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New practice Jon Matthews Architects: ‘The complacency irritated me so I went back to basics’

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The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at architects who have recently decided to go it alone 

Practice name Jon Matthews Architects
Based City Tower - Manchester
Founded November 2018
Main people Jon Matthews, John Crellin, Matt Hayward

Where have you come from?
I cut my teeth in London working for Bennetts Associates and ORMS. These practices saw designing commercial buildings as a badge of honour and this has stuck with me ever since. I got made redundant, my son was born and I couldn’t afford a two-bed apartment so I went home to Manchester.

Timing is everything in life and I arrived just as Manchester found its swagger after the 1996 Arndale bombing. I won a competition with Austin-Smith:Lord to design Piccadilly Place with Argent. David Partridge taught me a lot and remains an inspiration. It all grew from there really. The last recession was brutal and I ended up in Dubai and, in 2010 when I was on one of too many plane journeys, I wrote the plan for a new architects practice and presented my plan to the senior team who I worked with at HKR. This was the genesis of 5plus Architects.

5plus became a nationally respected practice, doing some great buildings but I noticed that the success fostered complacency on a number of levels. Then my brother Paul, who was my best mate, died suddenly. Overnight the complacency I saw became irritating and I knew time was up on that phase of my life so I changed it again. I wanted to get back to basics, concentrate on the craft and all the relationships that make a business work and operate a more focused design studio. This is where we are now.

I’d give up every material thing I own for one more pint with my brother

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
It was humbling that our clients are supporting the new company – there’s another lesson in relationships and delivering work. We are one year in now and we are starting to win new jobs such as the Pomona masterplan in Trafford. Initially we concentrated on work in the North West but the new projects have come from all over the UK in the public and private sectors. The dream job is a masterplan that evolves into a series of buildings so you have a role shaping the place as well as the buildings. Our sweet spot is buildings £50 million-plus but we are working on fit-outs and domestic houses too. 

What are your ambitions?
When I was younger I thought earning more to buy that two-bed apartment was the most important thing. Now I’d give up every material thing I own for one more pint with my brother – so my ambition now is never to forget that.

We are 22 people in the practice and I don’t see that growing much more. Many came with us [from 5Plus]; some are new. We are a close-knit team and it’s important that we work together as a supportive team of friends and have fun. I don’t want to work at a place where I don’t know everyone’s name. I’d like the practice to be recognised for proper buildings that last the test of time. Modernity, simplicity and elegance – these values are becoming less and less. 

I’ve recently had contractors openly enjoying the process of making a building worse

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
There seem to be at least two architectural professions running side by side. One is a race to the bottom, controlled by contractors whose motivation is money and not quality. I’ve recently had contractors openly enjoying the process of making a building worse. They see reducing quality as a battle to be won.

The other is an enjoyable space where teams, including contractors, work to be proud of the joint effort. The biggest challenge – apart from the obvious ones of cashflow and paying the salaries – is to continue working with the rational sensible teams who value our input. Every architect reading this will have woken up in the morning dreading going to the office that day because of some lunatic you are working with. I’m not going back there.

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
I’m constantly inspired and learning from clever talented people I’ve worked. I’m still employing lessons learnt at Bennetts Associates in every building we do. Four Pancras Square (pictured below) by Eric Parry is a cracker. If I could leave one of them behind I’d be happy.

01 4 pancras square eric parry dirk lindner

01 4 pancras square eric parry dirk lindner

How are you marketing yourselves?
Good old-fashioned meetings with a bit of social media thrown in. We try to be relentlessly positive with our social media content. Some of the bitterness and rants you see online can be shocking sometimes and ultimately useless. 

Contact details

Twitter @MatthewsArch
Instagram @jon_matthews_architects
Website www.jonmatthewsarchitects.com 

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