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Consultants in a time of transition

BOOKS

degw, through its highly specialised research papers, reference books and seminars on office trends, has always traded on a double-edged brand of self-promotion that seems to rely on disseminating its trade secrets. Design for Change: The Architecture of degw is a worthy addition to the genre and, as with so many of its previous publications, is far more than the office brochure.

For those with an eye on the office market, Design for Change provides a broad and very persuasive overview of methodology and presentation techniques, which explains why degw has spawned a virtual industry of fellow specialists and networkers. But the book also encapsulates the changing nature of the architectural profession over the last two or three decades, with the emergence of broad-based specialisms that do not necessarily result in design. For those who still believe that architecture begins and ends with design, here is demonstrable proof that architects can have a huge and valuable impact as, for example, a brief writer or as a quasi-management consultant.

The early chapters of the book - with headings such as 'Organisational Change', 'Strategic Briefing', 'Consulting the User' - represent degw's sphere of greatest influence and would make worthwhile reading for students as well as practitioners. It takes a particular temperament to survive in this territory, but it is regrettably foreign to many architects whose work is propped up more by opinion than by objective analysis.

To illustrate the impact of its consultancy work (and perhaps claim some of the credit retrospectively), the book includes many buildings, clearly credited to other architects, where the design concept was, in effect, enshrined within degw's strategic brief. Particularly noteworthy in this respect are British Airways' new headquarters by Niels Torp, Stockley Park by Arup Associates, and the mod's vast complex in Bristol by Percy Thomas Partnership.

As in Frank Duffy's recent The New Office (aj 15.1.98), Design for Change includes numerous historical references that enrich the text, and distance it further from conventional promotional material - such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building and Foster's Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. Ever since Le Corbusier used aeroplanes and other technological icons to illustrate Vers une Architecture, architects have used the power of association to elevate the perception of their work, and degw is no exception. Indeed, the latter half both of the book and of its title are used to position degw not merely as an office consultancy firm but as a serious architectural player.

Although there have been occasional glimpses of degw buildings in the past, this book provides enough evidence to believe that it is now producing projects of architectural stature. Particularly interesting is the way in which analysis and briefing are being applied at an urban scale and not just in business parks or at the workplace.

Having suppressed its collective architectural ego for so long, there is a certain irony in degw now facilitating a transition of its own, from the new-generation consultant back to a more conventional form of competition- winning architectural practice.

Design for Change: The Architecture of degw leaves the impression that the practice has embarked on a major new phase in its development (no doubt an objective of the book) - but it does so in a way that is engaging and relevant to many other architects.

It will be interesting to see if degw's emerging architectural manifesto can sustain the spirit and emotion of fine buildings without becoming detached from the dispassionate observation of its core business. Having admired its work at close quarters since the early 1980s, I hope it can.

Inside the cover, degw's work is described as being 'between theory and practice'. Similarly, this corporate monograph mediates skilfully between brochure and reference book.

Rab Bennetts is an architect in London

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