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Architecture ‘still up its own backside’ says U+I chief Richard Upton

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From his ‘floating boardroom’, U + I chief Richard Upton talks to the AJ about his frustration with architects, how regeneration has ‘lost its way’ and how local authorities must rework – not sell – their family silver

Property developer Richard Upton is jumping up and down in a glass-sided boardroom that hangs suspended like a giant fish tank in the middle of his vast office in Victoria.

‘We thought – wouldn’t it be funny if the board of directors is shrunk inside a glass box and you can see them gesticulating but no one can hear them?’ he says.

The ‘floating’ meeting chamber sits at the heart of a madcap office designed by Phil Coffey and Ab Rogers and is inspired by Mike Teavee, the boy who is transported into a television set in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Upton actually gave the architects a DVD of the film as an ‘emotional brief’ for the project.

Its curiosities – a full-size yellow lifeboat, a giant horse with a lampshade hat and moss-like sculptures creeping across the walls – are what Upton describes as moments of ‘childish hope’, an emotion he says more architects need to engage with.

U+I formed in 2015 through a merger of FTSE-listed Development Securities, and the smaller, more boutique Cathedral Group, founded by Upton, to be a firm specialising in regeneration.

The firm has a £6 billion portfolio of mixed-use projects, a £200 million investment portfolio and offices in London and the South East, Dublin and Manchester.

Recent projects include the £200 million regeneration of Brighton’s Preston Barracks, by Studio Egret West, and Deptford Market Yard by Ash Sakula Architects, Pollard Thomas Architects and Farrer Huxley Associates.

Upton was ‘tempted’ by architecture as a career but says he realised life was too short to draw buildings that might not get built.

‘That’s why I have so much death-related art because we have a very short window to create things,’ he says.

The firm spends between £7-£8 million on architectural fees every year, with this set to continue. ‘The great things about architects we can dance with ideas in our conversations, my job is to make them fly and deliver the ideas that settle on their pens’, he says.

But while Upton insists he is passionate about design, he has become exasperated with the industry which he describes as ‘self-important’.

He says: ‘When architects give presentations, their first slide will be a picture of a group of them, all looking like a democracy. Then there is a list of awards they have won. Then they will go through education, housing, commerce, with pictures of buildings.

‘There is no philosophy there is very little empathy and understanding of what the customer needs.’

Upton says the areas U+I work in are ’incredibly deprived’ but said there were hardly any architects who ask for socio-economic studies of the area or propose how to ‘fix what is broken’. 

He adds: ’[Architecture] is still up its own backside, often, going ”here’s my lovely building, I’ve won a RIBA prize, I’m going to win a Stirling prize, I’m intellectually really impressive”’.

It’s not just architects, says Upton. Clients need to be better too, and create an excellent ‘technical and emotional brief’ to get better answers to some of the questions.

It’s very easy for a developer creating awful things to ask a design team to help present to a public body and call it regeneration

In a speech at the recent Regenerate property conference, Upton called for the industry to have its own #MeToo moment, saying it needed to face up to its ‘wider responsibility in the communities they develop’ and ‘drive socio-economic value not our own bottom line’.

Over half U + I’s work is delivered in partnerships with local authorities and it markets itself as a ‘regeneration specialist’. But does that word still have positive connotations?

Like ‘placemaking’, the word has been ‘borrowed and distorted’, Upton says, adding: ‘It’s very easy for a developer who is creating awful things to ask a design team to help present to a public body and call it regeneration.

‘Then they deliver something with orange cladding and poor landscape. Regeneration – as a word like many other words with their own fashionable period – has lost its way.’

What about the collapse of the Lendlease deal in Haringey? Did that mark a line in the sand for how public-private partnerships are run? ‘I don’t think so,’ he replies. ‘Well, maybe. At a certain scale, you have to ask: is it local? I think it’s a matter of scale, degree and approach.’

Upton says it is ‘ridiculous’ that property developers have become responsible for delivering affordable housing. ‘Typically my motivation is to optimise profit for my shareholders – and if I don’t do that I get sacked.

‘That’s not my approach here [at U +I ] but we need to be competitive, so we go into this weird situation where the delivery mechanism for a more balanced society is a property developer.’

‘There is not enough taxation to support our welfare state. [Local authorities] have to look to the family silver – but our preaching is don’t sell it; work it, polish it, and keep it forever. Use the skills of the private sector.

‘There is no way that this country can deliver housing numbers it needs without a partnership between the public and private sector. Not a chance. It will fail. The government cannot borrow enough money.’

So, how can architects impress such Richard Upton? By way of response, he tells an anecdote about Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas going into a crit with architectural students and telling them to either show him art, or politics.

‘Our art, our politics is making beautiful spaces that are inclusive and thoughtful for all. Having nice buildings is a small part of that. The architect very regularly talks about technical competence like a pub talks about a pint and a pork scratchings. Can I have a bit more care?’

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Bravo. I absolutely agree.

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  • Chris Roche

    I welcome these comments, and sympathise with the criticism of the profession in general, however paradoxically those architects beating the drum for more inclusive and socially responsible architecture are often overlooked by developers more interested in making profits than making places. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps school's of architecture could invite "clients" into crit's for the benefit of both architects and developers?

    Chris Roche / 11.04 Architects

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  • Phil Parker

    Deptford Market Yard by Ash Sakula Architects, Pollard Thomas Architects and Farrer Huxley Associates.

    I don’t get it?

    In 2012 the AJ said this building was by another architect?

    See https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/rogers-bags-planning-for-deptford-mixed-use-redevelopment/8627603.article

    Whose design is it?

    Perhaps it’s not architects who need to take a good look at themselves?

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  • I tend to agree with the thrust of what Upton is putting across here.

    More dialogue, more engagement with the actual process, the actual site, architects asking really searching questions regarding end users / socio-economic impacts.

    Not all developers are as progressive as U&I though. It would take a really brave architect to bring this sort of commitment to a project if the fees and commitment from the client were not there.

    It is a two-way street after all.

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  • To be fair, U+I is doing its bit to help educate the next generation of architects - I've just spent a wonderful morning with a team from U+I along with the students on the Masters in Architectural Design Management course at IE University, discussing presentations and what clients are looking for.
    Guess what? It's not rocket science!

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