It has taken 28 years for Rachel Haugh to get her name over the door at the practice she co-founded with Ian Simpson. Why has it taken so long?
And what does it mean for the influential AJ100 practice? Haugh talks to Laura Mark about the practice becoming Simpson Haugh and Partners
What drove you and Ian to set up together in 1987?
We both wanted to create great architecture and work with people who shared that vision. I was recently qualified and practising, and Ian was teaching. We both felt that, although we were trying to do our best, we couldn’t really control our own destiny. So we rented a small studio space in Manchester and we’d work on competitions night after night, weekend after weekend.
We were finalists in a national competition for the Alliance & Leicester Building Society. We went to London for the prize-giving and came second. On the train on the way back we said: ‘We’re going to be first next time.’ That was when we decided to set up in practice, although we had no work at all. It was naive but, if you knew everything, you probably wouldn’t do it; it would be too scary.
How difficult was it starting a practice?
It took a long time to establish ourselves. Ian was teaching and that sustained us for a long time. I was working in the studio. Slowly but surely projects did take off, but it was a long, slow, struggle – although equally exciting and rewarding.
How has the practice grown over the 30 years?
For the first 10 years we had very little work. When the recession hit in the early 1990s we were barely even aware of it because we didn’t have any work anyway. The catalyst was in 1992, when we won the first Architecture Foundation competition – for the development of the Foyer scheme in Birmingham [a transitional centre for homeless youths]. Although the project took a long time to deliver, it was quite a big step-change. We later won the international competition for the redevelopment of Manchester [a masterplan for the reconstruction of the city centre] and we were then kept on for future projects.
We gained the confidence of the city’s leaders. We delivered incrementally larger and larger projects. The completion of Urbis and No 1 Deansgate really spurred our growth. Shortly afterwards we were commissioned to design the Beetham Tower in Manchester. Then the Blackfriars tower in London propelled our practice forwards both internationally and in London.
How is it being based outside London?
Manchester was a fantastic city to set up in. An individual can really make a difference. We are both from Manchester, so we knew the context very well and could see what needed to happen. The city was also raising its ambition, and that married with our own.
The IRA bombing of Corporation Street in Manchester in 1996, although it was disastrous for the country and the political situation, pushed the city’s development forward because redevelopment had to happen at such speed.
Why did you just use Ian’s name at the beginning?
At the time there were a number of very strong names, such as Rogers, Foster, Stirling.
At the time it was appropriate for Ian to be that name
These were forceful but had something you could relate to: an image of a person. It is that relating to a personality that appealed to us. At the time it was appropriate for Ian to be that name. We decided on that together. It has served us very well. It has built a brand.
Why have you decided to rename now?
The name change is linked to a change to an LLP, which introduces additional partners. We’re inviting further partners to share in the profit and everything else to do with the practice.
With it comes recognition of my role as an equal contributor to the success of the practice. It is an acknowledgment of my position as a co-founding partner – a very different partner to the others. So Simpson Haugh and Partners is the new name. My name will be alongside Ian’s in a way that it hasn’t been. But, equally, the reference to the partners is very important.
You previously had plans to rename but put them on hold. Why was this?
The ambition has been there from about 2007. We were at an equivalent point then to where we are now – things were beginning to take off, projects of a much greater scale were beginning to move forward.
We lost a massive percentage of our work
However, at that point everything began to drop off a cliff. I don’t think anybody would have wished to be a party to it because we lost a massive percentage of our work. We always knew we would come back to the plans when we were able.
Now your name is over the door, will we be seeing more of you?
Architecture is about teamwork – some members of the team are just more visible than others. Ian has always been the most visible; my role is less visible. That responds to our personalities. It is not going to be a change for me in that sense. It may be a formal and very public recognition of my role, but the intention is not to change me.
How is your working relationship with Ian?
We have complementary skill sets. We work on every project together. Ian is very good strategically – he can come up with a lot of ideas very quickly and can develop a vision and response to a brief.
I’m different. I’m a powerful critic and a strong sounding board at the early stages of a project and we bounce ideas off each other. I am much more detail-focused, so I have more involvement in the detailed design, moving a project forward, managing the teams and the delivery.
In 2011 you put £500,000 of your own money into the business. How big a risk was this?
It was the only thing we could do. There was no choice in our minds. We had the confidence and ambition for the future, despite what was happening at the time.
It was the only thing we could do
We reduced the scale of the practice by almost 50 per cent very quickly, because we could see what was happening to us day-by-day. That speedy response stood us in good stead. We assessed the practice to see what our outgoings were and how we could reduce costs. We really did batten down the hatches.
We expanded our search for work to markets that didn’t rely on bank funding so heavily. Before, all our work had come by word of mouth and we hadn’t been particularly proactive in searching for work.
It was fantastic that we came out the other side a lot stronger. We retained our core group of valuable and committed staff and we have ridden the wave. Projects that did disappear have come back. Although it was a very black and bleak time, we didn’t lose our ambition and aspiration. Architects are inherently optimistic. It’s the only way we can be.
What has been the biggest challenge in running the practice?
Retaining our ambition over a wide breadth of people and two offices. It is about trying to make this clear so work is consistent and to a standard that we feel is appropriate.
Architecture is male-dominated. Do you think this will ever change?
It is not about gaining more women but about retaining them in architecture. Compared with other professions the level of reward is very low. The problems for women are to do with low reward, high commitment, the difficulties of flexible working and responding to the needs of childcare.
Which is your favourite among your own projects?
No 1 Deansgate. It is where I live, so I experience it on a daily basis. It showed that you can achieve high-quality living within a very aggressive, edgy, city environment.
It achieved a scale of accommodation that hadn’t been achieved in the city centre before. It is very crisp and it still looks as good as it ever did. It is a very powerful statement within the city and I’m very proud of it. I love living there.