'After two years here, there didn't seem to be much to go home to, ' David Walker recalls.
Walker had arrived in Britain at the end of 1988 to head up the design team in the London office of Swanke Hayden Connell (SHC), one of a number of US practices taking a keen interest in the booming, post 'Big Bang' capital. The plan was for him to spend two years here, then return to New York - but by 1990, the US economy was in deep recession and commissions were in short supply. So Walker stayed, married and raised a family. He now seems firmly rooted in London, where, having quit SHC, he has now launched his own practice, David Walker Architects (DWA). 'I was 45 this year, ' he says, 'I'd always wanted to run my own office and it seemed to be a question of now or never.'
The two major City projects which Walker completed at SHC, Winchester House (for Deutsche Bank) on London Wall and the Merrill Lynch headquarters at Newgate, transformed the image of a practice previously best known for its fitouts and interiors. Both are significant exercises in combining state-of-the-art workplace design with a bold approach to urban design and city repair, which has generated a number of awards and won praise from English Heritage.
'They represent an attempt to create a distinctive modern architecture which responds to an historic context, ' says Walker.
'They are essentially city-driven.' The Merrill Lynch scheme included the repair and conversion of a whole run of previously threatened Victorian buildings, as well as massive new dealing floor blocks.
Winchester House replaced a typically second-rate 1960s slab fronting a drab plaza.
David Walker's undergraduate days were spent at Berkeley. Moving to New York City, he enrolled at Peter Eisenman's legendary Institute for Architecture & Urban Studies, where Aldo Rossi, a figure who was to greatly influence his approach to architecture, was teaching. Three years at Yale, completing a master's degree, followed. Frank Gehry headed the design studio at the time, in succession to Cesar Pelli. James Stirling and Rossi were among visiting tutors. After graduating, Walker was snapped up by the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The recession of the '70s was over and there was lots of work to be done. 'We were doing maybe 20 schemes of more than a million square feet in one year, ' Walker recalls.
'Straight from college, I was thrown in at the deep end and given major responsibilities. It was a dynamic period of change at SOM.
Gordon Bunshaft, for example, had recently retired and there was a search for new directions.'
Walker was recruited by SHC in 1988, specifically to work from London. During the first couple of years here he commuted weekly across the Atlantic - 'a gruelling experience', he says. The most frightening moment was when he and colleagues from SHC were booked on PanAm flight 103 - which subsequently came down at Lockerbie. A last-minute transfer to a BA flight saved their lives.
Walker has no regrets about the 14 years he spent at SHC. 'It was a remarkable learning curve, ' he says. The practice was drafted into Spitalfields, where it gained a planning consent for the redevelopment of the market site - only to see the scheme killed by the '90s recession. There were also significant jobs in Holland and elsewhere.
Eventually, however, Walker decided that he could pursue the sort of work in which he was interested only by going solo. He and three colleagues recently moved into a corner office conveniently located a few yards from Oxford Street.
The break with SHC was amicable - so much so that Walker is currently collaborating with the practice on a major City project. The replacement for Austral House at the junction of London Wall and Coleman Street was another scheme thrown into limbo by the '90s recession. Now it has been revived by Stanhope, and the version which has planning consent is currently being developed further with a view to construction starting in the near future.
While Winchester House and Merrill Lynch feature a solid aesthetic, with windows punched into heavy masonry cladding, Austral House is far more lightweight and eschews their orthogonal geometries in favour of a sculptural, 'organic' form.
Extensive glazing and a bold use of colour distinguish DWA's proposals for a site in Oxford Street, a project for which it is currently in competition with three frontrank practices.
Given the uncertain state of the economy, autumn 2002 might seem a risky, if not an ill-judged, time for a senior director of a well-established international firm to launch his own office. Walker takes the opposite view. Some large outfits, he says, may soon be forced to contract significantly.
'Quite honestly, I'd be happier doing relatively small jobs and working on feasibility studies in a small studio than presiding over several hundred people in a contracting market. For the moment, it's hard to plan the future - you live from day to day. We're certainly looking at a number of competitions - we want to do a range of work, not just offices.'
David Walker seems at home with the ethos of practice in Britain. He did his Part 3 at the AA in London 'to find out how things are done here', and is a fully registered architect and member of the RIBA. He remains a registered architect in the US and hopes very much to work again in his native country. Back in the late '80s, Lord St John of Fawsley attacked US architects working in London as 'invaders', out of tune with British ways. In fact, British architects needed no lessons from the Americans in disfiguring cities. David Walker's avowed commitment to an architecture which is 'immediate, intense, and highly particular to its context' sounds like a recipe for some truly positive contributions to the London of the 21st century.