Support in the right place
The truth about the commercial property market is that it is still possible to count on two hands the developers and agents who know what makes good architecture and who can name you 10 firms who can produce it. Even fewer have actually produced great schemes which have proved themselves in the market. This is a great failing in the market's ability to produce a good product, but, more significantly, says just as much about architects' abilities to get out there and mix it in a market that needs them.
David Rosen, senior partner of West End agent Pilcher Hershman, and his friend and close colleague Simon Silver, a director of quoted property company Derwent Valley Holdings, have achieved more than anyone else except Stuart Lipton in this respect. When you look at the scores of buildings they have been involved with and the projects they've produced, it is an unparalled achievement. Between them, whether it is Rosen's work in agency or Derwent Valley's refurbishment and new development work, they have been a lot more effective than many of the government's regeneration agencies, without the subsidies. What they do should be carved in the minds of property people - make money and make good buildings - in that order. If you don't do the first, you won't do the second. If you don't do the second, no one will remember you.
Two North London boys, they met as agents in the early 1970s and have worked together ever since in the West End, of which they know and love every inch. Their offices face one another across the southern end of Wimpole Street. They semaphore to one another from their respective oriel windows, both of which, when I visited, sported Arsenal posters. Rosen, who was recently made an honorary friba, has passed his enthusiasm for architecture to Silver, who has found it worked wonders for Derwent's balance sheet. This now encompasses a £400 million portfolio, soon to include a building by the Richard Rogers Partnership in Broadwick Street, Soho.
It all started in 1987 when Rosen persuaded Derwent through Silver to commission the then-young practice of Troughton MacAslan to refurbish a building in Islington. Other gems followed - notably David Chipperfield's exquisitely robust Cobham Mews studios, which is one of the best buildings of the 1980s. 'The transformation was incredible,' says Silver. 'Suddenly my eyes were open and I saw a whole different side of the industry. From our smaller scale one could see that it certainly did pay to use good young architects.' At that point Derwent Valley Holdings had just been established and Silver left Pilcher Hershman to help get it going, along with managing director John Burns who provides the sort of gravitas that keeps institutional investors relaxed.
For Rosen, the architecture bug started a little earlier. He recalls liking the block of flats opposite his childhood home near Clissold Park in Stoke Newington and then being struck by Lubetkin's penguin pool at London Zoo. He has developed an uncanny knack of matching the right architects to the right scheme. Success means they are poised to exert even more influence - especially on the people they employ and everybody who comes into contact with them and their schemes.
They both enthuse about the effect their interests are having on those around them. They are determined to produce another Chipperfield building. The roll-call of architects working for them is a definitive list of the cream of the uk's best recently established practices - John Pawson, Harper Mackay, Allies & Morrison, orms, Lifschutz Davidson, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. It is no exaggeration to say that they have single-handedly introduced a generation of British architects to the rigours and delights of the commercial property market and provided them with a leg-up that was not going to come from many other places in a culture averse to public spending. Why, then, has the market not wholeheartedly espoused their ethos, or indeed taken its cue from the example of Lipton? Good architecture is much more widespread, but Rosen and Silver have a clear understanding of why it is not more so. 'Property is a long-term game. Development companies hand the choice of architect over to their development director. They aren't really interested. They want to know it works on paper financially and they don't have the time and commitment or the proprietorial interest. It's also a lack of confidence. They feel safer going to an institutional practice because they can pass on the problem,' says Silver. 'They also think it costs more to work with better architects.'
'That's a fallacy,' adds Rosen. 'It's not part of architects' culture to sell themselves. More firms should take a lead from Harper Mackay and Allies & Morrison. They know how to convey a message that people feel comfortable with. When students go to the aa or the Bartlett there is no training in this area. There's also a snobbery attached to marketing. It's really an archaic view. There is no reason why architects can't promote themselves without cheapening their work. The trouble is that often less talented architects are better at this and the appointment of an architect is not a priority.'
The dapper duo are a sort of Gilbert and George for the property market. The rest of the market might regard their interest in architecture as slightly perverse, but they are increasingly respectful of their financial success. In a market which still operates a feudal caste system, where agents tug their forelocks to developers and investors, Rosen's Hon friba has prompted a reassessment of his status, while Derwent Valley's recent acquisition of a £96.5 million chunk of mepc's portfolio has put Silver firmly at the top end of the premier division. It's doubtful that they will be knocking on Daniel Libeskind's door in the near future, or that fat are on their list of probables, but the last time I saw Simon Silver he was speaking into Future Systems' answerphone. The spirit is increasingly willing in commercial property. Architects that make the effort are pushing against an opening door. A handsome slice of the tributes for that change should be sent round to Wimpole Street.
Lee Mallett is deputy md of Wordsearch Communications, which presented Derwent Valley Holdings with its Architectural Patron of the Year Award in May