Henning Stummel Architects, The Workshop, 183 Royal College Street, London NW10;