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Our 'against all odds' attitude masks the need to get smart

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Architecture students enjoy hearing about how to set up in practice, as I was reminded when giving a lecture on our practice's recent work. Interest in starting up is inevitable. In both schools and the profession we delight in the idea of the architect's deification; think Howard Roark and The Fountainhead or, more topically, the Stirling Prize, and all that fuss over who invented the 'gherkin' (answer: a Slav epicurean two millennia ago).

Our practice's take on the myth and reality of the vision that we all promote took the form of a review of four key criteria for setting up. Each myth was illustrated, as was the painful reality.

The need for a secure cash flow was illustrated with the shredded Gold cards that subsidised our ever-extending overdraft with notes from a cashpoint. The need for secure workload was backed up by images of competition wins that were clearly, like most open competitions today, never going to get built. And so it went on. 'Low overheads' was accompanied by an image of our expensive Charlotte Street office, with its elegantly inappropriate bespoke furniture. 'Think about the economics' was illustrated with a graph of the GNP and the cliff edge of economic difficulty that we tumbled down following our founding in 1989.

Every architect will have their own version of this story: from kitchen table to office and often back - and not always by choice, despite what you may be told. One of my own favourites is Glenn Howells' overnight journey from kitchen to competition win, to nameplate on door of borrowed office for the prospective competition-winning client's first visit (with the desks filled by friends/students) and back to the kitchen table - all in a matter of days.

These stories provide a formative model.

Architecture is about risk and scraping through; 'against all odds' the motto of choice. Is it, therefore, any wonder that as a profession we continually split like amoebas?

Established partners leave for new ventures, while successful practices spend their lifespan spawning new practices - happily or otherwise.

Old practices fade away or are reinvigorated by new blood. Some build on the name, others destroy it. Reputations are distilled or diluted.

While there are clear lineages, you can trace the architecture of a practice through to those who taught or mentored its driving forces. There is no clear corporate model.

There is, however, a clear model fostered and enjoyed by architects and critics alike and supported by the evidence of history.

Architectural practice is driven by small groups of motivated, ambitious, and often very talented, architects; the transition to second and third generations is achievable, if very difficult. I conclude, therefore, that our professional psyche - vanity even - precludes us from setting up 'corporate' models.

The very word, along with 'commercial', is almost exclusively used pejoratively - we are interested in improving what we do and how we do it and we enjoy money, but we rarely want to be seen as corporate or commercial.

Great architecture is often produced in the most difficult of circumstances and this makes for enjoyable, if apocryphal, tales. But the great myth that celebrates professional incompetence is now boring and, worse still, dangerous. The majority of practices are relatively small and their size, stature and credit rating can already present difficulties in a world dominated by large corporate structures on the construction, consultant and client sides. Philip Johnson famously stated that architecture was all about 'getting jobs, getting jobs, getting jobs!', which is a commercial truism. A professional truism is that, regardless of practice size, we all need to get smarter about what we do when we get these jobs, and that we can do so without becoming corporate.

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