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The stories that defined 2017

2018 themes 5year in review
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Here’s a recap of the stories that defined 2017, a year when it was sometimes hard to find a positive spin on the architectural world

1200px grenfell tower fire (wider view)

1200px grenfell tower fire (wider view)

The profession’s waning influence became one of 2017’s hottest topics. Questions about the role of the architect were among a catalogue prompted by the deeply tragic and shocking Grenfell Tower fire in June – some of which will hopefully be answered by the public inquiry as it progresses, methodically, through 2018.  

Most architects had previously been quiet on the issue of fire safety, but in the wake of the fire, many pointed the finger at the lack of a single competent professional such as an architect or engineer with overall responsibility for specifying materials. Such a professional – alongside the building control and fire officers – could, the argument went, have ensured the correct use and installation of cladding materials. 

The profession’s ever-declining importance was exemplified by the government’s subsequent failure to include any architects on the expert fire-safety panel set up following the tragedy.

In Scotland the issue was, at least, officially recognised. Following the collapse of a wall at an Edinburgh school last year, a Scottish parliamentary committee recommended that public bodies needed to reduce the gap between themselves – as clients – and building design teams by employing a clerk of works on construction projects. 

London’s mayor has also made some tentative steps in his draft London Plan towards ensuring architects are kept on board throughout a scheme, proposing giving local authorities the right to insist on their retention post-planning.

Perhaps 2018 will mark the start of architects reclaiming some of the ground lost over the last 50 years.

A year of project failures

Garden bridge

The collapse of Thomas Heatherwick’s hugely contentious Garden Bridge project did not, in the end, come as much of a surprise. Projected costs had spiralled to £200 million, MP Margaret Hodge had published a devastating review, and in August the scheme’s backer, the Garden Bridge Trust, announced it was being wound up. Its chair Mervyn Davies blamed its demise on London mayor Sadiq Khan’s ‘lack of support’ for the scheme. It is true Khan had refused to provide Boris Johnson’s long-promised mayoral guarantee to cover operation and maintenance costs. But lack of agreement with stakeholders including Coin Street Community Builders and the fudged procurement process had already cast a long shadow over the project. 

Unfortunately, with £46.6 million of taxpayers’ money lost in the process, its legacy for the wider profession could be an even more cautious, more risk-averse procurement system – unless sensible heads prevail. Meanwhile on the outskirts of Liverpool, the decline of Hodder + Partners’ National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley into a hopeless, rotting mess was met with widespread sadness. The failure of cash-strapped charity Landlife, which had run the Millennium project since its opening in 2001, saw the award-winning, ‘inhabited wall’ shut its doors and become a target for vandals. The future for the once slick, concrete landmark remains decidedly bleak.

And could this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize winner face a similar funding predicament? Just weeks after dRMM’s super-flexible Hastings Pier picked up the UK’s top architectural prize, the charity behind the project went into administration. The spotlight of publicity had failed to avert financial disaster. 

Those we lost 

Zoe smith crop2

The last 12 months have not been kind to the profession. January saw the deaths of Bob Chapman (89) of Chapman Taylor and ABK co-founder Richard Burton (83). We then lost property tycoon Irvine Sellar (82) and Festival of Britain architect Leonard Manasseh (100) in February and March respectively. In the summer the profession mourned the death of Bryan Avery (73) as well as Italian architectural assistants Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi both in their 20s and both killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. There was a further shock in August when Zoe Smith (pictured), formerly of Block Architecture and co-founder of ZCD Architects, died aged just 45 from cancer. A month later AHMM associate Gabriel Musat (61) died in a swimming accident while trying to save his wife. Then in October, David Marks of Marks Barfield Architects, best known for designing the London Eye with his wife Julia Barfield, lost his battle with cancer aged 64.

Those who shone

Mayor of london sadiq khan and sir david adjaye

In October social housing crusader Neave Brown was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal – a decision almost universally welcomed. David Adjaye’s star, already glittering in the States, shone even brighter back in the UK. The London and New York-based practice, now nearly 100 strong, landed the prize commission to design the new National Holocaust Memorial in Westminster and was shortlisted for numerous other projects. Adjaye was also named one of the mayor’s design advocates. As was dRMM’s Sadie Morgan who, as the chair of the independent design panel for High Speed Two (HS2), has been noticeably vocal about the importance of architects. Her year was topped by her practice’s Stirling Prize victory for Hastings Pier.

Problems at the institutions 

Rias house of horros in glasgow by helen lucas

The RIBA, troubled by its own problems in recent years, seemed a picture of calm in 2017 compared to the upheavals at its Scottish neighbour the RIAS.

RIAS’s outgoing (in both senses of the word) secretary and treasurer Neil Baxter quit, without explanation, just days after a group of leading Scottish architects had demanded a major shake-up of the organisation.

For many, the last straw seemed to be a much-criticised and scruffy pop-up structure in Glasgow Central station, supposedly promoting Scottish architects – a project masterminded by Baxter and dubbed ‘the marshmallow house’. 

A collective of nearly 100 architects called for an overhaul of the ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘bunkered’ RIAS and for the 101-year-old organisation to become more transparent, inclusive and accountable over its decision-making. This month the Scottish charity regulator launched its own investigation into the RIAS’s governance and finances.

Meanwhile, in London, the Architectural Association came under fire from around the globe for its plans to put 16 staff on notice of redundancy as part of a cost-cutting drive. Many feared this move could spell the end of the school’s highly-respected magazine AA Files or at least threaten its intellectual predominance. Among those demanding a rethink were David Adjaye and Richard Rogers. This row continues to rumble and certainly won’t be resolved before the New Year. 

Economy and fees – a mixed picture

Many practices felt a post-Brexit bump in 2016 and, particularly for those doing high-end residential work in London, this year didn’t get much better. For the first time in years, the AJ began hearing about firms laying off staff. In April, Foster + Partners announced that ‘just under 100’ staff were at risk of redundancy. The practice also lost a major court case and was forced to cough up £3.6 million over an unrealised hotel scheme that would have cost its client more than double the original budget. Yet by the end of the year the nation’s largest practice was hiring again.

During the summer, numerous practices and industry experts were predicting a cooling market – a stagnation that was more than just the usual holiday slowdown. Atkins shed designers and Mecanoo cut staff from its one-time flagship Manchester office. But others appeared to be thriving. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios attributed its dip in profits to ongoing expansion plans, with the company’s workforce having rocketed from 127 to 175 in the last two years. AHMM, which became an employee ownership trust, increased its turnover by 16 per cent to £34.2 million with the head count rising by 30 to 336.

Recruitment, however, became trickier, as many EU nationals chose to work in other countries. As Paul Chappell at 9B Careers said: ‘In May, we received 60 per cent fewer applications from EU architects compared to before the referendum result. If workloads stay strong and architects continue to leave at the same rate, skills shortages will soon arise and practices will have to compete even harder to attract the best staff.’


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