BRITISH ARCHITECTS TAKE ON OVERSEAS PROJECTS WITH BRIGHT IDEAS, HAPPY TO LEARN FROM LOCAL ASSOCIATES
Give an architect a blank canvas, limitless funds and almost no constraints, and almost anybody can design a passable building.
It may not be great architecture, but it will do the job. Working in the UK, however, is nothing like that. It is challenging, complex - at times frustrating, occasionally infuriating. Architects who want to flourish in this environment must develop a host of skills - and these skills make them valuable around the world.
In a recent speech to the AJ's breakfast club, Secretary of State for Culture Tessa Jowell praised 'the energy of British architecture today'. And she went on to highlight its importance for the economy and the country's prestige. 'UK firms account for eight of the top 10 architectural firms in western Europe and over 60 of the world's largest architecture firms are British, ' she said.
'And I don't need to tell you that without this backbone of architectural talent and skills, the UK construction industry wouldn't provide a tenth of the UK's gross domestic product, and employ 1.4 million people, as it does today.' Some of the restrictions that make this architecture great come from living in a crowded island. Coupled with a fiercely protected architectural heritage, this means that architects often have to work with existing buildings, and nearly always with existing neighbours. As other countries become more concerned about their own heritage, these skills are attractive and transferable.
Recently, this re-use of existing buildings has extended to a large number of apartment conversions, as concerns about increasing urban density and attracting people back into the cities have resulted in a shake-up in the housing market.
Traditionally, the UK is seen as the land of the suburban semidetached (although this view, of course, excludes the mansion flats of the late 19th and early 20th centuries). But by coming relatively fresh to this building type, British architects have been able to adopt an imaginative approach.
Healthcare buildings and schools have been the growth areas of the last few years, and here as well architects have had to be fast on their feet. Not only have delivery methods changed, with the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative, but so have the buildings themselves, as the government rethinks the requirements of these sectors. The health sector has seen an expansion in the services offered by primary healthcare, and in schools there have been numerous initiatives, such as City Academies and Schools for the Future. Not all of these experiments have worked well, and the funding especially has often been frustrating. But these difficult years have given architects an insight into the sectors - and given some of them a desire to deploy their skills in a less difficult environment.
The wealth of skills that architectural practices have accumulated in the past few years would mean little in the world at large if they were not accompanied by the desire and confidence to work abroad. But there is a great tradition of British architects spreading their wings, often relatively early in their careers. That is true of the now establishment figures of Rogers, Foster and Chipperfield, all of whom made their names largely overseas.
And younger practices are equally adventurous and capable.
With competitions playing such a large role in the winning of jobs, they are happy to try their hands at contests in other countries.
A favourable book review in the Guardian in February looked at a novel by a British author set entirely in the USA and the former East Germany, and speculated on the ability of British writers to set books in countries that were not their own. Perhaps this was a legacy of colonial heritage, but if so it has certainly resulted in confidence rather than arrogance. British architects take on overseas projects with curiosity and bright ideas, happy to work with and learn from local associates. Having taken their skills and imagination abroad, these architects then return to their own country with broadened minds.
There is no shortage of talent in UK architecture, with the better-known being followed by emerging generations, as evidenced in the hugely successful 40 Under 40 initiative last year. The architects exhibiting on the UK Architecture at MIPIM stand are at varied stages in their careers, and all have different talents and experience abroad. But they all have plenty to offer, with natural talent honed by the tough but stimulating environment that is architecture in the UK.