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The Architect's vision: Max Fordham roundtable

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What makes great architecture? Is it the singular vision of an unwavering artist, or compromises thrashed out at team meetings? Max Fordham and the AJ host a debate

Reading between the lines of Inside Out, the recent Royal Academy show celebrating the life and work of Richard Rogers, the architect’s many achievements were in fact collaborative efforts. None of Rogers’ great works was the vision of just one man. The Pompidou Centre, for example, was created in tandem with Renzo Piano, although engineer Peter Rice and fellow architect Jan Kaplický, who would go on to found Future Systems, also played important roles.

Rogers is not unique in this respect: all buildings, even those by the acknowledged masters, Corb, Mies et al, were forged by many minds working in collaboration. Yet when these ‘events’ are repackaged as stories, a lone, heroic, figure is usually front and centre. It’s almost as if the human brain is hard-wired to place trust in the idea of the iconic creator. Take cinema, and the cult of the auteur, of directors who stamp their own individual personality on a project and apparently eschew the collaborative approach. Would Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey have been the great film it was without the effects developed by Douglas Trumbull? And where would Zaha Hadid be without her engineers? Nevertheless, working together can be tough, whether in film or construction.

What are the drawbacks of collaboration? And what are the benefits? What role do consultants play? And, in contemporary building, are there perhaps too many cooks? Most importantly, how can collaborative thinking be managed as a formula for the very best design?

The setting for the second in the AJ/Max Fordham Round Table Series couldn’t be more appropriate. The Roca London Gallery - all curved white walls and liquid forms - was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. They rightly get the star billing, but Max Fordham provided the environmental engineering and acoustics consultancy. Despite Zaha’s strident design language, the engineers applauded her ability to ‘listen and be challenged’.

The subject is ‘vision/collaboration’ and how best to achieve it. Can our panel members agree?

The singular author

It’s no surprise that Piers Taylor, who left a collaborative partnership with Mitchell Taylor Workshop to found a looser, less restrictive practice, Invisible Studio, comes out on the side of the singular author: ‘Despite what it says in your pitch, the Pompidou Centre was the vision of a single man. Most architecture, whether we like it or not, is the vision of one person.’

Taylor’s view of collaboration is that it ‘adds fertility’ to creative life, but still needs to be managed by an individual. ‘Within my previous practice there was some resentment [when I brought external people on board]. The new organisation is ‘invisible’. It’s a vehicle to allow people to work together, but there are no permanent members, and each project depends on a collaboration.’ He adds: ‘But I am directive. An individual being directive within a group is what makes a collaboration successful.’

Servants of architecture

You would expect structural engineers to support the notion of collaboration - after all, they are the unsung professionals who enable architecture to be translated from sketch to structure. However, Hanif Kara, design director of AKT II, says that architects have ‘given too much away’, and that he doesn’t believe in collaboration if it ‘brings the average down’.

‘Why do you want to give away something that’s so powerful?’ says Kara. ‘I see this all the time; 47 consultants [working on] one building just stinks, as you’ve made your client go into 47 contracts because you’ve allowed the project manager to break it down so much.’

He adds: ‘There has to be one person holding the pencil.’

AKT II has worked closely with Zaha Hadid Architects on numerous projects, and Kara is clear that engineers are ‘servants of architecture’ whose job is to realise the visions of bold architects.

Referring to Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Kara says: ‘It’s not [just] a Zaha building; there’s a whole cultural, societal and political agenda that produced that form on that imagination. So when Zaha comes up with something like that, you respect and admire it. An engineer’s response to a demanding client collaborating with Zaha ought to be one of supporting what they’re doing.’

He adds: ‘Zaha has made engineers like us, not the other way around. Architecture goes back 5,000 years. We were invented 100 years ago as size and technology started to become a bit difficult.’

Henry Luker, senior partner at Max Fordham agrees. ‘I’m very comfortable as an engineer for the architects to provide direction,’ he says. ‘[But] the question I have is: Is that person prepared to listen and be challenged in order to deliver a better building? I have worked with architects who do both. Zaha is a very demanding architect and you see very strong vision, but she also listens and is prepared to be challenged.’

In praise of the team effort

It’s interesting to discuss Zaha Hadid’s modus operandi while sitting in one of her buildings. The Roca London Gallery is the architect’s work, right down to the tables and bookshelves. But she compromised on the seating: Panton Chairs, by Danish designer Verner Panton are placed in the public areas of the gallery, carefully chosen for their angular form. It can’t be an accident - the same chairs grace the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery in Clerkenwell, and are clearly a favourite of an architect known for her singular vision.

Defending the potential of collaborative work is Clare Wright, who, together with her husband Sandy Wright, set up Wright & Wright Architects in 1994. ‘My life has been about a collaboration between Sandy and me. But that isn’t cosy or comfortable; it’s quite a fierce thing in that we both have incredibly strong views with life-or-death arguments.’ Wright adds: ‘In architecture, we discovered a creativity which gave us the most incredible buzz, [it’s] actually like an addiction. So it’s terribly intense, but if somebody threatens it, that’s extremely stimulating and that is what collaboration means for us.’ Wright recounts a conversation with Isi Metzstein on how cathartic collaboration can be, with a dialogue between at least two people needed to make everything ‘fit together’. A vision realised through dialogue was stronger and more defined as a result. ‘It’s as though you’re sweeping off the sand and it always existed,’ she recalls Metzstein saying.

Paloma Strelitz, founding member of Assemble, says that for her and her colleagues, collaboration is seen as essential for young practices. ‘Collaboration was a learning experience for us, because we didn’t know very much and other people could come on board and enrich those conversations and add value.’

However, being grounded in ‘a shared value system and a shared set of aspirations’ aided the design process. ‘I don’t think an individual vision is necessary, but I do think you all have to be standing in a similar place, looking in a similar direction.’

Authorship and gender

Fiona Scott, who set up the practice Gort Scott with Jay Gort, alludes to an interesting divide between men, who lean towards the idea of a singular vision, and women, who favour the idea of the team effort. ‘In my experience, while women want acknowledgement for their role, they don’t necessarily feel the need to be seen as a singular auteur,’ she says. ‘I have grown most as an architect and designer from collaborations. But I think that for collaborations to be taken seriously, everyone needs to be acknowledged, and I don’t think that always happens.’

For and against technology

The discussion moves from collaboration with other professionals to collaboration with technology, encompassing everything from BIM to 3D printing. Mary Duggan of Duggan Morris Architects says architects have had to acquire new skills to cope with new tools.

‘We talk a lot about giving skills away as architects, but I think we’ve had to learn so much more with regards to technology,’ she says. ‘We need to be very diverse, and because of the direction procurement’s going in, we need to consult much more during the process.’

Yet an over-reliance on technology could cause problems for designers, especially as new technologies such as 3D printing are adopted. As Jerry Tate of Jerry Tate Architects warns: ‘The problem with 3D printing is that it spits out anything, then you try to work out how to build it and you find you can’t because you could only build it with a full-size 3D printer.’

Guy Nevill, senior partner at Max Fordham, adds: ‘It’s when you’re relying on [technology] that you get into trouble,’ he says. ‘For example the 3D printer throws something up and you immediately see the glitch, whereas if you are relying on software, you don’t know there’s something going wrong.’

With such divergent views on the table, it’s no surprise that there was even debate throughout over whether the word ‘collaboration’ was the right term to be discussing in the first place, with ‘engagement’ and ‘interdisciplinary discussion’ both suggested as alternatives. And while Strelitz thinks the term has ‘aspirational’ tones, Tate feels it is too loosely defined to really mean anything, even though it crops up in the industry all the time.

However, during the discussion three architects in particular emerged as good collaborators, each in their own way: Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. And each has earned ‘starchitect’ status. Clearly singular vision and working in a team aren’t as contradictory as they may first appear.

Mulling on the event later, Piers Taylor tweeted: ‘Suspect I’m like many architects and want it both ways…’ adding: ‘…to benefit from collaboration when it suits but to be a controlling dictator when it doesn’t’.

Read the full transcript here.

Design is not a Barcelona chair: Max Fordham roundtable

■ Rory Olcayto, AJ deputy editor

■ Mary Duggan, director, Duggan Morris Architects
■ Hanif Kara, design director, AKT II
■ Henry Luker, senior partner, Max Fordham
■ Guy Nevill, senior partner, Max Fordham
■ Fiona Scott, director, Gort Scott Architects
■ Paloma Strelitz, founding member, Assemble
■ Jerry Tate, founding partner, Jerry Tate Architects
■ Piers Taylor, founder, Invisible Studio
■ Clare Wright, partner, Wright & Wright Architects


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