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Hot property

Malory Clifford and Stuart Bailey of Blackfriars are contemptuous of architects, yet are set to make their mark on London via two major Alsop office schemes 'In the main, architects are quite arrogant - they think of clients as being relative imbeciles, devoid of understanding of their profession and taste. I think they are very patronising. And if you had a thousand in a room, it would be a very horrible experience as a lay person.'

So says Malory Clifford, the chief executive of Blackfriars Investments, which he runs with development director Stuart Bailey. Clifford may not like architects much per se, but he has formed an unlikely partnership with one in particular. The firm and Royal London Asset Management are working with Will Alsop on Palestra, on a site opposite Southwark station, and after that on Puddle Dock in the City.

Blackfriars is a property company like no other. Based in Belsize Park, there is a pool table in the office, a huge fish tank in Clifford's, plus a bowl of wine gums for guests.

Clifford owns Al Capone's car (no, really), and once drove Prince Charles in it at a charity function at Sandringham, working the unusual gearing for His Royal Highness, hand on hand. It is a 1932 Chrysler - complete with machine-gun case.

Clifford went to the progressive Summerhill School in Suffolk, with its hippyish 'free-range' approach to education. Perhaps that's where the development bug bit, because they had to win grants for seed to create a football field, and build a swimming pool with shovels.

Afterwards, he started work as a stonemason, then went back to his first love, landscape gardening, before 'bagging' key people and setting up on his own. Work came in from Laing and, during a bricklayers' strike, Clifford's firm built garages, which led to a tender-list spot. Back extensions came, too, and it moved into buying houses, which it would convert into flats, as well as buying others for Shell and BP in Scotland. 'It just evolved, ' Clifford says.

In the 1990s, he moved into garden centre nurseries and, when the market recovered, back into buying commercial property on a small scale. Today, Blackfriars deals in investments, but Clifford sees nothing peculiar about also getting involved in films and the development of an innovative, foldable, Dyson-esque buggy for kids.

At Puddle Dock, Clifford originally worked with Foster and Partners, but felt 'pushed down the food chain'.

'Norman said: fiIf you want that sort of service, and you want somebody who's hugely talented, there's a guy behind my offices called Will Alsop, fl' Clifford recalls. 'I think it was a polite way of telling us to get lost.

'Will's very different - a bit like me. [In Southwark, ] he came up with a remarkably exciting felt-pen sketch of what he had in mind, which was a tower.' This was 102 storeys tall, pre-Shard. 'But it rained, and it shrank to 13, ' he laughs.

'The reason why I liked Will, ' says Bailey, 'was that we sat down with him one day and said fiwhat's your thinking about Puddle Dock? fl, and he replied - and he was smoking - fiwell, it's a pack of fags on top of a lighterfl.

And I liked that - we hit it off.And still today, funnily enough, that's the shape. He'd sorted it out in his mind immediately.'

Ken Livingstone has directed refusal of Puddle Dock over section 106 issues. But Blackfriars aims to build after letting Palestra, in around three years. Palestra was the big 'sprat' it gave Alsop for his being 'shafted' over Victoria House. 'Having a relationship with an architect like Will is very adventurous, ' says Bailey. Alsop's Bloomsbury scheme, originally proposed as a hotel, was invited to compete as the mayor's offices. Clifford remembers well 'winning the contest on architecture' but not 'politics'; and how Sir Jocelyn Stevens, then head of English Heritage, went public on his views, ruining the play-off with Foster. At least in the process they met Lord St John of Fawsley - now Blackfriars chairman and 'a good person to bounce ideas off '.

At Palestra, says Clifford, it was a similar - but different - exercise. 'Here he got a bigger pack of cigarettes, then put another big pack of cigarettes on top of that and moved his finger across to get them skewed.'

But Clifford is happy that Alsop achieved all its commercial aspirations without 'cheapening' the architecture.

'When you're using the public purse, architects do get carried away. I think that when you get the commercial pressures coming in that's a very good thing for an architect because it puts them back into a harness.'

Bailey cites Foster's 'Gherkin' - Swiss Re - as an example of how architects can get carried away: 'As far as I understand it, the floorplates are very difficult and as a result they might find it very difficult to let.'

'It's not sour grapes, ' adds Clifford, 'but I imagine the mayoral headquarters is a nightmare. You wouldn't build a building like that if you were building an office, would you? If you took the chamber out and made it an office it can't be economic. So there you're getting something that makes an exterior statement for those that like it with an interior that you have to put up with. But most people don't live outside buildings.'

It's not just an Alsop show - Blackfriars is working with Mike Davies of the Richard Rogers Partnership on masterplanning the area up to the Tate Modern, and with RHWL on a 29-storey residential tower near Palestra.

These days, though, Clifford sometimes feels more like a bank manager, and rails against the 'outrageous' sums he has to spend on planning, and the environmental study 'game'.

'But I really do enjoy it. I don't know what I would do if I didn't.'

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