paving the way
Four years ago, sat astride his tractor in a Tuscan olive grove, Tim Hamilton had a flashing insight. The boss of Hamilton Associates needed to change his practice.
'I realised that we had to do something dramatic' he says. 'Five years ago, Foster had come to the UK - he hadn't been allowed in before. Suddenly he was back and he was towing behind him a lot of bright young talent, home-grown talents who were riding in his wake. And I realised we were going to be yesterday's people if we didn't claim our place at the table.'
Hamilton, a well-preserved, friendly 61 year old who started his own practice in an undertaker's loft at 26, had seen in his tractor moment that the market had changed. It had suddenly become design-led, as he puts it.
So, after his Italian summer holiday, South African-born Hamilton set down to his task to totally transform his firm. His aim - that it should go after new markets, embrace a higher degree of design rigour, and be in a strong position if and when he felt like retiring, or at least like stepping back from the frontline. And for that, Hamilton needed 'another whole level of skill'. 'I persuaded my team, ' Hamilton recalls, 'and they were jolly good about it. Then, whenever I went out, I just asked people for names of talented people.'
So, like Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, Hamilton got his first name, through an AJ/Bovis awards event at which Foster was speaking. Roy Collado, 'a very good, young 35-year-old architect' formerly of Chetwood Associates, was duly recruited and is one of the firm's magnificent eight project directors.
'So that was one. Then a mutual frend said: 'There's only one person for you, and that's Robin', ' recalls Hamilton, meaning Robin Partington, who had been at Foster and Partners, latterly as a director, and with an impressive portfolio of projects, for the past 17 years. 'We met and had nine months of happy chats, 'Hamilton smiles.
After the happy chats, just before Christmas, Partington said yes. And since his arrival, he has moved to instil a new philosophy. He wants more drawings on walls, more informal cross-fertilisation of ideas, more presentations, different work for his 'fantastic team' to get involved with, for their own benefit as much as for the practice. And, importantly, he has just established a new model-making studio to get people to think in three dimensions.
'It took a long time to get used to it, ' Partington says of his new role. 'If you'd asked me before, I'd have said I was an absolutely dyed-in-the-wool, 'til-you-drop-Foster person. I'd never heard of anything like this that had happened before. But what fascinates me is that I can take everything that I have learned from 17 years at Fosters and apply it to all of the work that this practice does. My philosophy in life and my ambition is to give the client that magical something extra - more than they ever could dream they could have on a project, while remaining on budget and on a programme that's both predictable for the client and works for the client.'
If that sounds gushing, or a bit like sales patter, 41-year-old Partington's portfolio backs up what he says. At Fosters he worked on Commerzbank, ITN, the Barcelona telecommunications tower, Carre d'Art in Nimes, Swiss Re ('that was hard to let go'), the Glasgow 'armadillo', Duxford, ARAG - a just-finished Dusseldorf tower which cannily uses cheap electricity at night to make ice to cool the building - Selfridges in London and Chek Lap Kok.
On this last airport project, Hamilton, like a proud father, relates that Fosters won the job on the basis of one Partington sketch, one concept. Partington modestly adds that an awful lot of others contributed to the scheme.
Partington is fascinated with the idea of an organisation 'where it's not just dependent on one sole individual - it doesn't matter if you get run over by a bus, the practice goes from strength to strength'. He says he would love to be in the same position when he is 61 - watching a practice grow in a new direction 'from strength to strength';
from being 'the ultimate in a safe pair of hands', but where 'design has not been at the forefront' to one with a strong delivery method and innovative design.
The firm is large, though perhaps without the expected public profile. Its 110 staff are based in two offices on the King's Road, the larger one a light and airy building spread over three floors which Partington is particularly enthusiastic about.Here there is a full-height window doubling as a presentation screen area for internal project crits, and a bank of computers primed for people waiting for meetings to use up spare minutes working or surfing. However, the new locale has not been without its problems - a flood and a mouse presenting what you'd imagine to be two mutually exclusive headaches.
Hamilton Associates' work has mainly been in offices, residential and the like, including an overhaul of Fulham Broadway, though Partington hopes to expand into cultural buildings, for example, through competitions. Already, it has entered one for the new Birmingham library - the longlist for which is expected soon. 'It's like being handed a new Ferrari, ' says Partington of his new home, 'but with no petrol.'
Succession is a difficult subject not handled brilliantly by architectural practices, and not often aided by egos getting in the way.
But Hamilton Associates appears to have put the wheels in motion, with Partington the last piece in the jigsaw, although both agree that the final product is only 75 per cent there.
'It's an incredibly fortunate position for us, and I think an interesting one for Robin, ' says Hamilton. 'You've got a good, old trusty warhorse - but someone needed to hop on top and ride it.'