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AJ100 #1: Ellis Woodman on Foster + Partners

AJ100 Top 10 profiles: Foster has a better understanding than most of the cyclical nature of the architecture industry, writes Ellis Woodman

There can be no more vivid indicator of the extent of Foster + Partners’ dominance of the UK architecture scene than the fact that, just weeks after the firm wiped £130 million off the value of its business, it has still managed to retain the top spot in the AJ100.

The past five years have proved challenging for a firm that was forced to make nearly 400 redundancies in 2009 and experienced declining revenue and profits in the years since. ‘Everybody was impacted,’ Norman Foster recalls. ‘Even tiger economies were delaying projects, if not cancelling them.’

Yet, having survived the vacuum in work that followed the completion of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank and the fallout from the collapse of the Reichmann brothers just a few years later, Foster has a better understanding than most of the cyclical nature of the architecture industry. And all the signs suggest that his practice has weathered this most recent storm, too. Last year’s order book stood at a record £290 million and the firm is currently on a recruitment drive that should see it return to its pre-crash scale.

Foster attributes its rapid recovery to the flexibility that has come with size. The adoption of a global business model now enables it to direct its energies in response to local market fluctuations, while a workforce that includes product designers, infrastructure experts and structural and environmental engineers is securing commissions that would be denied a practice of more conventional disciplinary scope.

When the European Space Agency was looking for a company to research the possibilities of 3D printing habitable structures on the moon, it was to Foster + Partners that it inevitably turned. After Nike, the practice is the second biggest user of 3D printing technology in the world.

However, Foster cautions against viewing size alone as a measure of success. He says: ‘The challenge is in how you can give a very personal service - all the qualities that you associate with a small practice - while reaping the benefits of a larger practice by, say, investing in research and development.’

In certain management roles, you really do need a professional

One way that the firm seeks to maintain a small practice culture is by resisting the development of specialist silos, with each group being permitted to compete for projects of any type in any part of the world. ‘On a rational level, it’s mad that guys from both this group and that group are going to New York. There is a duplication.’ Foster says. ‘But to be in a group where you’re working on a boutique winery, while the guys next to you are working on a long, drawn-out megaproject - it is that mix that keeps us sharp.’ One might imagine such an unconventional business model would have been threatened when 3i bought a 40 per cent stake in the company in 2007, but Foster lauds the private equity provider’s ‘wonderfully light touch’ and voices appreciation of its role in addressing ‘governance, compliance, fee vetting and all the other business issues that come with being a larger practice’. However, as he acknowledges, this increased professionalisation has involved structural changes, not least the recent departure of long-standing chief executive Mouzhan Majidi. ‘In certain management roles, you really do need a professional,’ Foster says, ‘and at a certain point of evolution, architects are probably best at doing what they do best, which is designing buildings.’

The restructuring has been undertaken with the aim of ensuring the firm’s future after Foster’s own departure but, as he heads off to a meeting about the Apple headquarters, he makes clear that there is no immediate prospect of that: ‘In the spirit of Steve Jobs, when I identify that I am no longer “with it” I’ll retire, but I’m presently travelling more than ever and working as hard, if not harder.’

 

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