It was an enormous pleasure to celebrate the presentation of the Susan Francis Design Champion Award at the 2022 European Health Design Congress to Christopher Shaw of Medical Architecture.
Christopher is a former (two-term!) chair of Architects for Health and has been involved in Healthcare Design at the highest levels for over 30 years.
Christopher’s journey in healthcare architecture started in 1990 when he joined the Medical Architecture Research Unit (MARU) with his soon to be business partner, and former student friend, Mungo Smith. At the time MARU had been established twenty years and was actively engaged on projects for the NHS including developing the Health Building Notes. When North London Polytechnic, latterly London Metropolitan, decided that MARU as it was, was to close, the group including Christopher took the bold step of setting up a practice tasked with delivering the same academically and evidence based work of which MARU was renowned. Christopher, Mungo and a band of five other collaborators founded Medical Architecture and Art Projects or MAAP – A challenging concept at the time, including the artist Graham Cooper – a foresightful move and long preceding the often discussed benefits of art in clinical environments of today.
Surprisingly quickly this architectural garage band, (they did actually start in a garage in Primrose Hill), converted their connections with the East Birmingham District Health Authority into real projects and scaled up to deliver a tranche of three initial schemes.
The next major phase of Christopher’s practice experience surfed on the turbulent waves of PFI in the 2000s. MAAP had been published in mainstream architectural press and garnered critical acclaim and credibility rarely afforded health care design. PFI was challenging to designers, and particularly to designers with opinions and a position to uphold. But they managed it. Building on their excellent client relationships MAAP also established their office in the Newcastle, working with long time collaborators Laing O’Rourke. While MAAP were undoubtedly successful with a portfolio of creditworthy schemes in the PFI period, unlike many of their peers I’d argue, they did manage to maintain credibility as designers. It is that which drew me to Christopher, Mungo and, by this time, Rachel Ferguson, who joined the last remaining original MARU exiles .
It was around 2008 when I got to know Christopher when he, with his then his business partners, appointed me to help out with a PFI bid in the North of Ireland while I set about establishing my own practice. Without their support, it would not have been possible. This is typical of the role that he and his practice have adopted since inception over 30 years ago in the garage, always adopting a collegiate position and openly expressive of their responsibility to nurture future generations, in many ways a mirror of the goals of Architects for Health, an organisation he later went on to lead.
As wasn’t particularly unusual in those hazy and heady days of the 2000s, projects would spring up and equally disappear overnight, and delays were common. The project we were working was sitting on the starters blocks on and off for a couple months and this left the two of us hanging around airports and sprinting off on a few scenic tours of the province in a rental Fiat Punto.
Christopher Shaw, as some of you may be aware, is of Irish heritage and both a scholar and accomplished raconteur to boot. I was treated a number of historo-geographical whistle-stop tours where my second-hand, naïve understanding of the rich history of Ireland was both challenged, enhanced and embroidered with tales and broadsides of colourful and sometimes unsubstantiated provenance.
Many will know Christopher as this, an eloquent architect, a man of words and letters as much as drawings, always able and keen to offer a keenly considered counterpoint without falling into contrarianism. So much is his power with language, legend has it that he once submitted a Part II Arch project at Hull Tech entirely in Latin. The legend isn’t clear whether the lead singer of the 80s sensation pop band the Fine Young Cannibals, Roland Gift, with whom he shared a squat in Hull, was also involved in the endeavour at the time.
A historian, a thinker, an architect and a wordsmith, it feels appropriate to reference some of his own writing and considerations for our profession and future architects. When asked what his greatest triumphs have been in his professional journey he answered:
“It’s been a privilege to work in this important sector, which brings together the art of architecture and the science of medicine,…, Good architecture should be our comfort zone, the straightforward bit is creating good architecture… the hard thing is to create a business, a process which enables people to live rewarding lives…
So much of our work is incredibly rewarding, not just in terms of creating good buildings, but also worthwhile design that enables clinicians to treat patients and people to recover better.”
Asked what wisdom he would pass on he answered:
“I sometimes say to people, it can be a bit of crash landing, if there are survivors, it’s a success. I think in Healthcare Architecture, starting out in your career, don’t aim for perfect. Aim for doing a wide range of things well, rather than one thing perfectly, because that’s how you generate a good heartbeat, a good sense of smell about architecture.”
When asked about career highlights, his response captured a very important thought, many designers and clients would benefit from safekeeping:
“The architectural media increasingly give the visual images the spotlight, because they are accessible and potent, but it fails to tell the whole story. People who have a strong visual sense around architecture irritate me because it misses out on so much. Architectural design is fundamentally about the way space, structure and environmental conditions are modulated, and the way place is used. The architect needs to deploy and orchestrate physics, social sciences, economic and aesthetics.”
Throughout his career it appears to me that Christopher consistently sees a bigger picture, undistracted by architectural orthodoxies or clouded by vanity. As a former chair of AfH Christopher sits alongside eminent names, with whom I have also worked, Dr Ann Noble and John Cooper and brought his own style to the organisation – overseeing both modernization but also wrestling the challenges of Covid to an organisation built on live events. As current co-chairs, Stephanie and I will try to bring our own style and ambitions but have the knowledge and legacy of Christopher and his predecessors to build upon.
As an organisation we wish Christopher a pleasurable and well earnt retirement, and hope recognition in this award highlights his role in both raising the quality, the expectation and the profile of and within our corner of architecture.