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anglo-american saxon

PEOPLE: BDP chairman Richard Saxon won a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list last weekend. But the practice he heads, which has done so much to shape the Wimbledon estate, has even more to celebrate. . .

Building Design Partnership is officially 40 years old this year. And its chairman, America-loving Mancunian Richard Saxon, is looking forward to being elected for another two years to head a group that has accrued 300 awards in that time.

Fifty-nine-year-old Saxon, awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours last weekend for his work on construction procurement, is a businessman, 'placemaker' and architect, but he feels this kind of a combination is dying out because architectural education is failing to serve the profession properly.

'They teach you less and less at architecture school about what you actually do, ' he complains. 'As a result, architects are becoming more and more powerless.'

With exceptions, he says, the schools now do not teach how an artistic appreciation may be of use in the construction industry.

He mimics a student: 'We're not part of the construction industry, ' they say. 'Oh, what do you do then?' To which they reply: 'We draw.'

This belief that it is 'not just an art form' is dearly held at BDP. The long list of important construction panels, committees and forums on Saxon's CV - but notably none from the RIBA - are a testament. This, after all, is the man who was 'electrified' by the Latham review and who insists that people who work at BDP are all 'building designers' - not architects.

Now Saxon is relishing the prospect of encouraging financial results later this year as a result. These, he hints, will show that lessons from last year's weaker numbers have been learned. So the high-risk tenders and trickier PFI projects have been ironed out; instead the group is concentrating on building on its reputation for producing what former BDP partner David Rock calls 'solid' buildings and on forging the distinctly American-sounding 'relationships' with clients as it does so.

Saxon, who Rock says was thought of as a 'wild young architect' and 'very good but extreme' in his Manchester days, moved up the broad-based multidisciplinary outfit rapidly. He attained first class honours at Liverpool University and gained a Master in Civic Design, a planning emphasis that has informed his almost sneering view that the bulk of 'signature architects' and those without a planners' view come up simply with buildings 'as objects'. He allies himself in this most closely with the work of Sir Terry Farrell, whose approach he admires.

But it was a scholarship to work in Chicago for the firm now known as Murphy Jahn that began his love affair with the US - all to do, he says, with the country's light, space and the way they set about building.

'Chicago was and is the quintessence of modern architecture, both in building and in urban terms, ' says Saxon.

His was only a stay of three months, but it made a lasting impression that has shone through BDP and Saxon's career. 'Although I was an Americanophile when I went, when I came back I was in love. I didn't move there because it never occurred to me, but I'm going to - I have a house in Arizona.'

BDP began in earnest in 1961 from a practice founded in Preston, Lancashire by Sir George Grenfell Baines in 1936. Baines, or 'GG' as he is always called, is 93 now but still retains contact with the firm. And it was Baines who recruited a young Saxon when he was in his third year after a 'GG'talk called 'Is there life after graduation?' Saxon went full-time at the Manchester office in 1966, then moved to London in 1986, chiefly because his lawyer wife wanted to go there.

After becoming an associate, he became a managing partner in the early '80s.

An early job was the 'amazing' Halifax Building Society building, which Saxon speaks of in the same breath as Foster's Willis Faber building in Ipswich. He judges the latter as more famous only because of 'the Foster machine'. Halifax was 'probably the best building he ever did' - the practice has just refurbished it and picked up the Test of Time award from the British Council for Offices, another key Saxon interest (he is a BCO founder member and past president).

Another key job was the 75,000m 2headquarters for JP Morgan at 60 Victoria Embankment, London - a neat meeting of Saxon's US interest with his offices expertise.

Saxon dislikes 'signature' architects - practitioners such as Lord Foster and Chris Wilkinson are not mentioned in the most glowing of terms. But the new titanium-clad IMAX in Glasgow opposite Foster's Armadillo conference centre is at least adventurous and like the 'objects' of which he does not approve. The retort is that BDP can and does do signature buildings - but the team is still the important thing.

So teamwork is strong and Saxon has overseen a growth in profits during the past seven or eight years. The international perspective was also given a push when Saxon et al scooped an HQ for Adam Opel in Russelsheim, outside Frankfurt. The win, Saxon recalls, was thanks largely to having the foresight to include pictures of next year's Opel car models in its presentation.

And, again neatly, on his birthday in 1992 he won the masterplan for the All England Lawn Tennis Club. 'I remember walking down the street thinking: 'This is all going very well - I've done lots of things, I've been to all sorts of places I wouldn't have imagined having gone to while I was in Manchester'. But I thought: 'What haven't I done yet? What would be nice? I'd really like to go to Wimbledon.'' And so the trick has been that whenever Saxon has been an enthusiast - cars, the US, tennis - the client has tended to notice, and the job has tended to come BDP's way.

As to the future, Saxon wants BDP to be 'much more value-added', and says it will do more PFIs, but as client; it will also do more contracting. The practice also has a major move from Gresse Street on the horizon but does not know where it is going yet. As for architects in general, Saxon believes it is time for them to become the 'marketing arm of the construction industry, and fully understand the needs of society. 'Maybe the designers are the marketeers - the ones who identify true customer needs, ' he says.

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