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Comment: Small will always lose out to big

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Michael Casey of emerging practice CaseyFierro talks about the disappointment of losing out to the big boys on a huge east London scheme, and why small practices will always struggle to win large-scale projects

Background: CaseyFierro spent three years drawing up the ‘Reshaping Poplar’ macroplan, which has now been adopted by Tower Hamlets as its central housing policy. The practice subsequently worked on 20 smaller implementation plans and linked up with Maccreanor Lavington - to meet OJEU conditions - on the 1,200 home Aberfeldy Estate scheme. PoplarHARCA then launched a competition to find a developer partner with the two firms represented on the client’s judging committee. A team led by Willmot Dixon with architects Karakusevic Carson and Levitt Bernstein won that contest in autumn 2010.
However, according to Casey, the client soon felt that having different practices working currently on the larger masterplan and the individual phases ‘would lead to external confusion’. CaseyFierro and Maccreanor Lavington stepped down. Karakusevic Carson has also not worked on the project for 18 months.  
Design Council CABE reviewed the Levitt Bernstein plans, which are currently in for planning, in November last year.

Small practices are at a disadvantage when faced with the present structure and the commissioning of large-scale architecture. 

The OJEU and funding body criteria - for instance practice turnover - precludes the vast majority of practices our size from this work. The need to invest in various management systems is also daunting. This ‘loading of management’ inevitably leads to large urban projects being left in the hands of a few practices.

So a cabal of practices is created. A reduced risk for the commissioning management, who in turn are also extensively EU/government risk assessed. It takes a brave client to buck this trend.

It takes a brave client to buck this trend

The structural requirements of funding from government via housing grant and the necessity for working in developer partnerships places a huge organisational burden on registered social landlords, who are struggling with smaller budgets and who task themselves with the regeneration of huge areas of deprived housing - as in Poplar, one of the poorest wards in the country. 

It is no wonder the patronage of architecture becomes a route of least resistance and thus drawn towards those monolith practices who have accreted whatever speciality needed to become a one-stop-shop. In their position I would do the same.

Patronage of architecture becomes a route of least resistance

Poplar is a part of London where our profession lost the plot in the 60s and 70s, designing to order poorly considered housing. Our Reshaping/Implementation studies proved you could break this up and provide a more considered, diverse city that both respected the needs of today’s residents while acknowledging the requirement for the creation of a new mixed community and so the London condition. 

West of London had its 19th-century landed estate development (Thomas Cubitt). The east of London has a differing genius loci. By default, for the reasons mentioned, ones sees mono estate architecture happening today. I am clear it’s not appropriate to apply this precedent to new developments in this area today. 

With Reshaping Poplar, we did Localism before it became a political buzzword. Our work with PoplarHARCA and Leaside Regeneration provided an approach for the whole scale change of 100 hectares of east London. We took this strategy to the residents of each estate touched by the macroplan. In a non-patronising way we explained what redevelopment would mean for their community, and asked permission to undertake the task and the resulting disruption to lives.

This is the ‘groundworks’ end of architectural practice. You carry out this work for your soul. It enabled a profound understanding of resident aspirations to inform any following masterplan. This groundwork is not the world of the big practice whose overheads preclude such investment in time, fee and sympathy. They are tasked from different masters. 

If I had the time again I would not do anything different. Maybe this is naïve. I’ve always been pragmatic about the journey of this project. We were almost there. Our collaboration with Richard Lavington and his team was the right solution, it enabled us to continue to inform. I thank them for it.  

Maybe writing this enables our practice to gain a little recognition for the work we undertook. Not only for myself but for our collaborators here, who gave their efforts and owned the task. 

I have been lucky in my life to have collaborated with great architects on significant projects. What strikes you is from a place of confidence one can be both gracious and generous towards younger practices, it is, I suppose, this that disappoints the most. 

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