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AJ interview: how the KPF 'breakaway five' became 65

Since controversially breaking away from former practice Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects to found PLP Architecture, how are Lee Polisano and his team getting on in their bid to build a new firm?

Just six weeks ago PLP Architecture was set up following a headline-grabbing fracture within Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects (KPF). Yet the new practice, led by the US giant’s London founding member Lee Polisano and partners David Leventhal, Fred Pilbrow, Karen Cook and Ron Bakker, already boasts a 60-strong workforce and an enviable client list.

The collective move is not surprising, as the team has been working together for 15 years – Polisano and Leventhal for as long as 25. It was Polisano who led an attempted management buyout of KPF’s London office in July 2009, which failed. He blames ‘a difference in philosophies’, but external observers believe the separation of the team from its parent practice comes from a lack of forward thinking.

‘This felt like a move precipitated through the lack of addressing a succession plan. Architects are very bad at that  – and signature practices are particularly bad at it,’ said Bob Fry, European managing director at US practice Swanke Hayden Connell.

Explaining why the buyout collapsed, KPF said it wanted to keep a base in London, but since then has refused to disclose how its business is going. The more candid Polisano insists that he does not know the reasons behind KPF’s decision to refuse to sell. All that he will say is that an impasse had been reached, adding: ‘At the end of the day, we had to look at our options going forward and we felt this [breaking away] was the best.’

Since then, PLP and KPF have hammered out a formal relationship, which Polisano describes ‘an amicable separation agreement’. This comes despite any non-soliciting clauses – which prevent employees from contacting or trying to take clients for a period of up to 12 months – that were in place with KPF.

The team at PLP admits that continuing with existing projects has been a real coup and is adamant that all business has been done above board and that no clients were ‘tapped up’ prior to the shock departure.

‘All the projects that have come with us have been at the client’s request. It’s not something we talked about before we left,’ he added. ‘But when they want to work with you, that sends a very powerful message.’

The most discussed job has been developer Gerald Ronson’s 202m-high Heron Tower at 110 Bishopsgate, London. Pilbrow confirms that the main contract has stayed with KPF, while PLP has been retained to keep a watching brief over the job, which is due to be completed next year.

However PLP has succeeded in bagging the second phase of the development, the Heron Plaza, which will include a smaller mixed-use tower and public squares. The team is working on a planning application, to be submitted early 2010.

Other projects are still up for grabs. The future of KPF’s role as the main architect on Abu Dhabi Airport International’s Midfield Terminal Complex mega project is not secure, with PLP still involved as an adviser on the scheme.

‘The client will decide who will be the architect on the project, but at the moment we are just advising,’ said Polisano.

But not every client has followed the crowd to PLP. KPF retains its contract at the 288m Pinnacle in London, also known as the Helter Skelter, where contractor Brookfield said it wanted to remain with ‘the architect that designed it’.

Others say that PLP’s crown as the new boy could throw up further barriers, such as lack of wider resources and levels of professional indemnity insurance, when compared with giants like KPF.

‘Clients at the end of the day want the people, and rate personal reputations always much higher than that of the firm. But it is still a big risk for [PLP] because clients are often also after sufficient PI cover and look at the longevity of a firm,’ said one rival architect.

To handle the workload, the team of five has grown to more than 65, with around 60 ex-KPF staff decamping from Covent Garden to Camden Town.

PLP partner Cook said: ‘The practice is set to grow further, with 300 CVs submitted for roles of senior project architect that we advertised and we are expecting further defections from KPF to bulk up their numbers.’

Meanwhile, Polisano is intent on keeping the focus on individual large- and small-scale projects, rather than building the size of the practice.

With such early successes the team has an air of confidence about it – a necessary attribute in recession time.

‘It’s just a good time for architects to look at new things and lots of developers and other people are thinking that way too,’ said Polisano. ‘And with all the support we’ve received, from old and new clients, it shows that London is getting busier again. We want to be involved in that.’

PLP’s workload

  • Large-scale urban planning, Qatar Foundation
  • Hotel in Abu Dhabi (Mubadala)
  • Over-site development at Bond Street station (Grosvenor)
  • Strand Campus masterplan, King’s College London
  • Adviser on Abu Dhabi Airport’s Midfield Terminal Complex
  • Adviser on Heron Tower, London

Postscript 14.01.10

The practices confirmed the number of staff on its books had risen to 75 and was aiming to set up a new office in the Middle East by the end of 2010

Readers' comments (4)

  • Good luck to them. But what on earth will happen to KPF? I can't imagine there are many left on that ghost ship....

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  • JustFacades.com

    Good luck guys and great to see so many clients follow you when you move!

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  • they look like a Spandeau Ballet tribute band,,,,,

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  • When I heard about the KPF split, it reminded me of the Spandeau Ballet song: Be Free with your Love - in this case, I knew the boys were being free with their architecture (in the hope of getting work).

    Be free with your love
    free with your love
    be free with your love
    free with your love
    two young babes in a foreign land
    draw no milk from the dusty sand
    close heir eyes from the night so cold
    feel the love in their mothers hold
    two old men on their different shores
    stretch the world with their tug of war
    tension pulls on a tightening cord
    spread your love over Mans discord
    life's your reward
    so sing it to your Lord
    be free with your love
    free with your love
    be free with your love
    free with your love
    science stands on threshold of life
    man could be cut by a blow of its knife
    time to live by a new resolution
    in the spirit of loves evolution
    two young girls shining in the sun
    feel your pain but they dance for everyone
    beauty lives in their innocent glow
    things so dear should be free to let grow
    so let your heart flow
    and sing it to your soul
    be free with your love
    free with your love
    now baby
    be free wih your love
    free with your love
    two young girls shining in the sun
    feel your pain but they dance for everyone
    be free with your love

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