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AJ100 interview: Mouzhan Majidi, Foster & Partners

‘Things are not as bad as we thought’

As Foster + Partners’ Battersea office comes into view, I look up. There in the window I see the great man himself, Norman Foster, in a grey polo neck, chin nestled in his hands, looking intently ahead. After a very wobbly start to 2009, which saw his business close two offices and make more than 300 people redundant, could Foster be reflecting on how to save his architectural empire from further shrinkage?

Once inside the studio, I’m greeted by the sharply suited chief executive Mouzhan Majidi, who shows me a board on the wall posting sites around the world where the practice is engaged at the moment. These include towers in Mumbai, a hospital in Bath (the practice’s first such project), the final phase of the More London development on the banks of London’s River Thames, the Walbrook Square development in the City of London, a new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan and the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Centre in Astana, Kazakhstan.

I get the message – things are picking up. ‘We’ve just had a good March,’ says Majidi. ‘Discussions are taking place on projects that were on hold, which is a very positive sign. Things are not as bad as we thought they might be. There are good signs of potential projects coming through.’

Majidi developed an early interest in airports and was sufficiently sought after as an architectural student at the University of Strathclyde to be able to choose Foster in 1987 – at the time a medium-sized practice of around 32 people based in Great Portland Street – because he wanted to work on Stansted Airport.

In 2007, Majidi was promoted to chief executive. Since then, he has focused on increasing the practice’s global reach. ‘We are now working in 50 countries and 85 per cent of our work is international,’ he says. Current projects are in Malaysia, China, Latin America, India and North Africa – particularly Morocco, where Foster is undertaking a masterplanning project in the capital, Rabat.

Around 35 per cent of Foster’s fees come from the Middle East, mostly Abu Dhabi. The three offices it maintains there are still growing, with three big schemes on the go – the zero-carbon Masdar scheme (for which phase one has just completed), Aldar Central Market, and Sheikh Zayed National Museum. ‘We require more and more people to relocate to Abu Dhabi,’ says Majidi.

From the sound of things, Majidi hasn’t done much to adjust to the current recession. He says the fee structure hasn’t changed, nor has the practice’s policy of only taking on work that fits its ethos and interests. What about the redundancies? Majidi points out that Foster’s redundancy statistics should be tempered by the fact it has returned to having around 1,000 global employees – the size of the practice just one year ago. And that’s the size it plans to stick to, says Majidi, at least for the coming year. Damian Arnold

Foster & Partners was number 3 in the 2009 AJ100

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