With some rather epic projects under his belt, including London's Waterloo International railway station, Cornwall's Eden Project, the Southern Cross Station in Melbourne (which won the Lubetkin Prize), and a great many more yet to come, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the quiet man of British architectural design, has much to boast about. Yet, at 71, he shows no signs of bragging, or of packing away his sketching pencils. With nearly 50 years of creating some of the world's most distinctive and complex modernist designs, he is still working a busy five-day week, both as chairman of his global, East London-based practice Grimshaw Architects, and as president at the prestigious Royal Academy.
You've had such a long and brilliant career. How do you manage to come up with new ideas?
Ideas are, thankfully, still endless. I fill my sketchbooks up every few months. I've now got to number 67 and I've given them all to the Royal Academy library, some of which are being, or have been already, published.
Where did your love of construction develop from?
It goes quite deep into my family. One of my great-grandfathers built dams on the Nile, another laid the sewer system under Dublin and my father was an aircraft engineer. A lot of my mother's family were artists. People say these things aren't genetic - but there it is. I also inherited a Meccano set from my father, which was used religiously.
What was your last big project?
Frankfurt Exhibition Hall was a huge project, and one that's become quite talked about in the publishing world as the book fair is held there. We also completed a new front on Zurich airport quite recently - another mammoth task.
Whenever Vitra make a new chair they bring out a miniature edition and send one to me at Christmas. It's become quite an extensive collection
I'm sketching all the time. It's a dying form, of course. If I ask anybody in the office for a concept sketch they won't have one, as everybody uses a computer these days
This was the main model for a competition entry that was never built. It adapted the vernacular mushrabiyah screen, the "window" of timber latticework, and maximised the benefits of daylight without being subject to the sun's heat
On the left is the Core Building from the Eden project. It opened in 2004 and is made of laminated timber, with a sculpture by Peter Randall-Page at its centre. At the back is a structural example of the Waterloo International Terminal span, and to the right is a sample façade for an energy-from-waste facility we are designing for SITA in Suffolk
This rapid prototype of the Eden Project has been carved out completely by a computer. Before computers all these things would have to be done by hand. It's probably a bit seditious, but I do think you tend to think less if you are in front of a computer screen all the time
What do you think sets you apart from your architectural contemporaries?
Clients appreciate our belief in detail and quality. We're currently doing St Petersburg airport and although it's being built by a local architect they have kept us on there as what they call "concept guardians" in order to keep an eye on all the details as it's being built. I like that idea.
You have travelled the world extensively throughout your career; which city has particular appeal?
St Petersburg is the most extraordinary place. It's right at sea level on a collection of islands, on marshland originally. So all the buildings seem to be floating on the water. I love water, I'm a terrific fan of Venice and Amsterdam - anything to do with boats or water basically. I have a house in Norfolk with a couple of dinghies and I try to sail as much as possible. I even have a 1956 Melbourne Olympics boat. It's beautiful. I still sail it occasionally in fine weather.
You are known for being rather stylish. Does your obsession with clean lines stretch to your wardrobe?
I suppose as an architect you do take an interest. When I was at the Architectural Association (AA) in the Sixties I did live it up a bit in my silver PVC suit. Then there's that picture of me talking to Buckminster Fuller in a lovely black frock coat, kipper tie and flat-front sailor trousers. I have moved on from then, luckily.
And where are your glasses from?
During the time I was at the AA with Peter Cook, he recommended a tiny shop on Holloway Road for good glasses, and suggested I ask for a man called Tony Gross. Now of course today the brand is known as Cutler and Gross and their glasses have consequently become rather expensive but I still buy them. I think I must be their oldest customer. They were very cheap back then, made from a flat sheet of Perspex. I had my round spectacles long before bloody David Hockney!
How did your relationship with the Royal Academy come about?
It happened around 2004, during a time I was trying to restructure the office and give more responsibility to the younger partners. It felt like a nice point to step back a bit and somebody suggested I stand for president, which hadn't really occurred to me before. I wrote a manifesto and they elected me. My life changed overnight really as it's quite a responsible job. I've tried to make changes and to not just sit there, ticking over - that's not quite my style.
Has there been one building in particular you've been really proud of?
It would have to be Waterloo. So much time and effort went into it. It was five years of my life and at the time it was by far the biggest project we'd ever done. It also had such glamourous billing, being named as possibly the most exciting commission in Europe at the time. It was a huge win for us. There were serious celebrations. Oh and it was opened by the Queen.
You must have met her several times by now?
Yes about a dozen, I believe. She's awfully nice. Sharp as a needle. Last time I met her she said, "I know who you are", which is nice I suppose! I wonder how many people she says that to...?