Explore the latest projects from the UK’s commercial interiors industry, featuring the best of workspace, hospitality, living and public sectors.

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In conversation with Roger Stephenson, OBE

As his eponymous studio enters a new era, we sit down with acclaimed architect and friend of Mix, Roger Stephenson – Founding Partner of stephenson hamilton risley STUDIO.

01/08/2021 4 min read

Take a short stroll through the busy city centre of Manchester and you’ll be hard pressed to miss a building designed by Roger Stephenson and his eponymous studio.

The acclaimed studio has played a vital role in the reshaping and reconstruction of Manchester and has certainly left a distinctive mark on the city – including the multi-award-winning Chetham’s School of Music and Hallé St Peters projects, as well as work for Urban Splash, Capital & Centric and Bruntwood, to name a few.

Establishing the practice in 1979, after moving through BDP and Michael Hyde & Associates, Roger has recently taken a step back (insisting he will never retire!) to allow two of its long-standing team members, Keith Hamilton and Justin Risley, to lead the firm into a new era, rebranding to stephenson hamilton risley STUDIO in 2021. Between them, Keith and Justin have played a major role in many of the practice’s recent hero projects, including the upcoming Leonardo Hotel Manchester and Birmingham’s Exchange Square.

Roger chairs our very own Mixology North judging panel each year, has acted as a chairman for the RIBA Awards, and, in 2001, was awarded an OBE for services in architecture.

Tell us about how you started your career in the industry. What led you to start your studio?

My father came from a poor background in the East End of London and went to work when he was 13. Further education was not an option in his circumstances. He became a successful paper merchant, alongside which he had always been good with his hands – he learned to be a cabinet maker, was mechanically savvy and a talented artist. From an early age he encouraged me to make things. I remember him telling me, around the age of 11, that if he had been able to have more education, he would have loved to be a draughtsman or architect. I was inspired from that moment on to take the most suitable subjects to study architecture at university.

I gained A levels in Art, French, Maths, Engineering Drawing and Woodwork, and received offers from Liverpool University and the Architectural Association in London. As my home was in London, I decided to go to Liverpool.

The date was 1964 and Liverpool was the place to be. Like a lot of architects, my first job and true grounding was at Building Design Partnership (BDP). It felt natural to want to start my own practice and, after a few years, I got the opportunity to do so with a couple of small projects in 1979.

The teaching at Liverpool School of Architecture was based on a meaningful combination of aesthetic eloquence and technical expertise. We were acutely aware of the opportunity to push the boundaries to the extreme in the ‘unreal world’ of learning, so different from the impending reality of a practicing architect. I observed that so many young architects appeared to ‘give up and give in’ to the pressures which confront them in the real world: the QS who tells them their scheme is too expensive, the building control officer who says, ‘you can’t do that’, the planner who says you are not complying with policy – and even the client who prefers to listen to everyone else other than you.

An architect’s job is to analyse all the problems contained in a design and find a solution that is the best fit. The danger is that this entity becomes more and more watered down, gnawed away, by all the inputs mentioned above.

What do you feel sets your studio apart from the rest – what’s the secret behind the longevity and continued industry recognition?

What our studio has done over the years is to safeguard the integrity of the solution. Not to ignore all the inputs, but to deal with them in a way that does not destroy the wholeness of the concept. Put another way, the approach is a mental process of problem solving rather than some sort of stylistic diktat.

What has been your favourite project to work on?

My favourite project has to be the new building for Chetham’s School of Music. There are great similarities between architecture and music, the clients were a delight to work with and the problem was a great challenge.

Where do you see the future of the UK design industry?

The UK breeds great design thinking, we have presently some of the world’s greatest architects, busy throughout the globe and Apple would not be where it is now without Jony Ive, who trained at Northumbria University. I sense that both government and the development fraternity undervalue good design – and I hope that this will change.

What are the plans and ambition for the studio moving forward?

Our studio will continue to follow the approach that we have always taken, led by Keith Hamilton and Justin Risley who have worked with me for many years. In fact, all the members of the studio have been together for a long time and are like-minded. I am sure that the studio will go on producing outstanding design solutions and I look forward to remaining involved in that process.

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