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pick of the crop

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Splitting from his partners after a string of high-profile projects, Michael Wilford is resisting the cut and thrust of commercial procurement to select only clients which share his quest for international quality

Last year Michael Wilford and Partners completed two blockbuster projects: the Lowry in Salford and the British Embassy in Berlin. As Michael Wilford puts it: '2000 marked the zenith of our operations.' But, he argues: 'We were both the victims and the beneficiaries of the millennium boom.'

Clients tended to assume that the practice was too busy to take an interest in less highprofile projects: when the flagship projects came to an end, the workload disappeared.

'The three partners - Russ Bevington, Lawrence Bain and myself - talked long and hard, and there was a divergence of opinion as to where the future lay.'

At 62, Wilford was ready for a change of pace: 'I have never worked as hard as in the years since Stirling died. I don't regret it, but it is time to establish priorities.' His intention was to take on only those projects which really excited him. Bevington and Bain, on the other hand, felt that the practice should learn to operate more quickly and cost-effectively in a bid to appeal to more commercially minded clients. 'The upshot of all this, ' says Wilford, 'is that, as a result of entirely amicable reasoned discussions, we are going our own separate ways professionally.'

Michael Wilford and Partners will remain in operation to fulfil obligations on existing projects - the Lowry, for example, is still in its defects liability period. And the Stuttgart office will be run by the German partner Manuel Schupp, with Wilford as a consultant. It has three major projects under construction: three buildings for Sto;

a headquarters for pharmaceutical company Braun Melsungen; and the House of History in Stuttgart - the 'last piece in the jigsaw' of an urban complex which includes Stirling Wilford's Staatsgallerie (1977-84) and Wilford's Music School, winner of the 1997 Stirling Prize.

Wilford describes the reshuffle as 'natural professional evolution. Things go in seven year cycles. It's seven years since the partnership was established and it is time to move on.' In any case, he argues, it is time for the younger partners to forge their own careers and identity. The media's obsession with personalities means that their role in high-profile projects such as No 1 Poultry (AJ 5.11.98) and the Lowry (AJ 6.7.00) has been largely overlooked. In an earlier AJ interview (13.4.95) Wilford talked about his own struggle to establish himself as anything other than James Stirling's partner. 'It's something I'm very conscious of, ' he says. 'I suffered from Stirling's public profile, and they have suffered from mine.'

Wilford, meanwhile, says: 'I want to be free to pick and choose clients who share an interest in producing buildings of an international quality.' He concedes that such clients 'may be few and far between' but he seems to have the knack of tracking them down. Projects in the pipeline include a 30,000m 2library at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where Wilford was a visiting professor for 10 years. The school of architecture already boasts a Stirling Wilforddesigned extension. The project will be run in association with a local architect of record, with Wilford acting as design architect in collaboration with MUMA (McInnes, Usher & McKnight Architects), a bunch of exWilford employees who have just set up practice in London's Primrose Hill.He is keen to support both Bevington and Bain and MUMA in their new ventures, and intends to 'use any influence I might have' to help them find work.

Wilford is now firmly at the heart of the establishment. After meeting the Queen and Prince Philip at the openings of the embassy in Berlin and the Lowry, he was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace, where he and the Prince chatted about ship restoration and the refurbishment ofWindsor Castle after the fire. So it was not wholly unexpected when he received a CBE in this year's New Year's honours. 'I've had hundreds of letters. The number of people who wrote with congratulations has been very gratifying.'

Despite this wave of support from his compatriots, Wilford confesses to 'a certain disillusionment with building in the UK and for the UK'. He is scathing about the capabilities of contractors and subcontractors who make it 'an enormous hassle' to get decent work built, and thinks that trade skills are on the decline. 'You find that the people painting the building are actually taxi drivers. They're short of work, so they pick up a brush.' He contrasts this with the situation in Germany, where the trade guilds are still 'very strong and very proud' and the quality of work is invariably high.

The government's decision to divert Lottery money away from bricks and mortar means that Wilford's traditional work in England has come to a temporary halt, which seems to be something of a relief. He is critical of the PFI and design and build, and has no interest in explaining his work at interviews with 'city treasurers and bureaucrats' who score a practice's financial standing and level of professional indemnity insurance above quality of design. 'Despite the government's protestations about design quality being a key component of procurement, any competitive bidder is bound to try and provide a building for the lowest possible cost.'

'I'm not interested in doing bread and butter work, ' he says, and he is at a stage in his career when he can afford to walk away. He is relishing the prospect of spending more time living and working in the Sussex house which he designed for his family (AJ 21.12.00). He may take on a few staff, but he has no desire to build up a large practice: 'Size is an issue:

you've got to operate a small tight ship.'

Michael Wilford can be contacted by e-mail at michaelwilford@michaelwilford.com

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