Mark Cannata, MA RIBA, AABC, joined HOK’s London office in December 2008 as Head of Culture + Heritage.
Mark grew up in Italy, where he studied Architectural Engineering at the University of Catania before returning to the UK to study Architecture at Leeds Metropolitan University and the Architectural Association. Prior to joining HOK, he worked in the UK and Italy, spending five years as head of the Historic Buildings Unit at John McAsian + Partners in London. Here he worked on transformation projects for some of the most important 20th century buildings, including Erich Mendelsohn’s De La Warr Pavilion and James Stirling’s History Faculty Library.
One of HOK’s fastest-growing markets is with clients seeking creative, sustainable ways to extend the life of existing buildings. With a flurry of activity occurring around this market firmwide, it seemed like the perfect time to ring up Mark in London for another edition of “Five Questions.”
1. What do you do?
MC: I was brought in a little over a year ago to build on the expertise of the Conservation team here and to introduce a different point of view – that of high-end design when looking at historic buildings. Neil Cooke has been leading the team for many years and has worked on an incredible array of projects. He has huge expertise and knowledge, and I am slowly learning from him.
Many of the projects this group has done in the past have been pure conservation or, to use US nomenclature, historic preservation. These projects generally involved listed buildings. We’ll continue to do these high-end projects, but we also want to do more adaptive reuse of other buildings, which by definition is a growing market. As a profession, we’ll soon be refurbishing a lot of buildings from the 1970s and 80s. They’re all products of their time.
I am an interventionist with historic buildings. What I don’t want to do is freeze time. Architects are part of a process of continual transformation of historic buildings.
One challenge is that this type of work is not classifiable as a building typology. Our work spans across sectors, or, if you will, our sector is that of design in existing buildings. I always want to bring the design angle. Without strong design we aren’t talking about adaptive reuse – it’s just simple refurbishment. We need that creative element. With design we can unlock the potential of and transform these buildings. That’s why I very much prefer the term ‘creative reuse’ when talking about our work.
2. What is happening with the existing buildings market in the UK?
MC: The existing building market here in the UK is still good despite the recession. Many clients are driving this push to retain their existing properties and improve them as there is much less capital to demolish and start afresh.
It is an interesting time. It reminds me of that period from the mid-1980s through the 1990s when everybody was doing warehouse-to-loft conversions and creating found spaces. The difference is that nowadays the priorities of the economy and ecology are coming together.
There are therefore lots of opportunities for HOK, but also a lot more competition from practices that would not traditionally have been interested in looking at existing buildings.
Palazzo Ina design competition before (above) and after (below): Creative re-use of a 1970s office building into a 5-star hotel in the historic center of Ragusa (Sicily), opposite the Baroque cathedral.
3. What are HOK’s strengths in this existing buildings market?
MC: First, I perceive HOK’s strength as providing strong design in an existing historical context. Very few practices of our scale have our conservation and historic preservation expertise.
HOK has tremendous size and breadth – we have experience with all different building types across sectors. Personally, I have worked on everything from a station to offices to residential buildings to hospitals. For this type of work you need a little understanding of all these building typologies, combined with an understanding of architectural history and conservation approaches. In short, you need to understand what is important in an existing building before we can start to transform it.
Our building information modeling capabilities and leadership in sustainable design are differentiators.
Certainly there are nuances from country to country in terms of taking different approaches to existing or historic buildings. We have worked in many different countries and can do these projects worldwide.
Again, let’s not forget the aesthetic. We can design something that is beautiful.
Southend Pier design competition to create a new arts building and artist studios at the end of the longest pier in the world (itself a listed structure).
4. What are some of your favorite HOK and personal adaptive reuse projects?
MC: HOK’s project for the British Medical Association’s London headquarters is a great one. We freed-up the circulation and indeed the potential of the building by doing the architectural equivalent of heart surgery to actually transform how the building operates — and created a conference venue using the ‘fine rooms’ of the Grade II listed Sir Edwin Lutyens building. It is a very smart design.
Before (left) and after (right) shots of the former BMA council chamber showing the new free-standing bridge.
Another key project at a completely different scale is the £350 million redevelopment of the UK’s Ministry of Defence headquarters in London. This project blended the new with the old and transformed the work environment for 3,300 people in a huge listed building.
At the opposite end of the scale is the Soho Square Lodge. A tiny listed building sat upon a ‘secret’ underground world of air-raid shelters and the new Crossrail underground station. People are surprised that one of the world’s largest practices would do a building that is 4 meters by 4 meters, but it is a great story that has attracted lots of column inches.
I have had conversations with HOK’s San Francisco office about The Mint Project, which is an exciting adaptive reuse project transforming a nineteenth century building into a modern mixed-use cultural center. It is being done very sustainably and will be an exemplar projects for years to come, I believe.
Personally, I have been fortunate to have worked on buildings from some of the masters of the twentieth century. This includes repair and alterations of the Grade I listed De La Warr Pavilion by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff at Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex. I worked on James Stirling’s History Faculty Library in Cambridge and The Roundhouse and Trellick Tower in London. The common thread linking each of them is design.
5. What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
MC: I did my master’s thesis on the influence of Japanese art and architecture in the work of Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. He is the guru for adaptive reuse and conservation, but for a long time went undiscovered. I’ve been trying to publish that paper ever since!