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AJ100 #3: Paul Finch on Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

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AJ100 Top 10 profiles: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris is the most successful practice of its generation, write Paul Finch

August 1989 must have seemed an auspicious time to launch a fledgling architectural practice. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the quartet who had completed their diplomas at the Bartlett and worked as a team at BDP, took the plunge and opened an office in Fitzrovia just as the great Thatcher boom began to go off the boil. For all the then-young practices still with us today, the period started with the architectural equivalent of the war years: the endless frustration of maybe-commissions, abortive work, competition entries where somehow the building was never to materialise. The camaraderie evident between practices of this generation, and their counterparts among engineers, is unlikely to fade – it was too daunting a shared experience.

It was noticeable that when AHMM celebrated its 21st anniversary in the Saatchi Gallery on King’s Road – one of its own interiors – many contemporaries were not only invited but also attended. Like other practices that survived that first post-crash period, they did so by a mixture of paying themselves minimum salaries, taking discreet domestic commissions, exhibition organisation, competition work, and teaching. As an RIBA lecture at the end of the ’90s showed, this was a quartet that had established a way of co-operative working that was, and is, unusually integrated, producing a brand of Modernism that was cool without being frigid.

The practice’s move into work for developers was not a sign of the abandonment of an interest in public projects – far from it. But for this generation of architects, the old distinctions between commercial (bad) and public sector (good) had ceased to have the resonance of previous decades. Work delivered in the intervening years proved this in spades, with welfarist buildings designed at the same time as work for developers and other commercial and cultural clients. The move of the office from expensive central to fringe premises on Old Street was a symbol of financial reality kicking in – and also of the potential for ordinary buildings and places to become extraordinary. And so it eventually proved, with AHMM now occupying customised office space designed for one of their many repeat clients, Derwent London, complete with roof terrace and views across a city transformed while the practice has been operational.

There’s plenty of life in this exemplary version of general practice

Essentially a London practice with a satellite office in Bristol (both doing school work in and outside of the capital), AHMM now has a significant European project in the form of a university complex in The Netherlands, where the first major phase has just completed. More important for the long term is the fledgling US office of six, based in a practice-designed office in Oklahoma, as well as another team of six in London, which works on US projects, most notably Google’s planned King’s Cross headquarters.

With almost 300 staff in total, AHMM has proved the most successful practice of its generation. With three buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize (a school, a medical centre, and an office) and British Construction Industry Awards for low-cost housing, and the original ‘white-collar factory’ for Monsoon, the firm’s story has been one of hugely increased workload and high design standards. That was one reason it claimed the AJ Practice of the Year award in 2013, and perhaps the reason it smashed into the AJ100 top ten last year and shot up the rankings by a further six places in 2014.

The firm’s partners and senior staff have continued to play a constructive role in architectural education and have contributed greatly both to the RIBA and other architectural organisations, including CABE. The strength of the quartet as a working unit has, if anything, increased with the pressure of commercial and cultural success. There is plenty of life in this exemplary version of general practice.

 

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