Nick Lomax

Elaine Evans interviews - Nick Lomax

Architect of the Jubilee Library

When Nick Lomax gave his talk to the Regency Society in November 2007 entitled “A Brighton architect designs the Brighton Library”, I was surprised and intrigued to learn of his work in Libya. I myself had had business links with that country in the 70s, an interesting experience, so after the lecture I asked Nick if he would be willing to be interviewed for this series.

It was therefore a pleasure to have an informal chat with him at his Western Road offices. I started by asking how he became involved with Libya. This came about in rather a fortuitous way. A British-trained Libyan had come to work at LCE and had suggested that there were work opportunities there. Nick went to Libya for the first time in 2004. LCE have since carried out several successful projects there, and the work keeps coming. The number has slowed down a little because of the dip in the price of oil, but the global recession has not hit Libya as badly as Europe. Some practices would dearly love to get a foothold in Libya now, but it’s a case of “ Too late’ was the cry”. The Libyans are very loyal clients.

In 1954 Nick started life in one of those small Regency houses that were swept away for the Churchill Square development.  The family moved to Hurstpierpoint, where he went to the eponymous College, then he took his honours degree in Architecture at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. There followed a year in Guildford, five years in Nigeria, then four years in London. During the latter period he married, the first child arrived and in 1986 they decided to bring up the family in a more congenial place. Hove was their choice – convenient for the daily commute to London.

One of my preparatory questions read “What do you like about your house?” Nick’s answer: “Its location and the library we put in the roof.” Say again? How many people have a library in the roof? It transpires that Nick was able to fit a 70 sq m library with storage and a roof terrace in the roof space of their double-fronted house in 2006. How superb!

I asked Nick about the structure of the practice. He is a founder of LCE, the managing director and one of three partners. I suppose that to the average local resident it was the building of the Jubilee Library that made Nick Lomax and LCE well-known, not just in the City but nationally. LCE were asked to undertake this demanding project by Norwich Union, and they chose to work with Bennetts Associates (a husband and wife team, old colleagues from University days). The principal engineers were Fulcrum (mechanical and electrical) and Anthony Hunt Associates were the structural engineers. The architect leads the design.

I knew that the Library had won a number of awards – in fact, there were 13 or 14 at the last count! The two most prestigious are the Prime Minister’s “Better Public Building Award” and being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, both in 2005. The awarding of the latter is quite a long process. RIBA longlists 15 projects, of which 6 are shortlisted. The ceremony was on TV – I watched because of LCE’s nomination. Sadly they lost out to the Scottish Parliament. However, Nick’s favourite award is The Observer’s “Ethical Building of the Year” award in 2006. Partly this was because of the recognition of the Library’s sustainability and partly because it came as a nice surprise. You see, usually architects have to submit details of their projects to the award-giving body, but with The Observer this is not the case.

Nick Lomax is a 5th generation architect – a rather rare occurrence, wouldn’t you say? His father was head of the School of Architecture at Brighton University, and his mother and grandmother were both architects. In fact, the latter was the first female teacher in Higher Education in Scotland. As a child Nick found architecture rather boring but when he was about 15 or 16, it began to appeal. His sister certainly didn’t want to follow in the family tradition.

When I interviewed John Small back in 2005, I said that if he were a stick of rock, you would find “architect” all the way through. (His daughter thought that very apt.) Well, in Nick’s case, you could say that architecture is in his bones (or genes?)

I wanted to know more about Renzo Piano, a name new to me. This modest man lives in Genoa and designed the Pompidou Centre with Richard Rogers. He has a very practical but creative approach to architecture. He doesn’t have a house style and the design solution appears to come from the site and its context rather than the style being imposed,” explained Nick. Nick himself favours contemporary design but LCE’s body of work contains a range of influences. Another local commission was the conversion of the former Technical College in Richmond Place, and they recently completed the new Art School at Lancing College. A current PFI project is in Wigan, building a library behind an existing listed façade, plus a swimming pool and offices, the whole complex containing the current modern Town Hall and named the “Joint Services Centre”. Let’s hope they can come up with a more attractive name than that!

Yes, LCE are very busy in spite of the economic downturn. They have been shortlisted for Liverpool Library (I guess the success of the Jubilee Library has opened quite a few doors for them), are working on remodelling and additions to Bristol Old Vic, and the redevelopment of the Open Market here in Brighton is in hand.

In view of the Jubilee Library’s uncompromisingly contemporary look, I queried Nick’s choice of the Regency squares to show a first time visitor. He enthused about the seafront -“outstanding, scale”- the Regency squares, terraces and crescents, the Hove Lawns, Madeira Drive and the retaining wall. As for showing the visitor his own contribution to Brighton’s architectural landmarks – “modesty forbids!” It was a most interesting and enjoyable hour, discovering the man behind the Jubilee Library. I’ll be a bit cheeky and say “I like the hair, Nick – far out!”

Mini Questionnaire

Where would you take a first time visitor to Brighton/Hove?
The seafront, Regency squares

Favourite restaurants (a)local, (b)elsewhere
Local: Graze, Due South, Elsewhere: Oxo Tower in London

Ideal dinner guests: My family.

Favourite author or musician or actor:
Architect – Renzo Piano

Ideal holiday:
A European city break

Your most memorable experience of the last 5 or so years?
Setting up an office in Libya

What do you consider your most satisfying professional or personal achievement in life (so far)?
Professional: Being part of the team that designed the Jubilee Library; personal: Getting married and having two delightful daughters

Any future ambitions/desires?
To design more for the City of Brighton & Hove