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Creative stimulus

Fletcher Priest Architects has developed a reputation for quality of design allied to consistency of delivery. A series of recent buildings and commissions have seen the practice, now 20 years old, emerge as one of the strongest of its generation

Strange things happened to higher education in the 1960s, but nowhere were the effects stranger than at the AA. Peter Cook discovered the airbrush, impoverished Mike Oldfield borrowed thruppence for a Tube ticket, and no one knew what architecture was. Students went into television, film and photography with even more relish than detailing white tiles at YRM. So uncertain were the disciplinary boundaries that it was even possible to do a management course alongside the diploma, while some students flew in the face of social and economic inevitability, designing cinemas in the age of the colour television - and that was all before Rick Mather put mirrors on the bar.

Michael Fletcher and Keith Priest overlapped there for a year or so. Near contemporaries included Zaha Hadid, Nigel Coates, Penny Richards, John Pringle, Paul Hyett, John Jenner, Will Alsop and their long-time associate Gerry Whale: 'Rem and Piers were around' too, and Peter Blundell Jones was writing about somebody called Scharoun. These careers need no introduction and Fletcher Priest's recent commission for a headquarters for Vodafone, one of Britain's 20 largest companies, merely confirms that something must have been going right.

Perhaps that was down to the few eminences grises who offered some guidance through this melting pot. Peter Cook and Denis Crompton taught Fletcher, who after graduating went to Farrell/Grimshaw to work on demountable factories. In 1973 he was head-hunted to help establish an architectural division for the design consultancy Wolff Olins, and another of the eminences grises, Ron Herron, fingered Keith Priest, who was just completing at the AA, to join him. They have worked together ever since, establishing Fletcher Priest Architects in 1978.

At the AA Fletcher had taken a management course alongside his diploma, and written a dissertation on film production. It was because of 'an interest in the bigger picture' that he went to Wolff Olins. 'We had loads of fun, ' he recalls, 'working on projects that architects wouldn't normally work on'. Graphics and product designers and business graduates collaborated on projects for clients like Renault, Unilever and Volkswagen, an exposure to the world of communication and large corporations which has stood the pair in good stead ever since. It gave 'an understanding of greater business needs', and means their view of office design comes as much from corporate identity and communication as from physical space planning.

When at Wolff Olins, Priest had designed a student project for a multi-use cinema. It was not a conventional picture house but a serious attempt to address the challenges posed by falling attendences while keeping a sense of occasion. Domus deemed it worthy of publication, where it was spotted by two potential clients; one a Hollywood entrepreneur who wanted to pepper the Pampas with them, while the other was Romaine Hart of Mainline Pictures. She asked Wolff Olins to redesign the Screen on the Hill in Belsize Park, North London. Fletcher and Priest have since done all Mainline's cinemas, the most recent being the Winchester Screen which opened in 1996.

These fortuitous connections developed at Wolff Olins. Michael Wolff became another mentor. They also met John Sorrell - who spun off Newell and Sorrell about the same time and with whom they still have a collaboration - whose clients include BA; and Sedley Place Design, with whom they collaborated on early projects for Lowe HowardSpink. They also gave Buro Happold a very early job, a tent for Unilever in Lille. This opened a fruitful intellectual collaboration with Happold and his team. In many cases the main consultancy was corporate imaging and identity, but, recalls Priest, 'barriers were already being established in the early 1970s, and Wolff Olins was finding it hard to break into building design'.

Formation (in the French sense) at the AA and Wolff Olins is the frame through which Fletcher and Priest have faced economic and professional circumstances. And they have not been easy. 'We have traded through three recessions, ' reflects Priest. 'For us, boom is unusual.' Yet until recently they have been able to buck the economic trend, growing when everyone else was falling. Priest rationalises the current coincidence of their cycle with the overall picture, 'Perhaps that's what happens when you get to a certain size.' Maybe it's just the harmony of the spheres.

But, as in any practice, the firm is more than its founders. Fletcher Priest is unusual, if not unique, for a medium-sized architectural firm in its staff 's length of service. Gerry Whale and Alan Poulter have worked with them for 20 years, and even excluding them, the average length of service for the 25 or so staff is more than five years. The stability of personnel has several benefits. Repeat clients, such as the advertising agencies, cinemas or Tower Records, work with people who have done similar projects; it also creates an esprit de corps which can turn loyalty into efficiency. The combined talent and experience is formidable and worth preserving. Several years ago, Thomas Bosl, a German architect who was working for the practice in London, decided to move back to Germany. Fletcher and Priest wanted to retain him, and the happy outcome was to establish a German office in collaboration. From that connection has come a series of commissions including switch sites for WorldCom, retail outlets for Tower Records and a number of health clubs.

Working on the Whitbread brewery on the northern edge of the City of London was formative. They started work on the site while still at Wolff Olins, 'who were working for Whitbread in some capacity'. At the time it was potentially the largest office development in Europe, but Fletcher and Priest argued that the site was crucial to the company's intellectual heart. Not long before, Watney's had redeveloped its brewery at Stag Place near Victoria, and 'you could date the company's decline from that point', says Priest. So the young architects, working with Roddy Gradidge, argued that Whitbread should not make the same mistake. Its site should retain some of its historic character, with several large spaces converted to function rooms. That essentially remains the strategy.

Through Whitbread, Fletcher and Priest formed two other relationships which have become part of their mode of operation. One was with Andrew Ashenden, then of Trafalgar House and now managing director of the Howard de Walden Estates, client for a large ongoing scheme on Oxford Street. The other was with Derek Taylor, now senior partner of surveyor Montagu Evans.

He introduced them to Stuart Lipton, who was very supportive of the practice from its early days, and appointed it to masterplan the Bishopsgate phase of Broadgate.

Just as the Whitbread project answered the demands of the late 1970s, when corporate identity and conservation were becoming important, so Broadgate reflected the 1980s, brownland development for burgeoning financial services. These projects also came at stages in their careers when FPA could handle them. They could not have done what SOM did in realising the huge project so quickly, but they could establish the blocking diagrams and re-configure the figure ground relationships.

Economic cycles, career curves and practice development do not follow predictable or coincident paths. Opportunities come, if at all, randomly; economic cycles are beyond anyone's control and the prejudices about experience and capability are deeply entrenched. Over their quarter-century of working together Fletcher and Priest have seized the opportunities and learned from them. One example is interiors for creative organisations. When FPA started, one of its collaborators was doing something for the advertising guru Frank Lowe. An introduction led to a commission to fit out his agency's first office, and then the second . . . the practice has since designed offices for J Walter Thompson, BBH, Leagas Delaney, Leo Burnett and now for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO - a particular pleasure as Priest has long been a fan of David Abbott's copywriting.

Over time the divisions between the different facets of FPA's work, which are never more than convenient shorthand, start to fray. One of the first signs was a project for National Employers Life, an insurance company with an estate in Surrey where masterplanning and corporate design came together. It knew of Fletcher Priest because its property adjoined a site where Fletcher and Priest had designed a building some years previously.

NEL needed a comprehensive masterplan for its site including a new building on its green belt land.

Fletcher Priest had a good relationship with the planners, and when NEL was taken over by the American giant UNUM, was commissioned to refurbish the mansion - which turned out to be a lost work by William Burges - and do a design for another new building. This scheme for a glasswalled and grass-roofed block received consent with enthusiasm, on the basis that it would cause less disruption than any other sort of building.

Another point where barriers started to break down came when everyone, not just ad agencies and middle-aged architects, started to talk about creativity. Fletcher Priest became much in demand for commercial interiors, most notably for the fit-out of Bennetts Associates' PowerGen headquarters outside Coventry. That won two Office of the Year Awards (from the British Council for Offices and the British Institute of Facilities Management) in 1996. Following that the next year with another pair of awards for the Leo Burnett HQ on Sloane Avenue, in a Stanton Williams/YRM box, showed that the practice had not lost its edge for creative organisations.

Cinemas and 'creativity' came together in another large project of the mid 1990s, a 7000m 2fit-out for Sony Entertainment in Golden Square.

As well as offices for one of the world's leading film companies, the premises include state-of-the-art screening facilities for previews. At the same time FPA was refurbishing to an extraordinarily tight programme the London Planetarium, including new entrance arrangements for visitors - it shares facilities with the adjacent Madame Tussauds, the country's most popular tourist attraction - and inserting a new Digistar II projector in the auditorium. Priest remembers one of the most rewarding aspects of the project being the day spent with Stephen Hawking at the opening.

Ongoing commissions develop these themes: from Sony into an office for the Moving Picture Company, and from the Planetarium into the 3d IMAX in the Science Museum's Wellcome Wing.

FPA's skills in design for entertainment led in a rather extraordinary and roundabout way to what is probably its best-known single commission, masterplanning and designing several buildings for IBM at the UK research base at Hursley Park in Hampshire. 'We wrote to IBM, ' remembers Priest , 'and asked to be on their roster of architects.' But it was its project for the Cornerhouse in Manchester - a complete performance space for £250,000 - that grabbed IBM's attention. It was looking for a firm that could be inventive with basic materials, that would understand cost control but not be terrified by it. After that, of course, FPA had to pass IBM's rigorous tests for consultants, but just as Lipton had spotted an essential talent in Fletcher Priest and found a process to exploit it, so did IBM.

And, of course, working for IBM brought more than prestige and a steady income flow; it taught the practice more about corporate culture and what architecture could offer to it. The result was what IBM considers to be its most cost-effective site in Europe.

Like many of its clients, Fletcher Priest is innovative in producing visual information. Its images draw on modern information technology, simulating reality rather than relying on the codified professional shorthand of plans, sections and elevations. That perhaps gives a more fluid approach to design, and certainly allows for more interaction and feedback with the client during the design process. In turn that helps to generate an aesthetic of the appropriate and avoids a polemical approach to appearance. 'Our work often arrives out of a questioning analysis of the brief, ' says Fletcher. Yet the outcome is often crisp, clean and neat - not as an overt symbol of a new age, but an appearance, finish and effect that best support the building use. The simplicity comes from 'taking a complicated series of problems and refining them to a solution which looks as though it was obvious'.

Three projects illustrate where FPA is now. The Artezium arts and media centre in Luton builds on its skill in media facilities and arts centres, but under the lottery banner it reconfigures them both. This is a public arts centre, but one where the public can use the facilties to develop their own programme-making and performing skills, rather than be the passive recipients of professionals.

Vodafone's HQ, apart from being the most important corporate commission of the moment, is the most obvious opportunity to bring together FPA's masterplanning, building-design and interior skills in one project: on a site on the edge of Newbury it will house about 2500 staff who are currently spread around 51 different buildings in Newbury. The idea is to improve communication and interaction between departments; it is also an opportunity to take the whole art of modern office design forward, looking at the relationship between a corporation, local community and environment.

Lastly is another major commercial scheme outside Reading. The former Courage Brewery site, this came into the possession of Suranai following a takeover. Redeveloping it is sensitive, but by looking holistically at the whole question of what an office needs to be, Fletcher Priest came up with proposals which the new unified local authority sees as a benchmark. Smart bus systems and encouragement for cyclists - which Priest points out can demand a major rethink of site planning, entrances and security - will reduce pressure for cars and point to exactly the sort of thing John Prescott seeks to promote.

Except that FPA was working on these ideas before 1 May last year and will continue to develop them in the Vodafone headquarters outside Newbury.

Perhaps workload and the economic cycle are not the only places where Fletcher Priest and the social demands on architects are coinciding.

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