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local on a global scale

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When Gensler's striking GCHQ building - 'the bagel' - goes on site in Cheltenham next year, it will mark a significant milestone, not only for the spooks who will use the 100,000m2 of ring-shaped accommodation, but also for the practice designing it.

For Gensler's London office is contemplating its next steps after what has been a meteoric rise to 200 staff from just 10, seven years ago. The parent company vies with HOK for the title of the 'biggest practice in the world', but the London office is still something of a 'silent giant' here, says managing director Tony Harbour. The bulk of work comes from working steadily through commissions in the offices sector, completing interiors schemes, generally going about its business without the leg- ups that big media splashes can bring. And yet GCHQ could change all that.

First, it is a high-profile government project (although perhaps it doesn't want to be). Second, it was won in a PFI competition play-off versus a consortium including MI6 building designer Terry Farrell rather than through recommendation and repeat work from other clients, as is usually the case for the outfit. And third, it is most definitely a design with impact.

Perhaps less predictably, explains Harbour, it is also a 'breakthrough' in terms of leading to the practice already another competition already, previously not the firms 'bag' at all. It has just been invited - along with four others - to work on a West London greenfield scheme by a client he says, rather ominously, that it 'couldn't say no to.'

Harbour is an affable, Armani-bespectacled, 57-year-old Hertfordshire- born architect with a persistent American accent he picked up over 28 years with the company in the US. He was based in San Francisco in the early days of the firm, followed by Houston, Texas, and then, courtesy of a Goldman Sachs project, the chance was there to set up London.

Having trained over here at the Bartlett, Harbour completed his education at Berkeley in California before he met Arthur Gensler, the chairman and CEO. 'I joined Art because I wanted to move from a big firm [Leo A Daly] to a small firm', he laughs.

Now he finds himself having quickly built a big company which he claims can still have it both ways: 'play the small practice' by setting up small teams, as well as supply spec buildings to Docklands, and move on to airport buildings in Liverpool - it is working on a new terminal there.

Harbour is glad to be back, especially with his keen love of rugby and cricket - visits home used to be co-ordinated with Five Nations and Wasps games and the day before our interview Harbour was watching a World Cup cricket 'super six' match at Lord's. The practice itself, however, is neither American nor British. 'It's local', says Harbour. 'We're local but have a global perspective and we're a one-firm firm, with all the money going into one pot.'

The firm also heavily values 'teamworking'. Two hundred staff work in small pods of around six in each, adapting to projects which are mostly in the UK but can at times meet demands elsewhere. 'When we started our firm years and years ago we had four things we wanted to do', says Harbour. 'We wanted to offer good design, make money, have fun and client retention. We still believe in those and I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't enjoy myself.'

When it comes to making sure his staff are enjoying themselves, Harbour is proud of treating them as 'assets' and aiming to recruit the best. The company is good on communications. For example: it does things like publish the equivalent of an American year-book to detail all its appointments (this year alone there were 12 new vice presidents, 40 senior associates, and 98 new associates to read about). And morale was sure to have been lifted in London on Tuesday, courtesy of a company 'bonus night', when staff were rewarded for helping push last year's finances up to £13 million in turnover and £11.6 million in fees last year.

'We're going to have a big celebration because we had a great year last year and we are going to give away a hell of a lot of money', Harbour says with a grin. 'I can't tell you how much but it's a lot of money and if I said it I think you would be shocked.'

Another 'jolly' is a weekend trip to the country for senior staff to get heads together and plan what comes next. After winning a couple of European projects - one 'architectural project' in Switzerland and a major interior scheme in Munich, as well as potential work in Paris - Harbour feels expansion with another office may come as a result of work in the French capital, but if it does it will be client-driven rather than planned, he says.

So what is the design aesthetic of the practice? What is the trademark of the Gensler building? 'There isn't one', Harbour replies. 'We're often asked what our style is. My answer is we don't have a style but we're stylish. Every project is in a different location and surroundings, with a different budget and a different brief, so we feel that the architect has got to meet the client's brief and surroundings. I think that's very important and I don't think we should be afraid to do different things.'

Gensler certainly came up with the different and the unexpected for that GCHQ bagel building. 'They were expecting a campus - nine buildings, four storeys high, 2,500m2 floorplate, lots of landscaping'.

That, however, would not have provided the flexibility required in the hush-hush brief. 'What we did was put those together in one building, reduce the land mass and reduce the building but it still could be broken up into different sized buildings within the doughnut. So when you saw the building, it was, 'wow!'

Now Harbour must be hoping that when the bagel's built that reaction might be - 'Wow! - it's a Gensler building.'

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