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New London Quarterly Profiles HOK’s London Practice

Chairman Bill Hellmuth, London design principals John Rhodes and David Weatherhead, and urban design leader John Prevc explain why “everything you know about HOK is wrong.”

Excerpted from New London Quarterly:

It’s a global behemoth with little interest in doing anything other than shiny office blocks, right? Wrong. A US firm with no connection to its many outposts? No again. A business, rather than an architecture firm? Definitely not.

What it is, says the firm’s chairman Bill Hellmuth is a network of smaller practices, each with character, that can delve into its deep pool of expertise, capitalise on its scale and yet still create under-the-radar projects like Spiritland on the South Bank, the War Rooms, or the restoration of that Tudoresque hut in the middle of Soho Square.

At the core of a lot of what HOK does, though, is sustainability, says Hellmuth, along with collaboration across the outfit. But the other big pieces that move throughout the firm are that they practise at the ‘intersection of thought leadership and design excellence’, says Hellmuth, organising around sector expertise in areas such as healthcare, for example, building on lab work at places like the Crick Institute (above).

So how does that leave room for individual character? That comes from a different place, beyond the tool that allows everyone to speak the same language, says Hellmuth.

Design principal in London, David Weatherhead says that architects used to be ‘masters of lots of things’ from building to quantity surveying, to design, but that over history architects have become specialists.

This allows much smaller companies to exist, but what got Weatherhead into architecture in the first place was not being pigeonholed. ‘Having that critical mass allows us to work on some of the largest most critical problems that our clients have’, he says. ‘They’ve manifested themselves into buildings but I think that’s one of the great things about HOK – we have the ability to have all these thought leaders coming together, whether it’s the Crick in London or whether it’s Papworth Hospital that has just opened this year. We have this ability to work on these really fundamental parts of architecture that will help people.’

John Rhodes warms to this theme, citing the gardener’s cottage at Soho Square, with HOK’s heritage team doing the refurbishment. ‘It’s not what you would expect from HOK, and there’s lots of examples of that. So much of Whitehall – the MOD through to the Churchill War Rooms and Palace of Westminster; there is this expectation that we’d be more mainland US but we’ve been lucky enough to be involved with really very traditional British buildings and building types.’

So, what are we likely to see going forward? Rhodes says it is about flexibility and allowing the specialisms and offices to come together, along with, for instance, repurposing buildings with new uses.

John Prevc has been brought in to add more ‘London-ness’ to the office. So says the man himself, formerly of Make and now firmly ensconced within the HOK ‘family’ – and also enjoying a two-minute reduction on his morning commute.

After years with Ken Shuttleworth, Prevc is now a principal and the leader of urban design in HOK’s London studio, delighting in the freedom the offices enjoy and the sheer depth of expertise available to him at his new employ that he thinks is currently not being ‘sold’. He is also revelling in the broad range of the practice’s output, contrary to many misperceptions of the firm – a certain North American ‘glossiness’ – a narrative he tested out with friends back at MIPIM. ‘It’s not what you think it is’, he says, ‘it’s this’; a practice with resources, given a lot of freedom rather than being controlled from the centre.

Hellmuth adds of the move to hire Prevc: ‘I believe fundamentally if you’re going to have an architectural practice in a city you’ve got to do a lot of work in that city. And one of the best ways to become a part of the fabric of the city is through planning, and placemaking and urbanism. It’s been my goal to make sure every office has the highest level of a planning group that you can have.’

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