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Children of the AA

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In its first 20 years Fletcher Priest has been characterised by diversity and a willingness to look beyond conventional design

When Fletcher Priest was announced as architect for the corporate commission of the decade, Vodafone's HQ, it is easy to imagine jealous astonishment erupting in several corporately-orientated architects' offices. But the knowledgeable were not surprised.

For Fletcher Priest has now been around for 20 years and has built an awful lot for clients like Sony, IBM and PowerGen, as well creating many memorable advertising images. It is a regular in the aj100 survey, and has made several showings in the 10 mostadmired practices - of the others featured, only Avanti and Allies and Morrison compare in age and size. As FPA lacks mnemonics like A&M's aesthetic single-mindedness or Avanti's reputation as the ideological guardian of Modernism's legacy, that is no mean achievement.

The practice is hard to pigeonhole. The work ranges from low-cost cinemas and entertainment spaces, to sophisticated corporate fit-outs and large-scale masterplanning. Michael Fletcher and Keith Priest both studied at the AA in the 1960s, a time of excitement and experiment when, in Priest's words, 'no one knew what architecture was', and the student body was enriched by a group of people from provincial grammar schools. Archigram was the dominant movement; Denis Crompton and Peter Cook taught Fletcher and Ron Herron tutored Priest. They didn't know each other at the AA, but the questing atmosphere is something they both imbibed. Such questing is the root of their diversity.

One of the AA's hallmarks was that it encouraged interests beyond the boundaries of conventional architecture, so Fletcher wrote a dissertation on film production and studied management at a business college for a year. Projects, too, could be related to other disciplines, so Priest designed a cinema which addressed the problem of declining cinema attendances. From their student days both appreciated design as a process of enabling rather than an end in itself.

It was to get a sense 'of the broader picture' that Fletcher, a few years after graduating, left Farrell Grimshaw for Wolff Olins, where he met Priest. That Priest had turned down a job with Cedric Price, the Rome Scholarship and the possibility of being a founder teacher at SCI Arch to go to a design consultancy reveals how far the AA's lessons had gone.

But he recalls: 'I admired the rounded offices like Behrens and the Eames', where design was design irrespective of whether it was two-dimensional, large-or small-scale.

At Wolff Olins, the ethos of the AA combined with a far-sighted conception of the role of design as an enabling tool in business. The pair worked for clients that architects many years their senior would have loved, and forged contacts across the design, construction and property worlds. They started off Oxford Street, alongside some other ex-Wolff Olinites. One of them was working with Frank Lowe; that led to an introduction and a commission for Lowe's first agency. More followed, and that grew into a reputation for offices where communication, teamwork and flat hierarchies were a priority - just the sort of thing that corporate gurus praise now. More agencies, and companies like IBM, PowerGen and now Vodafone, came to their door. Many clients, from Lowe to Stuart Lipton, for whom the practice has done several masterplans, and Tower Records, keep coming back.

Priest calls agencies 'clients with clients', and points out that they can be very large businesses.

Fletcher Priest learned from them, following their example of analysing client needs and proposing solutions in a medium with which the clients are not familiar - this draws on far more sophisticated imaging than conventional architectural representations.

When working for Leo Burnett, the practice first had to identify a building; it chose one that was not yet built, but with a 3D computer model was able to communicate with and receive feedback from the client before anything was constructed.

Another facet of Fletcher Priest is its stability in personnel - the average length of staff service is five years. With the amount of repeat business the firm gets, the 'awesome' - as Priest describes them - qualifications, embodied skill and experience are extremely valuable. It is this characteristic which gives the best insight into the firm's work, and to the proverbial question which Fletcher and Priest faced at the AA. Its homogeneity feeds its ability for rapid analysis of problems which are often on the fringes of conventional architecture. Encouraged at the AA to think of architecture as broadly as possible, and finding opportunities to do that at Wolff Olins, led them to a subtle repositioning of where their firm lies in the broad spectrum of the design and construction industries.

The position is reflected in their roles outside the firm: Fletcher as one of David Rock's roving ambassadors - he found the potential for change during the Duffy and Reid era invigorating - and Priest at the Design Council. And if anyone doubts that what they do is a serious answer to the question 'what is architecture?', they should keep an eye on a certain field outside Newbury over the next few years. It could just be the site of the first significant corporate HQ of the next millennium.

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