Beyond the pragmatic John McAslan's recently renamed but mature practice is creating new horizons
'This is a new practice,' John McAslan insists. Later on he says of the 'new' practice - John McAslan & Partners (jmp) - 'we've reached a degree of maturity'. The two statements might sound somewhat contradictory, but for McAslan there had been no obvious divide in nearly 14 years of independent work. Last year, however, Troughton McAslan, the partnership he established in 1984 with Jamie Troughton, was dissolved when McAslan bought out the latter's equity. Troughton remains a director of jmp, at least for the time being, but has in effect left the firm. There was no falling-out - just a sense that the time had come to part. Two new directors, Nick Eldridge and Piers Smerin (both of whom worked at one time for Norman Foster), have been appointed, but McAslan is very much in charge. He celebrates his 44th birthday this year and is not contemplating taking a back seat just yet.
McAslan likes to run a 'lean, mean' business. He works harder than most and expects others to do the same. jmp is tightly structured - and profitable - and there is no room for slackers. McAslan can't envisage a practice more than 30 strong - more people on the payroll means a smaller share for everyone, he points out. Yet with more and bigger jobs in hand, the structure of jmp remains fluid - another director and a new batch of associates may be needed before long. The practice is soon to move from W8 to Southwark, to premises - combining an 'inspirational' ambience with the latest technology - appropriate to a 'studio-based' operation. The move could be 'cathartic', says McAslan, a real break with the past, and will provide a 50 per cent increase in space.
Smerin and Eldridge have their own ideas on the future direction of the office. Piers Smerin, who once worked for Zaha Hadid, finds the description of its work as 'pragmatic' inadequate. 'It's rational, but also rich and expressive,' he says, citing his own work on the Royal Academy of Music project. Nick Eldridge is concerned that conservation and rehabilitation jobs feature too prominently in jmp's workload and that the new buildings it has produced are insufficiently known. (Building in Japan, Turkey and Italy is an achievement in itself, but it doesn't necessarily impress potential clients in the uk - the practice would like a big new-build commission in this country.)
Repairing buildings by Mendelsohn and Wright and working with Grade I- listed monuments is a challenge that McAslan frankly enjoys, though repair schemes can be prestigious loss-leaders. He is impressed by the approach to conversion and extension pursued in the us and Europe - Jean Nouvel's additions to the Lyons opera house, for example, he believes could never happen here. 'It's the opposite of the mincing about and timidity which is still too typical of the uk.' Dealing with the British conservation lobby is a challenge in itself. Currently engaged in 'friendly' discussions with English Heritage over an extension to Mendelsohn's Bexhill Pavilion, McAslan is adamant that 'we will compromise, but never at the expense of doing what is wrong for the building'. Replicating the old is ruled out.
jmp was particularly pleased to win the Roundhouse commission, beating, among others, Norman Foster. But it could be 'a tough job', McAslan concedes, since new services and audience facilities have to be provided without compromising the impressive interior space. If English Heritage doesn't adopt an antiquarian and prohibitive approach, here, a bold approach would be in keeping with the big-boned industrial structure which can accommodate change, as at King's Cross station (another jmp job).
Neither 'smug and over-refined' nor 'community high-tech' - McAslan and colleagues' descriptions of some of their more obvious competitors - jmp wants to be smart, tough and good at delivering on time and to cost. Working abroad goes hand in hand with an international outlook - us masters like Wright, Kahn and Roche are high in the McAslan pantheon.
By turns pugnacious and more subtly persuasive, John McAslan has a winning way with clients and with staff. The firm makes no claims to being a total democracy - McAslan believes in the incentive power of hierarchy - yet it seems to inspire great loyalty. Its pre-Christmas celebration took the form of day out on the Eurostar to Lille, where Euralille (disappointing) and the additions to the Musee des Beaux Arts (inspiring) were duly inspected. After a seven-course, four-hour lunch, the entire office jumped into cabs and decamped in the dark to the drab suburb of Tourcoing to see Bernard Tschumi's new performing arts academy. The visit turned into a debate, with Tschumi's approach alternately damned as a costly folly or lauded for its radicalism. It's the kind of debate that happens regularly in the jmp office.
McAslan, Smerin and Eldridge are all unhappy with the 'pragmatic' image of the firm, which could imply, they say, not just the elevation of practice over theory but a simple lack of ideas. There is plainly no lack of ideas at jmp. They need to emerge more clearly as the firm 'reinvents' itself and secures a clear identity. It has a good foundation for future success: a body of work which is characterised by great variety and a consistent search for quality, rooted in a clear philosophy of design. John McAslan lectures at the riba on 17 February. jmp's work is featured starting on page 27