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What we learnt in Beirut

BankMed by John Robertson Architects
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John Robertson, founder of John Robertson Architects (JRA), explains how a project in the Lebanese capital has enriched his practice

I hadn’t ever considered working in Beirut when, out of the blue, we received an invitation to enter a competition to design the new headquarters of the Lebanese bank, BankMed. My only previous experience in the Middle East was one I was glad to forget: a large project in Abu Dhabi where we had some ‘payment difficulties’ that left us with quite a cautious approach to international work; reluctant to risk exposure to clients and markets where we didn’t really know what we were getting into.

BankMed would turn out to be our third international competition in eight years. There were two things that really swung our decision to take the project on: firstly, we met the client’s representatives, who included architecturally trained people in senior positions, and there was the right chemistry to convince us of the propriety of the competition; secondly, the chance to participate in a piece of reconstruction of the centre of Beirut that coincided with our interest in urban design and working in a challenging context was too good to miss.

Everything we learnt in Beirut has taught us that, at a fundamental level, working internationally isn’t too different to working in the UK – you still rely on the same client relationships and you need the same assurances. We would only consider entering limited competitions with reputable clients, and we found an excellent client in BankMed. The competition, in which we were up against two French and two American practices, was initially run over three months, during which we visited Beirut and the client visited us in London. Two days of juries followed in Beirut, and we were asked with one other practice to go away and make some modifications to our schemes before the final contract award, which we won.

We’ve seen lots of our peers closing their satellite offices around the world

We knew that we would be working with a local executive architect appointed by the client. Again, BankMed handled this perfectly – appointing Samir Khairallah & Partners at an early stage in the process to ensure they were fully on board with the conceptual principles that underpin the design. Our previous experience in Abu Dhabi had taught us that opening a local site office leaves you at risk of over-extending yourself financially, so in one respect this arrangement has suited us well. On the other hand, there is no getting away from the risk this leaves you with, at a remove from being able to control quality on site, and this is something we’d prefer to have closer supervision over. But we are invited to Beirut on periodic missions to visit the construction site, and we trust our local partners and the client team to execute the design faithfully.

BankMed by John Robertson Architects

BankMed by John Robertson Architects

Beirut, ‘the Paris of the Mediterranean’, is a fantastic city to explore, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visits there. It’s an ‘edgy’ place, and the reconstruction of the city centre by developer Solidere after the civil war is most impressive. That said, although I have never felt directly threatened myself, periodically there is unrest and there are no-go areas (which are well publicised on the UK Foreign Office website). Being a financial organisation, BankMed is inherently security conscious, and other than discussing the project with our public indemnity underwriters, we haven’t had to take any particular precautions or specialist advice to work in Lebanon.

We’re not sure of the prospects for further work in the country, but that’s down to our own business policy; European fee levels are higher than they are in the MENA region, and we’ve decided it’s better to be invited to work than to go prospecting. We’ve seen lots of our peers closing their satellite offices around the world recently, and feel that after the gold rush there’s been a return to more realistic expectations of what international work can mean for UK-based architects. We certainly won’t turn our backs on the world, but we are very selective about the type of work we will take on. We’re also realistic about the fact that while we might initially be called on for our conceptual ideas, experience and design skill, when it comes to the nitty gritty of working drawings, there are very capable local firms with lower overheads than ours who are able to do the job.

The real benefit of doing this project has been to expand our skills in the design of tall buildings, a capability we’ve been able to develop over the course of this project. There has been lots of UK interest in our work on BankMed HQ when we have shown it to clients, and we’re already using the skills we picked up on projects in Europe. Bank Med is coming out of the ground now and should be complete in 2017.

Work overseas will never be risk free, but our experience shows that if you work with the right partners locally and spend your time wisely, it’s an enormously enriching experience that broadens your horizons and changes you for the better – that’s no bad thing in today’s world where experience and versatility counts for everything.

BankMed by John Robertson Architects

BankMed by John Robertson Architects

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