by Laura Tanna
We’ve all been awe-struck by the Sydney Opera House, by the glass Grand Pyramid at the Louvre, by the Climate Ribbon in Miami’s new Brickell City Centre, but what you may not know is that an architect raised in Jamaica has a close connection with each of these iconic structures and others. Co-author of the seminal work Structural Glass, Hugh Dutton notes, “Structural glass has become a commonplace component in architecture,” but he was a pioneer in that field, and a pioneer deeply influenced by his Jamaican upbringing. Dutton remembers:
“My father had a farm in Oxfordshire, England. He decided when I was three to move to Jamaica where his family had made trips in his youth and just after the end of the war. He had fallen in love with the island. He was an adventurer who had no qualms about picking up stakes and moving the whole family to a property above Port Maria in St. Mary. It’s really quite an amazing place to have grown up and very surreal now that I’m sitting in my studio in Paris. I was running around there in shorts, barefoot, building kites out of coconut leaf stems and tissue paper. Oxford, the house we lived in, was high on a hill with nice breezes.
“Growing up on a farm in Jamaica, schooling was an issue. My mum, with great regret, arranged for me at the ripe age of five and a half to go to Hillcrest, in Brown’s Town, a prep school where I was semi-boarding. When I was eight, I went to De Carteret and then at 11 to Canada.
Dutton’s family moved to Jamaica in 1960, two years before its independence from Britain, and a third son was born in 1965, but after his father died in 1971 and the People’s National Party took power in 1972, declaring itself a socialist party in 1974, life changed substantially as the country’s political divisions increased violence.
“A widowed mother and three kids living alone on the property up in the hills — my mum was amazing. In the late sixties my father bought a flat in Kingston and toward the end, we would spend more time there than in St Mary, so we knew the Junction Road very well, careering across behind the country buses. I share those memories with my two children, Pierre and Mary, now 31 and 26, both lawyers and they love coming to the island on holidays.
“My mum met my stepfather, Charles Adams, through Valerie Facey, who also had an enormous impact on my life. [See “Valerie Facey,” Jamaque Paradis Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pp. 64-69]. She was the one who really influenced me to be an architect and designer because within the context of my own family, there’s nobody who was in the arts. It was a very new world for me and Valerie inspired and encouraged me. When I was 17, I tried to smoke pot at my school in Canada, was caught and sent home. That’s one of the funniest stories, because it’s January in Canada, wintery, with freezing weather and my punishment is to get sent home to warm Jamaica for three weeks!
“My mum was really upset and worried. I felt absolutely, horribly guilty, and a terrible son. I haven’t touched it since. But Valerie took me under her wing. I spent a lot of time at the Facey home. She bought me a sable paint brush which I still have, and a Rotring ink pen, an essential architectural drafting tool. I was doing art exercises as part of my homework. I remember a very clear picture in my mind sitting there, doing these drawings with the pen she bought me. That was really lovely, a very special time.
“After my boarding school, Ridley College, near Toronto, I applied, and got into an architecture school, the University of Waterloo, in a suburban small town, to the west of Toronto. Eighty percent of the place was with tarmac, either parking lots or roads, with takeaways, hardware stores, and shopping centres. But the school was very vibrant. Engineering was strong and the architecture school, slightly off campus in an industrial building, was buzzing with creativity. We felt a bit like we were a bunch of oddballs. “I went there for two and a half years. In the beginning of my third year Mark Fisher showed up from London, a stage set designer and architect who had been to the Architectural Association (AA) in London. We got on well and he said, “You should go to London, to the AA.” He did a lot of Pink Floyd’s and the Rolling Stones’ sets, a wonderful inspiration. So I went to London.”
Dutton started his third year at the AA, working with David Greene, one of the key thinkers behind Archigram, an ultra-modern, avant-garde architectural group drawing on technology which arose from the AA. Dutton describes this HighTech movement as coming from “a group of young, quite wild hippie architects which led to the iconic Pompidou Centre. But David was more into the relationship between art and architecture, conceptual art, and that helped me as a student. From the beginning when I worked with Valerie I wanted to be an artist, but the practical side of the family said, ‘No, you have to do something that’s a real profession.’ Architecture was a good compromise which I embraced, but inside what I was really interested in doing was art. And that’s our job as architects, I do believe, creating art, creating beautiful things.
“At the time of my training at the Architectural Association in London, the profession of architecture was quite divided between the professional and the academic worlds. The profession was in crisis, with post war realisations, notably social housing, being highly criticized in the press. New ‘Postmodern’ trends were an attempt to change the image of architecture but were considered superficial at the AA. Work in this school was theoretical but groundbreaking, and it was a thrilling time to be there. Amongst our tutors were Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhass, Bernard Tschumi and Archigram icons such as Peter Cook and Ron Herron. You’d be sitting next to them in the jury, the formal evaluation of the design project, where it is discussed and critiqued. These tutors were unknown outside the academic world at the time but are now household names around the world. The real building professional world in London however considered the work at the school unbuildable and unrealistic paper architecture. But the school was so exciting. People were looking for another meaning in architecture. It was fantastic.
“But I said, they’re teaching us what the vision is, but they’re not teaching me how to build things. I had just finished the AA in the early ‘80s, started a job with Ian Ritchie [Architects], when this opportunity through Ian Ritchie to work with Peter Rice came up. I thought, this guy’s amazing. Peter Rice was the engineer on site who did the Sydney Opera House and Pompidou Centre, Lloyd’s in London. I really wanted to work with him so I came over to Paris, because after Peter finished the Pompidou Centre the Public Client Authority, from the Ministry of Culture — who were behind public buildings — asked Peter to work on building the La Villette Science Museum. They wanted to bring the Anglo-Saxon steel culture into France, which was then a largely concrete dominated world.
“Peter wanted to mix the boundaries between different building disciplines, what a structural engineer does, what a facade technology guy does, and what services engineers do. He thought we should integrate these normally independent professions into one holistic design process. This was quite a bold move because it just didn’t exist. The whole profession goes towards dividing the work up into different disciplines. What Peter did was the total opposite. Peter setup this team consciously with Martin Francis a designer and glass specialist as well as naval architect who built large sailboats. Ian Ritchie was a HighTech architect who had worked with Foster, Peter, the explicit engineering, Henry Bardsley, an engineer, and me as an architect. RFR — Rice, Francis, Ritchie — I was one of their first employees.”
“Structural Glass tells the story of La Villette. I wrote a lot of the book with Peter. Henry would calculate, and I would draw. I was 25, 26 when this was happening and so lucky to be in it. La Villette is an amazing piece of work, totally pioneering, the first time structural glass was used in this way. I designed a glass support bolt, an articulated bolt to fix glass, braced with cables. It had an internal ball and socket joint to let the glass move. I was comfortable in this technology given the years on our sailboat in Jamaica. Peter was very interested in the computer’s power to design. The glass and cable design work used nonlinear calculations. This was a calculation process that took into account the way the geometry adapts as the structure deflects and the cables stretch, which at the time was quite innovative. Now it’s commonplace. The computer simulates the natural forces over time, giving much more accurate and sensible calculations. That was the key first project we did and I lived on it for about two years.”
“After La Villette, we worked on the pyramid for I.M. Pei. The Louvre pyramids were designed by architect I. M. Pei, and the design engineer consultant for the Grand Pyramid was Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd of Montreal. Peter Rice and RFR were construction consultants for the Grand Pyramid but design and realisation consultants for the inverted Pyramid, famous in the Da Vinci Code film. I. M. Pei got on very well with Peter. Pei is brilliant. You’re in a dark corridor underground, so there’s a lot less light around you. At the 45 degree-angle the glass reflects the sky directly above. He got the angles just right. The brightness of the reflected sky, on that piece of clear glass, throws the light into the space below. It’s hard to think that you’re underground actually. The two pyramids are totally independent. What Peter did, on the right way up on the inverted pyramid, is a slight cheat. Because it’s underground, you don’t have to deal with snow and stuff, but conceptually it’s very clear that there’s no structure. The glass is the structure. It’s just stabilized by cables.”
Dutton also helped create the glass roofs for the main Louvre courtyards with Rice and after Rice’s death in 1992, Rice’s friend Paul Andreu, head of architecture at Aeroports de Paris, offered Dutton work as a consultant on the Maritime Museum glass dome in Osaka, Japan. Andreu encouraged Dutton to become independent, leading to Hugh Dutton Associés, HDA in 1994. Dutton’s first project was assisting on the Incheon airport in South Korea but life wasn’t easy. He remembers:
“The structural engineering back-ground with Peter had been an incredible, intellectually inspiring experience. But it meant I wasn’t seen as an architect or designer anymore. I was seen as an engineer. For years I had this confusion. One day someone called from Hong Kong, ‘Hey, you’re the structural glass guy who designed cable structures. I’ve got a project for you.’ He flew me over. I’d never seen Hong Kong. We did an office building lobby façade, using cables like La Villette. The client was Swire Properties. The contractor introduced me, ‘This is my glass cable specialist designer from Paris.’ Across the table sat Errol Hugh. As he opened his mouth, I recognized he was of Chinese Jamaican origin. After the meeting we chatted, had lunch and are still the best of friends. Errol was the chief designer for Wong and Ouyang, architects in Hong Kong working for Swire Properties for decades. Errol introduced me to Swire Properties, and that relationship just clicked.
“I was introduced to Keith Kerr, a very bright, incredibly far-seeing chairman who built Swire Properties from a small company to something worth billions by high quality, clever, design-oriented projects. His view was that the quality of design and construction is what gives value, the bits you can see, touch, get close to. Above, you can have hundreds, thousands of square meters of offices and more standard construction techniques. But you have to touch the immediate access point of view, entrance halls, foot bridges connecting them, canopies, lobby, glazing, things like that. He asked me to do one project and when Chairman and Managing Director of Swire Properties Keith Kerr appreciated my work, most of the project managers at Swire invited me to participate on their own projects. So I found myself working In Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing , Chengdu and Miami, as well as Hong Kong.”
In 2007 Dutton’s firm HDA was invited to be consultants on the roof structure, glass, and façade engineering for the new Islamic Arts Pavilion at the Louvre. The Louvre created an eighth department dedicated to Islamic Art In 2003 and in 2005 Italian architect Mario Bellini and French colleague Rudy Ricciotti won the international commission to design the Pavilion within Court Visconti, the last courtyard for development within the Louvre complex. Their’s was the only design building underground, not obscuring views of surrounding buildings. They designed space to display 3,000 items from the 14,000 within the Museum’s collection, covering 1,300 years of history. Described as a cloud, flying carpet, or windblown scarf, a shimmering glass wave covers the subterranean and courtyard galleries. The 2,400 triangulated glass panels are screened with an outer layer of gold and silver aluminum mesh, insulating glazing, 8,000 tubular steel frames and aluminium honeycomb panels diffusing daylight into the galleries, resulting in a shimmering glass wave which some say evokes golden Saharan sand dunes. Eight inclining pillars lift the watertight canopy from the ground. The Pavilion opened in 2012 with immediate acceptance, unlike Pei’s controversial Pyramid 23 years before.
Says Dutton, “Sadly, I cannot claim credit in any way for the architectural design. Our role was quite clearly that of technical designers, but we did bring some very key elements that we suggested to Rudy and Mario, which were to not have any mullions in the façade, to incline the columns, to taper the roof out to a thin edge and how to build the meshes and light filtering within the meshes. It was a lovely thing to come back to the Louvre.”
In addition to his Paris HDA studio, Dutton has an office in Hong Kong where he is currently assisting Swire Properties in their Taikoo Place development in Quarry Bay, once the pioneering Swire property from the beginning of Hong Kong, now a viable alternative business community to exorbitantly expensive Central district. With landscape designer Katheryn Gustafson, creator of the Princess Diana memorial in Hyde Park, Dutton designs foot bridges connecting office towers Swire built over the past 20 years, tying the development into an attractive whole.
Next time you’re in Miami, visit Brickell City Centre, opened in 2017, a $1.05 billion mixed-use development between 6th and 8th Streets on South Miami Avenue where trendy East Hotel and Quinto La Huella Uruguayan Restaurant vie with unusual European shops and a Saks Fifth Avenue. What ties this three-block open-air Swire Properties and Arquitectonica complex together is the Climate Ribbon, Hugh Dutton’s brainchild. Composed of steel, fabric and an undulating glass surface elevated over street and shopping Centre, it “captures sea breezes to regulate air flow and temperature, collects rain water for reuse,” while allowing visitors to be in the open air — a carryover from Dutton’s Jamaican childhood of enjoying hillside breezes and sailing the Caribbean Sea.
Naturally he and his childhood friend Stephen Facey already have their eye on how they might contribute towards the design of the new Parliament complex in Kingston, Jamaica, but that’s another story.