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Large but perfectly formed

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Not many practices make it through to their fourth generation of partners, and it is even rarer for one to survive with its architectural integrity intact by martin pawley

There must be many ways to chart the evolution of Sheppard Robson architects through four generations of partners and 60 years, but perhaps the neatest is the quip that while their gigantic new building for Motorola at Swindon is known to taxi-drivers for miles around as 'the Iraqi Supergun', a visitor trying to find the firm's offices in Camden Town might easily miss the entrance altogether. The practice does indeed have a gift for balancing anonymity with flair. Consider the partners' mode of transport. They do not have to go to meetings by car or use public transport. Instead they have the use of a black cab which allows them to speed through traffic in the ultimate discreet conveyance.

77 Parkway in Camden Town has been Sheppard Robson's address since the 1970s. Cleverly converted from a derelict plating works and former piano factory, it is a tour de force of brickwork surrounding a tree-shaded courtyard that exudes the calm of a bygone age. The contrast between this infill development and the show-stopping aluminium and glass Motorola factory opened by the Queen last October could not be more dramatic.

Sheppard Robson has been a big firm for as long as most people can remember, and today covers architecture, interior design and town-planning. It shrank back to 70-odd during the recession of the early 1980s but has steadily put on weight thereafter, despite economic history repeating itself. From the beginning the practice has always won awards, and the worst thing that anyone has ever said about it - in the 1980s, when today's partners concede that the firm did 'lose its way' - was that its buildings were 'dull'. A perhaps endurable slight at a time when 90 of the 200 staff were working on the £500 million Glaxo Wellcome campus at Stevenage, the largest medical-research facility in the uk and the largest construction contract in the country apart from the Channel Tunnel.

In the years since Glaxo Wellcome, Sheppard Robson has moved dramatically from alleged dullness to acknowledged recovery. Recent design-led projects such as the remarkable Moorgate Helicon, the Motorola 'gun' and the coming Toyota headquarters at Epsom mark the growing influence of a new generation of partners, with Graham Anthony as design director and Richard Young as partnership chairman. For while the firm may still be identified in some quarters with its earlier university work or its reputation for being 'a safe pair of hands' for competition-winning foreigners - it is currently helping Herzog and de Meuron at the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, and previously worked with Robert Venturi on the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing, nowadays its ambitions stretch further on its own account than they ever have before.

'Not many architectural practices make it through to their fourth generation of partners,' muses partnership chairman Richard Young, 'and it is even rarer for one to survive with its architectural integrity intact.' What he means by integrity is probably the near certainty that somewhere in the firm's long history there must be a precedent for any commission that comes along. Buried in the firm's rich history there is, for example, a near-unbeatable track record in the design of schools and other education buildings, healthcare buildings, shopping buildings, laboratories, offices and corporate headquarters.

Founded by Richard Sheppard in 1938, the firm first made a name for itself in the field of large modern projects with its work in the 1950s for the Swan Hunter shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne. By 1950, at the height of the post-war recovery, Geoffrey Robson had joined Sheppard (thus giving the firm its name), and between them they led the practice for the next 20 years. They specialised first in schools - of which they designed no fewer than 80 in the 1950s - and subsequently in university and other educational buildings, including the award-winning Loughborough College of Technology and Churchill College Cambridge. Over the years of specialised public-sector work the firm developed a readily recognisable style, a sameness resulting from the widespread use of rough-textured brick and concrete - a form of construction that it was also to use in early large private-sector commissions, like the Waltham Cross and Wood Green shopping centres. The result was an expression of logic and economy appropriate to the times, but one that could not last forever.

The post-war tradition of heavy public-sector spending came to an end with the energy crisis and the great inflation of the 1970s, and with startling rapidity the public bodies that had constituted 70 per cent of the firm's client list shrank to 20 per cent and below. By then the founding partners Sheppard and Robson had been joined by William Mullins, Gordon Taylor, John Heywood and Bill Morris whose task was to find out how to attract commercial work on the basis of the high quality of the academic buildings for which the firm was best known.

Despite the fact that the demands of private-sector commercial architecture and public-sector educational building differed considerably, Sheppard Robson's bid for renewed growth was successful. In the City of London the firm was commissioned to design the fully air-conditioned 34-36 Lime Street, and the unusual 150-152 Fenchurch Street, completed in 1977. The latter scheme combines two narrow-frontage buildings by levelling their floorplates while at the same time retaining two separate facades - one clad in tinted glass - in a manner that would raise conservationist eyebrows were it to be proposed today.

Unhappily, no sooner had the firm completed its adjustment to the new importance of the private sector than the massive recession of the early 1980s brought practically all construction in the uk to a halt. Once again Sheppard Robson was obliged to find new ways to survive. Among other measures, four partners were dispatched around the world in search of overseas work. The result was an impressive haul of substantial commissions from Nigeria, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Iraq, Iran and Bahrain that found their way to the London office. A pioneering example of what today is called globalisation, this episode proved profitable for the firm but was surprisingly unproductive in terms of completed buildings. None of the projects, from teaching hospitals to new towns and office buildings, progressed beyond the design stage. Only the Arabian Gulf university, now the University of Bahrain, was actually completed and, although the design direction eventually fell to Kenzo Tange, Sheppard Robson was invited back by the Bahrain government to advise on additions to the original masterplan.

Graham Anthony, who has responsibility for design in the organisation, joined Sheppard Robson in 1990 at the beginning of a property recession so severe that it bankrupted more property companies and drove more architects out of business than any other in living memory. An aa graduate with many years of experience, Anthony had a strong design background. He had worked for abk and the Richard Rogers Partnership, much of his time with the latter firm being spent in the demanding position of job architect for the Lloyds building.

The Stevenage project was run by a client whose project-management approach owed more to the petro-chemical industry than to traditional architecture. The Sheppard Robson team was required to adapt itself rapidly to the approach taken by the project managers, most of whom were accustomed to dealing with specialist subcontractors rather than with generalist English architects. Anthony recalls today that Sheppard Robson's experience of this system over the long duration of the Glaxo Wellcome project pointed the way to the restructuring of the practice that subsequently took place, which included the appointment in 1998 of six new partners, Tim Evans, Andrew Bowles, Mark Dillon, Malcolm McGowan, Tony Poole and Anthony himself. Of these Anthony, Bowles and McGowan had held senior positions on the Stevenage project.

'What was demonstrated at Glaxo Wellcome,' says Anthony, 'was how to recognise and use the different specialist skills of architects and make sure they talk to one another. Not just allow them to talk to one another, but make them do so by means of the project-management system. A culture of design requires everyone's mind to be focused on the end product. In the old days, once you became an associate you did everything yourself, from masterplanning to detailing. The specialist process is much more complicated and much less forgiving. It taught me that we mustn't forget that we are not brick people any more. What we can design is a complicated precision product.'

It is a reflection of this outlook that today at Sheppard Robson, out of 200 staff, there are over 120 architects and interior designers who work as either designers or project managers. Of the 11 partners, three specialise in project management while the others head up 'teams' of up to 20 or so persons working on a number of jobs. There are full-time programmers and full-time specification writers. There are people who only make models. A schedule of design reviews, management reviews and technical reviews tries to ensure not only that more than one partner is informed about every job, but that there is full-time monitoring of the progress of every project. In addition, a new approach to global operations using American expertise was taken in the formalisation of a ten-year association with Corgan Associates Inc, of Dallas, Fort Worth, New York and Miami, to create Sheppard Robson Corgan, a jointly owned uk-registered company. The two practices, coincidentally of the same age, muster particular expertise in airport and aviation architecture, corporate headquarters design and space planning.

This whole modernisation process - there is no other word for it - may have been triggered by the Glaxo Wellcome experience and the demands of the early 1990s recession, but it has also been verified by research. In 1996 Sheppard Robson commissioned an external review of the practice which was carried out by Eric Schneider, a management consultant who had also played a major part in the riba's strategic study of the profession.

For a practice that not very long ago was organised in such a way that each partner had his own clients and ran his own jobs, the change has been radical - as has been the effect upon the firm's client base. Long gone is the heavy public-sector bias. Now between 70 and 80 per cent of workload is commercial work coming from blue-chip clients, developers or property agents.

The first opportunity to apply the new design-led approach came as early as 1991 in the shape of the Helicon, a £30 million commercial project on the Islington edge of the City, with the lower four floors occupied by Marks and Spencer. The client, London and Manchester Assurance, very specifically wanted a landmark building for the development of its site at the bottom of the recession, and the challenge was taken up by partner Graham Francis with Graham Anthony as project associate.

'From the beginning we knew exactly what was wanted at the Helicon,' Graham Anthony says. 'A building that looked totally different to all the empty unlet offices around it. We wanted daylight on a grand scale, with clear glass, triple-glazed for high insulation and with adjustable louvres for low heat gain. We wanted low energy consumption with silent chilled ceilings instead of noisy air-conditioning. The agent, Healey and Baker, was very clever in marketing the building along these lines; it made the most of all the differences. The one thing I was worried about was the offices remaining unlet for years like Erskine's Ark. But it didn't happen. The agents let the 11,500m2 of office space right away.'

Nor did the tactics of the architecture let down the brilliantly successful development strategy that drove the Helicon project. While at first sight it might have seemed that the almost 50/50 balance of retail and commercial space - with the offices above the department store - would diminish the appeal of the six office floors, this did not happen. Instead a spectacular curved suspended glass screen magnifies an already tall office entrance. The screen is suspended from the roof, its two-metre-square glass panels held in position by an outrigged grid of thin stainless-steel rods, with the whole restrained only at the sides and by a truss at first-floor level.

If the Helicon is, as it has been described, a 'state-of-the-art building well done', it still represents only one branch of the new spirit at Sheppard Robson - a branch constrained by the contextual requirements of the City. The Motorola cellular-telephone base-station production plant outside Swindon, permits something more like precision constructivism to make its presence felt. Numerous briefings from the client gradually liberated the whole concept.

'The client kept trying to pin the building down but its market was so volatile that it was obvious all it needed was flexibility - the flexibility to contract as well as to expand. Once that was sorted out, everything went smoothly,' recalls Anthony.

The result is a diagram of dramatic lucidity. The barrel of the prominent 'gun' is a spacious service tube that runs above a two-storey internal street flanked on one side by 23,000m2 of production floor space, whose curved roof covering is supported by long-spanning gull-wing tubular trusses between rows of A-frames that also carry the load of the rooftop plant branching off from the service tube. Future expansion can take place on the opposite side of the street, providing a maximum area of 88,000m2.

While the sheer scale of the Motorola building is awesome, the precision and confidence of its design and detailing show its relationship to the design ethos of the Helicon as well as of forthcoming Sheppard Robson attractions such as the 12,000m2 Toyota headquarters presently under construction near Epsom, and the 16,000m2 Pfizer building to be completed at Walton Oaks in 2001. In the urban context, the massive 90,000m2 redevelopment of City Point - formerly Britannic Tower- is due for completion next year, as is the 40,000m2 Legal & General/Stanhope development next to the Guildhall in Gresham Street.

There is, as partnership chairman Richard Young says, an architectural integrity that characterises the work of Sheppard Robson, from the spectacular daylit drawing office at Swan Hunter dating from 1957 to the spectacular new structures emerging from the firm today. The style may have changed but the capacity to unerringly grasp its essence has not. And, on present showing, most competitors would agree that the word 'dull' is unlikely to be used again.

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