It was an unforgettable occasion even before the talk began. As we sat on the top floor of the Willis Building, I looked out over the high level greensward at the sun-lit top half of the so-called 'Wine Rack', seemingly almost next door, as we awaited the lecture by Sir Michael Hopkins, one of the 'likely lads' (his words) who designed the internationally famous Willis Faber & Dumas building in 1975, now Grade I Listed.
The talk was advertised as 'Some Suffolk Buildings' but to our delight we found that this was a flexible title because 'Suffolk' stretched as far as Texas and Tokyo. Sir Michael chose to describe his work in chronological order and we certainly began in deepest Suffolk at Cratfield, where he and his wife bought a dilapidated house which they've restored and still live in.
And so on to Willis itself. To the surprise of Norman Foster's 'likely lads', they "got the job without putting pen to paper" and started designing without knowing what the extent of the site would be. They planned the building around the central bank of escalators knowing they could "snip round the edges" when the site was finalised. He still feels grateful to Planning Officer Geoffrey Ramsdale and the Borough Council for being brave enough to support the planning application in the wake of public disapproval of the 'modernism' of Greyfriars close by. (Later on, Sir Michael transformed part of the Greyfriars building for Willis by creating the fabric-clad tower of the original multi-storey car park.) Still in Suffolk, he designed a new style storage facility for Greene King at Bury.
Then we were off on his travels. First to Cambridge for the University Research Centre and a new building at Emmanuel College, and then a cutlery factory he designed near Sheffield. Designs for other very different purposes followed with the fabric-topped Mound Stand at Lord's and Glyndebourne opera house. Our lucky neighbours in Norwich were soon to see their new library in its Millennium Building, The Forum, (BBC and all) and Parliament acquired proper office space in the Portcullis Building. Back in East Anglia there followed the Apex in Bury and the Norwich cathedral Refectory and Hostry.
Next we were whisked over the Atlantic to see his university buildings at Yale and Princeton and Houston - and, lest we were bored, suddenly back eastwards to Dubai, Tokyo and the new cricket stadium in Pune (Poona) before touching down in England again at the Olympic Park velodrome and St George's Chapel, Great Yarmouth. Exciting stuff indeed, with a variety of solutions and styles to suit each project.
Sir Michael presented all these impressive achievements with a pleasing informal ease. The only surprise was he gave no sense of the size or composition of the teams of architects who must work for him. The evening was happily completed with refreshments provided by the Willis cafeteria and, of course, we enjoyed good conversation.