ASK AN ARCHITECT ALISON BROOKS
This month, we talk to Alison Brooks, creative director and founder of award-winning practice Alison Brooks Architects, which has worked on projects ranging from the innovative Cohen Quadrangle for Exeter College in Oxford ( 1) to the joyful ‘The Smile’ s
What inspired you to become an architect?
Expo ’67 in Montreal, Canada, even though I was only five years old. From the house I grew up in, to the grand Toronto City Hall ( 2), to just driving around southern Ontario with my mother, looking at the Georgian farmhouses and Romanesque university buildings. What has been your favourite project to date? It’s like choosing between children, but I’d have to say our new building in Oxford – the Cohen Quadrangle ( 1) for Exeter College, part of Oxford University, which holds Oxford’s first social learning space. It tells a story as you move through it. Its curved, stainless steel shingled roof was conceived as a cloak that drapes itself over the building in a series of waves, and its checkerboard pattern was inspired by the college’s famous Neo- Gothic chapel and the work of textile designer William Morris, an Exeter College alumnus.
Can you describe your personal working process?
I love to draw. Sometimes, the smallest sketch leads to the clearest and most sophisticated solution. I think and sketch in perspective, like a photographer moving through spaces to find the best shot. Sketching allows me to test my first instincts, then quickly move on to try the exact opposite. If you can describe your major concept and architectural ideas in words, they act as a conduit to a clear design.
What is your favourite room in your house?
Our bedroom – a very recent loft conversion designed with my partner, architect Charles Walker. It’s like going into another dimension at the top of our 1899 house. You disappear into a solid cherry wood suspended staircase ( 5) that spirals up to herringbone floors, trapezoidal spaces, flared dormers and windows that let you watch the moon travel across the sky at night.
What does the word ‘ home’ mean to you?
Home is a repository of meaningful things – a retreat, a place for light, being part of a neighbourhood. Trees rustling in the wind that you can hear from your bedroom window. Cherry wood furniture, a front hall that can hold lots of people, or a garden for barbecues – all those little details that make you smile.
If you weren’t an architect, what do you think you would be?
A writer, a photographer, a designer or a giant slalom ski racer.
This year, you celebrate the 21st anniversary of your practice. What have been your proudest achievements?
I’m very honoured to have delivered a major education building in Oxford. I’m also proud of my great team – some of whom have been with me for over ten years – as well as being part of the 2008 Stirling Prize-winning practice and being shortlisted for the 2017 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture for Ely Court ( 3), a housing and regeneration project. And of course, my two sons, Dylan and Declan. I had Dylan the same year that I founded ABA, so for years I had to think of him first to remember the age of my practice. alisonbrooksarchitects.com
‘Sometimes the smallest sketch leads to the most sophisticated solution’