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AJ120 #10: Grimshaw

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97 employed architects, 25% female architects

Amazingly, it has been 12 years since Grimshaw’s best-known British scheme, the Millennium-fueled Eden Project, arrived. Since then the practice has steadily built up its international reputation to such an extent that its most notable works of more recent years can be found in cities such as New York, Melbourne and St Petersburg. Now, though, Grimshaw – which was founded by Nicholas Grimshaw in 1980 and became a partnership in 2007 – is poised to return to national prominence here in the UK. With staffing numbers in its Clerkenwell studio now approaching 200, the firm’s re-entering of these rankings for the first time in five years is well-timed. Indeed, it has won three AJ120 awards – more than any other practice – for New Member of the Year, Building of the Year and Collaboration of the Year; the latter two for its epic transport scheme in Lower Manhattan, the Fulton Center.

London Bridge could match the Eden Project for its impact on the public psyche

Grimshaw expects a similarly ambitious station project in Britain, the ongoing redevelopment of London Bridge, to catch the eye of the public when it opens in 2018. Partner Mark Middleton, who is overseeing the project, believes its key features – including a main concourse located beneath the rail tracks, timber soffits and extensive use of natural light – represent a radical departure from the typology developed by the Victorians and could see it match the Eden Project in terms of its impact on the public psyche.

‘It’s a cathedral for people, rather than for train engines,’ he says. ‘It will surprise a lot of people when it opens.’

Other key projects in the UK include two new Tube stations for the £1 billion extension of the Northern Line and several buildings for Southampton University. But Middleton says the practice has never felt bound by national borders and retains a ‘Francis Drake’-like approach to the world, with the West Coast of the US and South America two current areas of opportunity on its radar. The latter became a particular focus for Grimshaw in 2014 when the practice saw off competition from rival bidders including Pascal & Watson to win a key role on the $950 million (£606 million) expansion of Lima Airport in Peru.

Other key wins over the past year have included a series of sports complexes across Qatar, a new park and leisure centre in Sydney and the redevelopment of Ireland’s most important thoroughbred race track, the Curragh.

The upshot has been what Middleton describes as the practice’s highest-ever levels of staff and net revenue, with the latter now approaching £30 million. In the 12 months to April 2014, Grimshaw also saw its operating profit rise 50 per cent to £1.8 million. As for the current financial year, he says the practice has already secured half of its expected turnover in just two months. The key to this success, Middleton believes, is winning good projects ‘because good architects, profit and turnover will always follow from that’.

However, delivering good projects requires not only the right people but a strong design concept combined with pragmatism, he explains. On international airports such as Grimshaw’s recent Pulkovo International Airport terminal in St Petersburg – where the design is inevitably delivered by an executive architect – the practice strives to reflect the core design idea in fundamental elements of the building which cannot be changed while not being overly ‘precious’ in other regards.

‘Our ethos is always about strong concepts and the design having a character,’ he says. ‘You can collaborate with others and still maintain that character … we need to have flexibility on different contracts and types of job.’

As for succession, Grimshaw himself – now 75 and working a three-day week – is said to have instilled in senior staff the need for all of them to find their own successor, along with a more general sense of a meritocracy.

As Middleton describes it: ‘In design reviews he likes that playful creative punch-up. He’s always been clear that the best idea wins.’

AJ120 Grimshaw

AJBL Grimshaw


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