Architecture: ‘Every city should have a plan’

Dublin born architect Jim Heverin, a director at Zaha Hadid in London, believes architecture should be about people and it’s up to governments to encourage good design

'We're not asking for approval on aesthetics," says Jim Heverin, Dublin-born director at Zaha Hadid architects in London, right at the start of our conversation on collaboration in architecture. "We don't want someone saying they would like this in a lighter shade of pink or would prefer a more traditional door." There are so many people involved in a building project that true collaboration with everyone would not result in good design.

Heverin, who is giving a talk in Cork tomorrow, at the start of the Sharing Architecture exhibition, believes in catering for the needs of people in the wider societal sense, governments need to take more of a lead in setting the parameters of good design.

“Every city should have a plan: planners should concentrate on that and not aesthetics. It should be controlled for the benefit of people. The argument that we should let the market regulate building clearly doesn’t work,” says Heverin. “There is a massive housing shortage in London and the market is not going to answer that.”

When Heverin, who grew up in Dublin, Galway and Donegal, joined Zaha Hadid Architects in 1997 there were seven people in the office, one project and one computer. Now all 400 people in the practice work on computers – right from the front door of the Victorian building in Clerkenwell, London, where the two receptionists sit before three huge Apple screens – and the firm is working on projects worldwide, generally cultural projects in Europe and more commercial and housing projects further afield, in particular Asia.


Boom quarters

There is nothing by the practice in


so far, except for competition schemes, including one for UCD, and the U2 Tower. There was also a meeting with a developer to build something near the


Quarter in Belfast.

“They kept calling things ‘quarters’ in the boom,” smiles Heverin. The developer “was so rude,” he says. “There was no follow up at all, he never even sent an email.” He is philosophical about it though. “I’m not keen to work with such people: who are not really interested in quality architecture or holding onto assets for long.” But that is the danger of a boom, he says: “Plans get thrown out, everything is up for grabs, green land goes . . .”

Despite the fact that the practice did a design for the U2 Tower he says that Dublin is quite lucky not to have had tall towers, including one proposed at The O2 “It would be bizarre to have two towers where the Liffey meets the sea. Unless they are done very, very well, unless there is control over the development.

“There is nothing worse than cheap high rise,” he says, talking of other cities.

Local interest

I recall the proposal for a high rise in Dublin 4 and how the residents were a strong force in preventing it. “Although Lansdowne (Aviva) is hardly the most subtle intervention,” he says. But, as his talk in Cork will cover, local people should be interested and involved in architecture and have local plans, developed by local people. While well-to-do communities often have more resources and inclination to do this, it needs to be encouraged across the board and that has to come from a higher authority. Ken Livingstone, as mayor of London, took an interest in development and densities, says Heverin, but not Boris Johnson.

The wider community was part of the remit in designing the firm's Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics, which has just opened as a public pool. In its latest stage as a public pool they took into consideration many minority groups – "we had to reflect their needs". This included offering a private swim session for Muslim women and privacy screens, as well as facilities for school children and even the signage, on which a family group is depicted with three adults. "It's all good," says Heverin. The idea is that such flexibility will get more people involved in sport and, crucially, to get them to take it up. Encouraging use of buildings is one of the practice's remits.

Concept and context

“When I started here, one of the appeals was that Zaha was overtly modernist. This was a a time of discussion about post-modernism and a questioning of modernism. She wasn’t high-tech. She was asking about function and how people use buildings,” says Heverin. This is expressed and encouraged in and by the designs. “It is not about curvy, blobby, organic buildings.”

It is more conceptual and contextual, he says. In fact, he says, he could make a good argument that the Aquatics Centre has classical elements in a contemporary form, with its plinth and “temple roof” as an element sitting above it.

“All very sound architectural principles done in a contemporary manner: architecture should be contemporary. The idea that we should create classical architecture today is ludicrous to Zaha and the office. Buildings should reflect our times and how we think and use space.”

The Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow which he worked on also draws on the past in a contemporary way, with its form reminiscent of sheds that were in this former shipyard: “Familiar but different.”

This contextualisation and concentration on function is perhaps a revelation to those who see Zaha Hadid’s buildings as alien, curvaceous interventions into their sites. The growth of her practice has been an incredible achievement.

“There is no longer the idea of one person sketching” and staff working it up, says Heverin. Hadid, he says, is very encouraging of staff at all levels to come up with designs. “She’s been very successful at that and the atmosphere in the office is that people are willing to give. But she is still very much the face of the practice. People still want a figurehead. A personality who can persuade clients to make that leap of faith.” And she has done this in an industry that is still difficult for women, he says.

“Nearly all builders are men, project managers are men. That in itself has attracted criticism against women that is not directed against men, in a way that seems intended to make women seem less serious. Zaha has been called a ‘diva’, a type of comment that is intellectually reductive. I don’t think [Frank] Gehry has been called a diva.”

Jim Heverin, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, gives a talk on the theme of Sharing Architecture at 6pm tomorrow ( Friday, June 20th) in The Atrium in Cork City Hall.

Gimme shelter: Sharing Architecture in Cork Four architectural teams: Kate Dowling and Ruth Fortune;  Paula Kelleher, Martin McCarthy and Seoidín O'Sullivan; Makeshift Architecture; and Stephen Sullivan and associates, worked with four local groups to redesign a bus shelter on the number 208 bus route in Cork. The free exhibition of their final designs opens on June 23rd at 5pm in Cork City Hall. Until July 19th.