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AJ100 #2: Jay Merrick on BDP

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AJ100 Top 10 profiles: BDP makes architectural sense of extremely complex functional and zonal programmes, writes Jay Merrick

It’s tempting to characterise BDP’s business performance in terms of one of the practice’s characteristic design moves – the fulsome curve with rectilinear interjections, which we see in recent buildings such as the Appleton Academy in Bradford, which picked up an RIBA award this year. If we translate the architecture of these buildings into corporate imagery – not unreasonable, given BDP’s 700-plus staff in 11 studios in Britain and overseas – we encounter arcs of steady growth marked by periods of consolidation. Post-2008, and up until late in 2013, annual growth in turnover didn’t exceed 5 per cent. BDP is now predicting annual gains of 7.5-10 per cent and a 10-15 per cent increase in architectural staff. The project map includes Europe, China, the Middle East, India, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and Nigeria. 

‘The past year has been a series of consolidations,’ says BDP chief executive John McManus. In fact these began in 2012 when BDP closed some smaller studios. There was no threat to its solidity because it remained dominant in major health and education projects, while entrenching overseas activities. The key to this durability and design coherence is its structure – design groups with total staff of no more than 50, split into two sections, are led by directors who are active architects.

The completion of Birmingham’s £582 million Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 2012 is the most monumental symbol of the practice’s post-2008 success and a good example of its ability to make architectural sense of extremely complex functional and zonal programmes on a massive scale. During this period, BDP delivered several other British projects – notably university schemes – that weighed in at around the £150 million mark. No surprise there: at any one time, BDP has been developing schemes for about a dozen universities.

Meanwhile, the practice was increasing its Shanghai studio’s architectural staff. And then, in the last quarter of 2013, the UK’s private commercial market sector lit up. For BDP, this meant restarts or new commissions for large, retail-led projects. ‘We’re allowing ourselves some client optimism,’ admits McManus, wryly. ‘There’s a degree of steadiness. I sense this [commissioning] situation is more sustainable.’

We’re allowing ourselves some client optimism

One recently completed retail-led scheme is the £200 million Buchanan Galleries in McManus’s home city, Glasgow; and a particularly challenging current project is the £500 million redevelopment of the Westgate Centre in Oxford, with BDP as masterplanner and lead architect. This reflects its safe-pair-of-hands reputation; the word ‘safe’ could be applied to some of its architecture, but the sheer scale of many of its schemes must be a factor in this.         

The future will see BDP strengthen its overseas portfolios, which contribute 20 per cent of total fees. The Shanghai office – ‘super busy’, says McManus – has the practice’s most sharply increasing workload, with a number of towers in the mix. There are substantial education projects on stream in the Middle East and BDP’s Delhi studio is seeing greater demand for education masterplanning and landscape design.

This month BDP is set to deliver the £430 million Southmead Hospital, Bristol, and is on site in Liverpool with the Alder Hey Children’s Health Park. It recently completed the extension of Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre, which McManus says is ‘the biggest speculative development of its kind in Britain’. Odd, then, that one of the three interior shots of this scheme on BDP’s website is an image of the (radiused) men’s lavatories. One can only assume that this international architectural heavyweight is keen to demonstrate, yet again, that the curve and the straight line works at any architectural scale, and for even the most piddling purpose.


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