News

A talk with Andrew Mcmullan: 'Today, we have a responsibility to use architecture to benefit humankind'

08.09.2020

This summer, ACE talked with Andrew Mcmullan about architectural design competitions, productive cities, our relationship to the city, quality in the built environment, Brexit and the need of a European collaboration between architects.



ACE: Based on the theme ‘Productive Cities’, over 1,240 global entries competed for major projects in 50 European cities, your studio’s masterplan for the Austrian city of Innsbruck was a joint winner.  In your view, are architectural competitions synonymous with opportunities: a platform of creativity and quality?  


Andrew Mcmullan : "Competitions let you take the handbrake off your imagination. They distil the design process down to its purest form: a challenge in need of a perfect solution.  You imagine how you'd like the world, the city, the building to be - then create ideas and answers to make it happen.   Bold creativity is vital but you can't ignore reality. Brilliant ideas don't help anyone if you can't turn them into real-world solutions. For us, innovative design comes from multiple flashes of insight combined with thoughtful pragmatism and rigorous research. It's about turning constraints into opportunities to be more inventive.    Our concept for Innsbruck is a good example. It's a beautiful old city in a spectacular natural setting. Respecting its heritage and surroundings while securing a dynamic and productive future for its people forced us to reject twee Alpine stereotypes and look for a deeper truth that makes Innsbruck unique.   Of course, the best thing about competitions is when you win. We're not interested in paper projects. We want to build projects that change life for the better.   


ACE: How do you define the main issue of your project, and how did you answer on the session's main topic: the place of productive activities within the city?   
 
Andrew Mcmullan: "We began by rejecting clichés. With an historic Alpine city images of goatherds in lederhosen automatically come to mind. We began by immersing ourselves in the real Innsbruck. We visited the city. We explored residential districts not tourist hangouts. We watched locals going about their daily lives. Shopping. Getting to work. Socialising. We talked to them in really bad German.  Bit by bit, we built up a picture of a real city with all of the challenges faced by modern cities worldwide. A lack of affordable housing. Overcrowding. Traffic pollution. Economic uncertainty. Climate change.  


City living increases every year.  By 2035, there will be 2 billion more city dwellers. Sadly, modern cities are often bad for your health. People who live in cities are 40% more likely to suffer depression than people who live in the countryside. Air, noise and light pollution, poor diet and sedentary lifestyles can also damage their physical health.  Creating opportunities to connect with nature brings many benefits, including better mental health, a more active lifestyle and stronger community ties. For example, people aged over 60 who do just 15 minutes exercise a day reduce their risk of dying early by 22%. And people who walk for more than 8.6 minutes a day are 33% more likely to enjoy better mental health.   Quite simply, a healthy city is a happy city. It's also a more productive place.


Research in 2015 by Oswald, Proto and Sgroi showed that happiness at work can increase your productivity by up to 12%. The challenge for prosperous societies, says the World Happiness Report 2017, is to find new ways to convert economic wealth into wellbeing - the key to greater productivity.  The challenge for us was turning the challenges of modern city living into opportunities to design a more productive Innsbruck. A place where productive activities don't just happen in specific locations - they form part of daily life. And where growth is inclusive. In other words, the widest possible mix of people receive the education, knowledge and skills to play their part in Innsbruck's future prosperity.   

ACE: From where did you take your inspiration to make modern Innsbruck happier, healthier and more productive?   

Andrew Mcmullan : "We took inspiration from the people. A city's personality is defined by them. Innsbruckers love to be healthy. They eat healthier, do more exercise, smoke less and go for more medical check-ups than the average Austrian. It's not surprising. The city is surrounded by a spectacular natural sports field, the Nordkette mountain range. You can hike, ski or cycle in your lunchbreak at over 1,900 metres above sea level. And the city's small size makes cycling easy - traffic jams permitting.  Armed with this real-world insight, we imagined a future city focused on wellness.


A place where healthier, happier and more productive connections were created across every aspect of life. For example, healthy streets that make walking a natural choice and increase the opportunity for chance encounters and new collaborations. Human-centric buildings with flexible interiors made of natural materials to reduce indoor toxins and boost creativity. Open spaces that can be whatever you want them to be. 


The idea is that everyone who visits will benefit from a powerful sense of energy, optimism and wellbeing. Happiness isn't a souvenir. Happiness is the trigger for new ideas, experiences and possibilities." 


ACE : One out of every five architects registered with the U.K.’s Architects Registration Board hails from continental Europe, while a full 60% of construction products used in the U.K. originate from EU countries. If you had a list for the UK government, what would be your top priorities?   


Andrew Mcmullan : "1. Dump Trumpism. Tackling major challenges faced by cities and communities worldwide such as climate change calls for global co-operation not isolationist 'Make Britain Great Again' fantasies. International problems demand an international response. 


2. Listen and Learn.
Our government needs to learn from the experiences of countries and cities who are finding innovative solutions to shared problems. What's tragic about the current Covid crisis is the lack of international leadership and collaboration. The virus doesn't respect national boundaries or political egos any more than climate change.  We need one-world thinking and solutions. 


3. Reimagine Europe.  The UK is leaving the EU, not Europe. It's time for a new era of pan-European collaboration with optimism at its heart. We need to rediscover the simple truth that when the people and nations of Europe work together we can overcome challenges faced by us all."   

ACE: Do you think that Brexit may compromise built environment quality or sustainability by starting a short-sighted race to the bottom on standards?   


Andrew Mcmullan : "Yes. On one level, Brexit is nostalgia for a Britain that never existed. It's an attempt by people who don't like change to turn back the clock to a golden era they imagine was better, safer and free from risk. Apply that thinking to architecture and you get parochial pastiche - dishonest design that panders to sentimentality and refuses to address the issues people face today. 


For example, last year we won a RIBA-sponsored competition to design affordable housing to attract young people to live in rural Britain. Today, most new rural housing mashes up vernacular styles to create generic 'rustic style' dwellings. They look like they were created by aliens and dropped into their setting.   


We wanted to create homes that respect the heritage and beauty of their surroundings but which also answer the needs and ambitions of young people today. The result is the Flexstead. Inspired by traditional local farmsteads, its flexible interior revolves round the inhabitants. Not the other way around. We combined modern methods of construction and materials with traditional craft techniques and materials to produce a home that's affordable to build and sustainable to run.  Architects can learn from the past but we must never be its slave.  As for a race to the bottom, it's the hidden face of Brexit.  It was dressed up as a patriotic fight for traditional British values - whatever they are. But I suspect many of those campaigning behind the scenes resented the EU's interference in their business affairs. Workers rights and high environmental standards can dent your bottom line.  


It seems to me the solution is for architects to put people at the centre of everything we do. By engaging with the communities we're designing for at every stage of the process, we can demystify what we do, show how design can solve big social issues and raise people's ambitions. Creating a powerful grassroots demand for high-quality architecture means politicians who try to lower standards will pay a high price at the ballot box.   

ACE: Around twenty percent of architects registered with the Architects Registration Board are from the EU. How are UK offices  going to cope with skills shortages ? 


Andrew Mcmullan: "We're not turning our backs on the world! Diversity is in our DNA. Right now, the team includes one architect born in South Korea who trained in Glasgow and Tokyo and another whose family came to Britain from India. And my one-year-old daughter is half-Indian - though she's too young to master form and function. 


Talent knows no boundaries. So we continue to seek out gifted collaborators from across the globe. Mixing together different cultures creates some of our most exciting design ideas. We're also ambitious to widen access to and participation in the architectural profession here in Britain. We need to find ways to help people from the widest possible range of backgrounds to become architects. It's a necessity, not a nicety. You can't create design that answers the challenges faced by different sections of society if architects only come from one narrow section of society."    


ACE: In a recent interview for the Architect Journal, you said that “we need to strengthen our ties with organisations such as Europan and ACE to launch a new era of pan-European collaboration. How do you envision this international collaboration?     


Andrew Mcmullan: "Ignoring politicians for a start. We need to get over the idea that international collaboration begins round the ministerial tables of Europe. It's the other way around. The strongest international ties begin at a human level: architect to architect, studio to studio. Architects across Europe and the world, must forge new bonds based on the shared desire to design solutions to global challenges. We don't require the permission of politicians to do that. We mustn't be afraid to show leadership. It's our world, too."  

ACE: Architect Moshe Safdie has encouraged others in the profession to become more reactive to the world's changing climate, by incorporating adaptable spaces into their projects. What are the other solutions? 


Andrew Mcmullan: "Every project we create embraces the six essential components of Circularity established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Regenerate, Share, Optimise, Loop, Virtualise and Exchange.   We're currently working on new rural co-working space in a repurposed dairy farm in South England for Hatchery.  We've designed Circularity into the space. From modular, flexible buildings and layout (Loop) to smart energy control technology (Virtualise). It's proof that sustainability can inspire great design. 


Another solution is for architects to establish their own response to sustainability that reflects their design approach. At Mcmullan Studio, we've developed what we call our 'Eco Thrifty' ethos which influences every aspect of our design and build process. It reflects our belief that sustainability means creating buildings that are environmentally friendly, healthy and affordable to run and maintain for decades to come. 

Our design for Hatchery includes fresh and surprising ways to use traditional local materials that are recycled, recyclable, CO2 neutral or VOC-free. As well as building health and wellbeing into the fabric of the repurposed farm buildings, the materials will make the whole place more affordable to maintain and more energy-efficient to run. That's really important given that rural heating bills are much higher than average. 

We believe tackling climate changes requires overarching international solutions and smaller local initiatives tailored to specific places and people. Our Eco Thrifty ethos is one emerging studio's humble response to a global problem."  


ACE: You believe in the power of exceptional design to change our world for the better. What is the role of architect in this time of changes?  


Andrew Mcmullan: "Architects need to imagine a better world, create designs to make that vision a reality and campaign for those designs to become global benchmarks.  The days when star architects can create vanity buildings to house their egos are over. Today, we have a responsibility to use architecture to benefit humankind. It's as big and exciting as that."   


ACE: What are the new trends you see emerging in architecture?  


Inclusivity. We're passionate about designing inclusive cities and communities where everyone contributes to and benefits from its prosperity and opportunities. 


Diversity.
The rise of populism shows how fragile social diversity really is. There's a growing desire to design urban environments that celebrate, inspire and support a diverse mix of people to live together in harmony. Urban and rural spaces that give people every opportunity to live life to the full on their own terms - and which reflect their spirit every day. 

Repurposing. We don't just need to rethink what we build. We also need to rethink where we build. Repurposing existing sites isn't simply cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Transforming everything from inner city brownfield sites to disused farm buildings sends out a message to locals that their world is changing for good.  


ACE: Where do you find inspiration? 


Andrew Mcmullan: "People. We immerse ourselves in other people's worlds to put them at the centre of our work. We want to create design that tells their story and makes a deep human impact. We don't believe in imposing random aesthetic principles on anyone.  That reduces architecture to decoration. We want to create beautiful, buildable projects that transform people's lives."    


ACE: How do you think your projects will age?

Andrew Mcmullan: "We design projects to revolve and evolve round people. So we hope they'll reflect their lives and personalities from day one. A good example is our rural housing concept for young people, the Flexstead. Simply by making small uncostly adjustments to everyday building elements, residents can turn the space into whatever they want it to be. Photographer's gallery. Vegan kitchen. Or simply a family home.  


A successful project should be an ever-changing chronicle of people's lives.   


ACE: What type of material are you considering exploring ?


Andrew Mcmullan: "Recycled, recyclable, repurposed and reimagined. We're constantly working with partners to create and find new sustainable materials and use traditional sustainable materials in original ways."


ACE: In your view, what is the relevance of architectural policies?   


Andrew Mcmullan: "At best, architectural policy can be a positive vision for the built environment with practical steps to turn it into reality.  At worst, it's a nebulous waste of paper." 


ACE: Alejandro Aravena directs those just starting out to be as nerdy, free, and rebellious as possible. What is your advice for young architects?    


Andrew Mcmullan: "Don't wait for diversity. Make it happen".


ABOUT

Andrew Mcmullan is a British architect whose fresh and optimistic approach to design has helped create renowned global projects that make a deep impact on places and people.  For 15 years, he held senior-level positions at Allies and Morrison, Heatherwick Studio and was Vice-President of HOK, London.   Andrew’s projects include the new London headquarters of Rothschild Bank. Nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize, the steel and glass building features ten floors of open-plan offices, a rooftop garden and a glazed ‘sky pavilion’ containing a stack of three double-height events rooms. The 21,000 sq. m tower was designed to bring natural light and a sense of outdoor calm to a high-pressured working environment.  
At Heatherwick Studio, Andrew was senior architect on the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, the world-class commercial and financial centre on the city’s waterfront. The 372,000 sq. m development consists of rustic hand-carved stone building frames with the latest facade technology. Though dedicated to work, the project includes a hotel and cultural centre inspired by traditional Chinese theatres with a kinetic facade that creates a constantly changing link between outside and inside, modern China and old.  
In 2018, he founded Mcmullan Studio to evolve his positive vision of architecture. Based in London, Andrew leads his team to create beautiful, buildable projects for progressive clients who recognise the capacity of original design to transform people’s lives.  
A graduate of the Architectural Association and Cambridge University, he has sat on international award juries and taught at Central Saint Martins, Bartlett School of Architecture and the Architectural Association.  Andrew is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


Back to top