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Do size and commercial success have to be the enemies of invention?


I know, I know.The AJ100 is fundamentally flawed. It gives no indication of a practice's merit any more than, say, The Sunday Times Rich List is a roll-call of the most creative or talented UK citizens.But it is heartening to note the AJ100 practices that recognise a moral - as opposed to simply a commercial - imperative to inject vitality and ingenuity into their everyday work.

Take Aedas AHR, currently enjoying an extremely comfortable existence as the country's fifth largest practice and fourth biggest earner, and largely operating in areas where design quality is not necessarily any indication of economic success.Determined not to be complacent, it has appointed former Foster and Partners director Richard Hyams with an explicit remit to raise the quality of design throughout the office, astutely exploiting the potential to learn from Foster's process-driven approach.The desired outcome is to introduce a step change in the way the practice tackles its own work, rather than an embarrassing attempt to apply an off-the-peg Foster aesthetic to the finished product.

While senior personnel taking their experience elsewhere is often presented as evidence that the Foster empire is in decline, it is, in fact, the ultimate tribute to his influence.Widespread diffusion and adaptation has to be the logical evolution of an architecture that emerged as a direct response to the challenge of building and designing in the most logical and efficient way.

In contrast, Chetwood Associates, equal 16th largest practice, and the 17th biggest earner, has sought inspiration from Laurie Chetwood's own Butterfly House - an example of architecture at its most self-indulgent, whimsical and unique.Built at Chetwood's own expense, it is an extravagance impossible to justify in economic terms, but as an ongoing experiment it has served to inject vitality into the practice's more commercial projects.

Perhaps it's not too much to hope that major architectural practices should be able to build extensively, make a decent profit and still hold on to the energy and excitement of, say, the £3,500 Alabama porch extension that has just picked up this year's AJ Small Projects Award.

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