Tribute to Paul Hinkin

Today I was devastated to receive the news that Paul Hinkin, my longest standing collaborator, had died unexpectedly over the weekend. Paul and I grew our shared passion for sustainable architecture over nearly twenty years, numerous projects, nascent schemes, dinners and daft ideas.

Paul graduated from the Welsh School and read for a masters in bioclimatic design at Portsmouth before joining Chetwood Associates when I was at Max Fordham. We were thrown together by the project to design a groundbreaking store for Sainsburys that could win an English Partnerships competition to secure the site on the Greenwich Peninsula to serve the Millennium Village. We had, by then, both served our apprenticeships and for each of us this represented a major independent project and a chance for individual expression. We honed our ideas on each other during that project and have more or less done so ever since. The project, by the way, went on to receive a Millennium Product award and a place on the Stirling Prize shortlist.

I moved on from Fordhams, whilst Paul remained at Chetwoods, but he still turned to me for a number of projects including the boutique Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell, where we tapped groundwater for cooling, which was of such good quality that they ended up serving it in the restaurant. We also helped dream up the Eco-Template for distribution shed developer Gazeley which ultimately led to the Blue Planet warehouse, the first building to achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating.

Working with Paul was was a brilliant challenge for an engineer as he never let up with the question “Why?”

“Why?” is the perfect question to weed out original thinking from received wisdom and I quickly found that Paul often knew the range of possible answers at least as well as I did. It was this constant quest to achieve only the optimum performance outcomes that made it such a joy to work with Paul. That, and his openness to true collaboration, I honestly could not say that there was an individual author of our designs.

In Paul I found not just a kindred spirit but someone who was like the opposite pole of a battery to me, when we worked together there was real energy being generated. I remember in the early days of our collaboration breaking at least one phone, dragging it from its perch whilst urgently gesticulating with the handset in a desperate attempt to share a vision without paper to sketch on. Working with Paul was also constantly amusing. In the early years Paul developed a particular liking for Polyolefin and at the drop of a hat would promote its use as a roofing membrane. I have never been certain that Paul was genuinely convinced by the material properties, I suspect that he simply delighted in the humorous potential of dropping such a deliciously ridiculous sounding word into dry and dusty technical discussions.

I started my practice a couple of years before Paul, but he caught up in no time and we transitioned to supporting each other with business advice.

Paul was never a casual dresser and Black Architecture was clearly a reference to his ubiquitous, carefully co-ordinated black jeans, turtle neck and jacket. Black Architecture achieved both critical and commercial success. Paul and Chrissy bought and restored a 1960s waterfront house at Emsworth Harbour, winning awards for it of course. Paul decided that the house needed to be accessorised for the magazine photographers so he bought a sailing dinghy. Learning to sail it was a secondary consideration! Paul bought a Porsche, black of course. I recall seeing it regularly in the carpark at Bath University, instantly recognisable as the cabin was dominated by a tatty dog blanket and chew toys. I believe that this was Paul’s way of telling the world “I can if I want, but actually there’s more to life.”

We both grew to recognise that sustainable architecture, more than any other expression of the art, must be subservient to the people. Nothing can sustain unless it is truly fit for purpose and, to make architecture that is fit for purpose, you must truly empathise with the occupants. Paul was always focussed on the experience of the building user and this led to many of the interventions of light, space and organisation that gave rise to efficiency and ultimately sustainability. The finest expression of people centred design that I know is Romero House, Black’s new headquarters for CAFOD in Lambeth. This building changed the corporate and individual behaviour of an entire organisation and yet never achieved the recognition it deserves as it does not conform to narrow conventional metrics for sustainable design (more about that here).

Whilst he had little time for fools and charlatans, Paul always had boundless energy for helping people and doing the right thing. During the recent lull in commercial work for his practice in the UK, Paul committed a good deal of time to a charitable project to develop a sustainable school in Uganda, took a campaigning position on numerous issues and had recently begun to make a significant impact on third year studio at University of Bath.

I will miss Paul enormously, his wit and humour and all the ideas that we had to yet realise. My deepest sympathy goes to Chrissy and his family and to Steve, Tony and all at Black Architecture.

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