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In Memoriam: Sir Michael Hopkins

7 May 1935 – 17 June 2023: Sir Michael Hopkins in his home/studio in Hampstead, 1980s | Image by: Anthony Weller-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo

Derek Wyatt

4 min read

World-famous Portcullis House architect, Sir Michael Hopkins was a remarkable and hugely talented man. Parliament and our nation have been blessed by his legacy

I first met Sir Michael Hopkins at Alexandra Palace in 1994; I had asked him whether he could spare an hour to walk the building with me. It wasn’t that I was lonely. It was because I was its chair. The palace had suffered a terrible fire and subsequently had run into financial difficulties.

We walked: he talked. We stopped at a large enclosed ugly space. He said, “I don’t think this is original.” I said, “How do you know?” He replied: “It has the smell of an Italian Garden full of oranges, it might even have been an Orangery.” I then showed him the original drawings: he was bang on the nail. 

We met occasionally thereafter as we were both residents in north London and Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Latterly, he was sadly confined to a wheelchair. He died earlier this year, and a celebration of his life was held at RIBA last month.

Sir Michael was a remarkable and hugely talented architect. He and his wife, Patty were part of a world-famous architectural trinity: James Stirling, Norman Foster and themselves. Indeed for a while Foster and the Hopkins were partners.

One of his buildings I came to love was Portcullis House which was commissioned towards the end of the 1980s and completed in 2000. Imagine if you had won the commission. The site needed to be cleared. When that was complete, you would have been faced by two great buildings. 

One was the Palace of Westminster with its overwhelmingly medieval hall dating back to the 15th century but with earlier antecedents and its “new” 19th century version of a sumptuous cathedral cast in the shadow of a greater abbey. But, our “cathedral” paid homage more to William Morris than to Samuel Butler.

I doubt we expected that within two years of its opening it would move the fulcrum of the 'House'... to this new palace

Across the road, and between where Portcullis has now landed, sat Richard Norman Shaw and John Dixon Butler’s Norman Shaw North and South built for the Met Police (New Scotland Yard) between 1887-1906.

Shaw and Butler shared the same questions which were posed to Sir Michael when he came to sketch out Portcullis House. How could they both connect the building to the Houses of Parliament without daring to impose a flamboyancy which would make his building more important? And Sir Michael also had to connect to both Parliament under the road and consider the dazzling down-wind facades of the Norman Shaw buildings.

His answer as we all know was the under-scored and quietly stunning Portcullis House (PCH) which was opened in 2000. I doubt we expected that within two years of its opening it would move the fulcrum of the “House”, or at least the House of Commons, to this new palace. There were restaurant and cafe offerings in a subtle, easy on the eye, modern environment. There were seats too. Enough for all of us. Amazing. And wonderful light with such an imaginative roof too.

There was a further extraordinary under-scored elegance to the solution as to how to hang – in six parts of the ground floor – the tube station below, thought then to be the deepest well in central London. We must doff our hats to the extraordinarily gifted engineers from Ove Arup.

Sir Michael, a lover of fine things but especially wood (think his Glyndebourne 1994 or his Olympic Velodrome 2012) has bathed Portcullis House in light timbers with their long and most beautiful fingers stretching everywhere. 

Behind every good man is a better woman. He and Lady Patty Hopkins, his wife, were partners is every sense and it should not be forgotten that she was the joint-winner, with her husband, of the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1984. 

Our nation and our Parliament have been blessed.

Derek Wyatt is a former Labour MP and member of the Parliamentary Works of Art Committee

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