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A visit is worth a thousand pictures

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postcard from bordeaux

This autumn is the 21st anniversary of the foundation of rrp (after the completion of the Pompidou Centre by Piano + Rogers), writes Marco Goldschmied. Turnover is at a record £15 million a year and, after a 50 per cent growth in size since 1995, the practice is at a key moment in its evolution. At the April directors' meeting Ivan Harbour, who, with Amo Kalsi, is the project director for the new Bordeaux law courts, suggests an office trip. We all go.

The travel agent can't cope with 100 bookings. We ring Bob Ayling, who gets it sorted.

At Gatwick we have our own rrp check-in. We really have arrived! Not so fast. North Terminal Gate 45 B down an interminable ramp to a bus! We stand around in the bus waiting for the stragglers. Yuk! We know too much about airports. Embarkation: Nul points.

Bordeaux is a smashing little airport. The team at Aeroport de Paris has done a great job on a low budget. We go upstairs to departures. Look how they have got light down into the arrivals. The glass-sided air-bridges are naturally ventilated in the floor and roof. They work even in vintage St Emilion summers. The triple-height concrete fins are in situ. Great finish. Could we get it at Heathrow? Must bring the baa T5 team down for a look.

Over to our site on Saturday afternoon for a private view. All of us see, touch, smell and taste the building. We are getting a unique opportunity to visit one of our projects. It's so much richer than the site progress shots in our office canteen.

Like the principle of the riba Awards, a visit is worth a thousand pictures. Is the roof really copper? Will it go green like a church? That's a bit trad, isn't it? Is the courtroom exterior cladding really cedar? Look, it's already weathering grey outside. That's not very high-tech, is it?

There is hardly any plantroom worth looking at, let alone expressing. Don't look now but I think our stereotype is slipping. And the courtrooms really are naturally lit and ventilated.

We crawl all over the building like ants. Look up anywhere and the ubiquitous glass bridges and stairs linking the courts with the offices reveal the patter of large feet. Everybody in the office has worked on it or heard about it in some way or other. Now we get to see parts of the building which no one will see again unless they get themselves arrested! The cells are all concrete. No tiles. Everything is flush or concealed to stop people injuring themselves or their guards. Individual stand-and-deliver stainless- steel toilets in each cell. Better than the Chateau d'If, though.

Sauternes and strawberries on the grass under the big glass wall. The obligatory group office photos. It's not like the old days when we could all pose on one flight of stairs. Too many for that now. We need one of those mechanised school cameras you can run round the back of to appear twice in.

The visit is a huge success. Wander into any bar in Bordeaux on Saturday night and you find a folio of architects (or is it a piss-up?).

Sunday. Recovery, beach and Espaces to Pessac, Corb's 1925 housing. We talk our way into three of the houses. Amazing precursors of the more celebrated Garches and Savoye but urbanistically and socially much more significant. Their condition ranges from complete neglect (philistine owners) to meticulous restoration (architect owner-occupiers). I wonder how a uk estate agent would describe them. Stunning perhaps? But they certainly wouldn't get planning permission in Chelsea!

Running up to the weekend the directors' annual 'awayday review' takes place just outside Bordeaux. On the agenda are items relevant to the whole profession. The topics for discussion would not have been out of place in riba Council.

They cover everything from the danger of clients trying to buy 'signature' services only, to better selling the architect's key role in strategy of the development process, right on through to the total digitisation of the practice 'knowledge base' and the legal implications of e-mail working.

The 'professionalisation' of the profession, the emergence of the arb as a significant force, the need to pay increasing attention and resources to all forms of Quality Assurance and cpd, both for the strengthening of the practice and for the career development of individual members of staff, are all addressed.

The new organisation at rrp 'head office' flowing from the information revolution is sanctioned. The emphasis is on better communication, accessibility to senior staff and more open design forums. Advice from degw and John Seiler, a Harvard architect and mba, over a three-month period has got us going. We are running with it now.

The bonus is 15 per cent more workspace, many more 'soft zones' for informal meeting, enlarged canteen, library and project display areas, permanent video conferencing and Internet facilities, and 'touchdown' zones for 'nomads' and for staff based in Tokyo, Berlin, Greenwich and Heathrow.

Apart from the Daimler Berlin project, there may not be many other opportunities to visit overseas sites at rrp in the next two or three years. The Tokyo office struggles with a weak yen, and with a record £450 million worth of building on five jobs on site in London alone (including the £60 million dome) and £400 million of pre-construction commissions inside the M25, the 120 staff will be kept busy on local visits.

But then who, five years ago, would have predicted that London would now be in the middle of a construction boom? By 2002 we'll probably be in the middle of another recession and sterling will be doing its Tacoma Bridge act again. Back in London we decide to enter a competition for law courts in . . . Venice, where else?

Marco Goldschmied is a partner in Richard Rogers Partnership

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