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Business management is not the dirty side of architecture

Architecture-the-profession can live happily with architecture-the-business, says Christine Murray

Do you practice architecture with honesty and integrity? These are the first tenets in the ARB Architects Code, and the RIBA Professional Code of Conduct. The first asks architects to declare all conflicts of interest, while the latter stipulates architects should not be ‘improperly influenced either by their own, or others’, self-interest’.

The two describe a profession with great deference and responsibility to the public it serves – akin to medicine or law. But architecture is also a business – formerly a booming one in the UK, and now still vibrant as an export industry to China, North Africa and beyond (as Sparch’s Shanghai ferry terminal, p36, suggests). And how does one avoid ‘self-interest’ when running a successful architecture practice is inherently self-interested, or at the very least, tailored to the interests of the client?

In recent weeks, architects have been under fire for ‘ethical’ reasons – irresponsible development during the boom years and the questionable excesses of the banking industry have left architects guilty by association, and there has been no shortage of column inches accusing architects of being profligate and ‘self-interested’ in the shaping of towns and cities.

Little, however, has been said about practices that effectively marry architecture-the-profession with architecture-the-business. Practices that make money without surrendering either their artistic or ethical integrity are surely the way forward for the profession. Three trailblazers spring to mind: John McAslan donates a percentage of profits to pro-bono and not-for-profit work; Pollard Thomas Edwards have rigorous management policies for equal opportunities, health and safety and sustainability; while a sustainable ethos underpins the work of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

This week, I met with Javier Quintana, dean of architecture at Madrid business school IE, which has just launched the first ever Master in Architectural Management and Design. Quintana spoke passionately about the poor tradition of business management in architectural practice – as though running a business was the dirty side of architecture. When small practices expand dramatically, architects often make one of two bad choices – run the business with no formal training, or hire an experienced manager with no design skills. Neither is ideal, and IE wants to train good architects to be good managers too.

There are many examples of design-led practices that effectively sell architecture without selling out. David Chipperfield Architects is perhaps the most stunning example of a practice that has retained full artistic control while growing into one of the largest practices in Britain. Chipperfield ranks somewhere in the middle of the AJ100, bigger than YRM, as well as SOM and Gensler in the UK. But Chipperfield’s practice, despite its growth, is still recognised for the quality of its design over its business acumen. Effective management is as surely an essential catalyst for success.

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