Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Do architects have the power to make great buildings and better cities? As I speak to design professionals in Canada, the answer I hear is no. When it comes to the bulk of what we’re building – especially housing – they simply don’t have the influence.

Alison Brooks is different. The Canadian expat, based in London, won’t have any of that pessimism. “As architects, we have a certain responsibility,” she told me recently. “If the profession that’s responsible for delivering buildings – and should also be delivering joy and beauty – won’t stand up for quality design, then who will?”

Alison Brooks.

Her career of three decades in Britain suggests a lesson for design professionals: That fighting for the ideal building and city is their job, and sometimes they can even win.

Story continues below advertisement

Brooks is about to open a new building, the Cohen Quadrangle, at Exeter College in Oxford, and is working on a major Vancouver housing project for the developers Rize.

So far, her buildings are respectful of traditional urban design, sensitive to the city around them and are both beautiful and inventive. Brooks aims to pursue all of these values at the same time. During a recent April 12 talk at the Architect@Work conference in Toronto, she summarized her values in four words: authenticity, generosity, civicness and beauty.

That creates particularly compelling results in the field of housing. That type of building is Brooks’s specialty and her firm has won all three of Britain’s top architecture awards for such work. Brooks presented some of her firm’s residential projects, which suggest how contemporary apartments – both for market housing and for social housing – can be humane, sensitive to their contexts and beautiful.

Take Ely Court, a series of residential buildings that are part of the rebuilding of a postwar public housing estate in northwest London. Brooks’s team designed three four-storey blocks, containing 43 homes, as part of a larger rebuilding of the South Kilburn Estate that’s being run and owned by the local municipality. Originally this area was brick row houses, built by developers in the 1860s, and those blocks were torn up, beginning in the 1950s, for a complex arrangement of mostly mid-rise and high-rise apartments.

The Ely Court development contains 43 homes.

Paul Riddle

Brooks’s work, in some respects, goes back to the 19th century. “The Victorians were excellent urban designers,” she says, and accordingly her three buildings rebuild the Victorian street grid, adding a new lane and street and facing squarely against those public ways.

The architectural language is friendly to its older neighbours: Brooks has chosen a warm, light-brown brick that harmonizes with the London stock brick around it. And at four storeys, her buildings are similar to the older three-storey terraces; they also extend two-storey porticos out toward the street, and place balconies recessed within the face of the building, adding an attractively varied texture.

On the other hand, there’s no effort here to mimic the details or even the precise forms of Victorian housing. These buildings are square, largely without ornament and they have the odd diagonal corners carved out for a bit of formal poetry. There’s nothing faux-old about this: It is unapologetically 21st-century architecture that recognizes the past.

Story continues below advertisement

“When you design a residential project, you’re designing a neighbourhood,” Brooks says. “How do you create a sense of diversity and an organic quality to that area? We think about it as city-building first and the buildings – particularly housing architecture – are devices that create civic space.”

Of course Brooks is doing most of her work in the context of London, which boasts a wealth of architectural and urban history – and where responding to that history is both expected and required. “There are experts in planning and conservation and there’s an expectation of living up to the historic context,” Brooks says.

And yet Brooks is, and remains, Canadian, which perhaps explains some of her social bent. “It’s a bit strange, because I’m from North America, which is not known for high-quality housing,” Brooks said. “But in London I’m one of the strongest advocates for that subject.”

Raised in Welland and Guelph, Ont., Brooks attended architecture school at the University of Waterloo. After graduation she moved directly to London, joining a group of fellow 1987 and 1988 Waterloo graduates in search of opportunity. “I went on a two-year working holiday and never came back,” she says with a smile.

Among her cohort was her partner, architect and engineer Charles Walker, who is a director at the Zaha Hadid Architects. (Other very distinguished Canadians among their generation in London are the McGill graduate Adam Caruso, and University of Toronto graduate Jamie Fobert, who recently completed a remarkable new gallery space for the Tate St. Ives.)

For her part, Brooks initially found her niche working alongside the trouble-making artist-architect Ron Arad. “His approach – which was really irreverent toward the architecture world – was valuable,” she recalls. “I’m very much about space, and Ron is about the object. We had a symbiotic relationship in that sense.”

Story continues below advertisement

Brooks has dabbled in object-making herself. In 2016 she designed the Smile, a 34-metre long pavilion made of engineered wood that was shaped like, yes, a smile. It was a hit, much Instagrammed.

The Smile pavilion.

Paul Riddle Photographer Limited

But there is a strong element of social responsibility in what she does. Ely Court is a case in point. London’s “estate regeneration” projects are architecturally complex and politically loaded: They are undoing the physical manifestations of the postwar welfare state and they generally include public-private partnerships which, as The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright has reported, are often stacked in favour of developers. Here, too, Brooks has a point to make: She isn’t playing that game. The Ely Court project, unlike other similar projects, is owned and operated by the local Brent council. “There’s a real benefit in having a client who is committed to the long term,” she says. “You’re able to make the right choices.”

And doing the right thing – choosing quality materials, designing proper details, creating a neighbourhood that works for each resident – is the thread other architects should follow. “We’re on the front lines of urbanization, one of the critical issues of the century,” Brooks says of her profession. “If we don’t use our authority, we will lose it. We should be defending human values for the common good.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies