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The twelve stories that defined 2016

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It has been a tumultuous and extraordinary year. The AJ newsdesk looks back at the events that had the biggest impact on the profession in 2016

What a year. In the past 12 months the UK has voted to leave the EU, had a change of prime minister and watched agog as a billionaire reality TV star was elected president of the United States of America. We lost many much-loved personalities in 2016, and the world of architecture was not exempt. The unexpected deaths of the inspirational and influential Zaha Hadid and Scottish star Gareth Hoskins sent shockwaves through the profession. Sadly they were just two of a clutch of the profession’s leading lights who left us much too soon in 2016


The year started brightly enough. Confidence in the profession was buoyant in the first few months – a mood reflected in the upward swing of the RIBA’s Future Trends Survey. This was echoed in June by data from this year’s AJ100 survey – the annual bellwether of the industry’s fortunes – which showed that architect staffing had finally returned to the levels last witnessed almost a decade ago in 2007, the year the credit crunch began. According to the figures, the nation’s largest practices employed 793 more architects in the UK at the start of 2016 than at the start of 2015 – a 14 per cent increase.

Workloads were healthy and there were practice acquisitions, such as BDP by Japanese engineer Nippon Koei, and significant new alliances, notably Stride Treglown, Keppie Design and Todd Architects combining forces under the 431 Architecture banner.

But then cracks started to appear. Even before the business-stifling uncertainty around the EU referendum took hold, talk at March’s MIPIM property fair was of a mini-slowdown in the high-end luxury market and in the commercial sector. And as the vote neared, confidence became increasingly fragile.


1. Brexit turmoil

Brexit march ed everett flickr

Early signs of the impact of this looming storm cloud came in May. Stanton Williams announced 13 redundancies, blaming ‘increasing uncertainty about external factors such as Brexit’, while Farrells too pointed the finger at ‘the outcome of the EU referendum’ and the ‘London mayoral elections’ after shedding staff.

Yet at this stage few in the profession thought that Vote Leave would prevail. The majority of architects certainly didn’t want it to. According to an AJ poll in April, 78 per cent of readers were backing the UK to remain in Europe. What’s more 56 per cent of those surveyed feared that a vote to leave would be damaging for their practice.  


When the results of the vote began to emerge on the morning of 24 June there was widespread shock and outrage. A ‘disgusted’ Ian Ritchie, of Ian Ritchie Architects, branded Brexit a ‘tragedy in the making’. With the potential lockdown on freedom of movement, others feared for the long-term future of their overseas staff – an anxiety that has still to be allayed.

Others were more sanguine. Former RIBA president Angela Brady tweeted: ‘Deep breath … Let’s not panic UK into a recession. We have to be positive and think fast for Plan B – We’re good at that. UK can be strong.’ But an AJ poll in August confirmed what many had feared, at least in terms of short-term impact. More than half of the architects polled reported that projects had been put on hold following the referendum result, and there was also evidence of a significant drop in new client enquiries, with London practices particularly hard hit.

Shelved projects ranged from the £2 million refurbishment of a dilapidated barn to several residential schemes in the capital and a £100 million development in southern England. Towards the end of the year, however, the falling pound had boosted foreign investment, with a number of high-profile schemes resurrected.

2. Patrik Schumacher

With no Zaha to act as a moderating force, Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher told us what he really thought in the latter half of 2016. There had been signs of Schumacher’s growing willingness to challenge the prevailing mindset of British architects. In 2015, he’d taken the AJ to task over the idea of architects having any moral responsibility beyond serving the client, and in September this year Observer critic Rowan Moore described Schumacher’s strong support for Brexit and his delight in taking ‘the opposite position to the centre-left consensus of much of his profession’. 

But it was in his speech at the World Architecture Festival in mid-November that Schumacher really took the gloves off. He presented a manifesto for solving London’s housing crisis based on unfettered gentrification, scrapping regs and privatising all public space. Why were social-housing tenants occupying ‘precious’ city-centre properties, Schumacher wondered aloud. ‘Is it not fair that it’s someone else’s turn to enjoy the central location? Especially if it’s those who really need it to be productive and to produce the support required for those that have been subsidised?’ 

Schumacher standard headline

The backlash took a few days to develop but was crushing for Schumacher when it arrived, given that some of the harshest words came from his own practice. ‘Patrik Schumacher’s “urban policy manifesto” does not reflect Zaha Hadid Architects’ past – and will not be our future,’ the firm said in an open letter released at the end of the month. ‘Zaha Hadid did not write manifestos. She built them.’ 

Amid the outrage, however, was a widespread feeling that however extreme his views, Schumacher must be allowed to speak his mind over what seems to have become one of the defining issues of our time.

3. Council estate regeneration 

The year began with a pledge by David Cameron to bulldoze and redevelop 100 of the UK’s worst housing estates, using a £140 million fund. The then prime minister said the country’s ‘bleak’ post-war housing estates were ‘entrenching poverty’, and claimed spatial analysis of the 2011 riots had shown perpetrators overwhelmingly came from these estates. The following month, a 17-strong panel to oversee the work was announced, chaired by former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine and including RIBA president Jane Duncan and Berkeley Homes boss Tony Pidgley. 

Aj heartsink estate hellman

Following claims that residents’ rights were not being properly upheld, there were signs the government then began to listen. In September, communities secretary Sajid Javid unexpectedly quashed a request for a compulsory purchase order that would have allowed work to start on the regeneration of south London’s Aylesbury Estate. Southwark Council had applied for an order to buy out leaseholders on the first phase of the redevelopment – an 830-home scheme by HTA Design. But Javid backed a planning inspector who said the proposal would breach the residents’ human rights by making it difficult for them to remain in the neighbourhood. 

In December, the RIBA and leading architects welcomed a new government strategy on estate regeneration plus an extra £32 million towards the drive. The strategy backed away from the assumption of demolition, offering the possibilities of refurbishment, intensification and community-led housing. It also provided guidance on resident engagement and protection, including a ‘model residents’ charter’, which the government claimed would mean a better deal for residents.

4. Garden Bridge


This year has not been a good one for the Garden Bridge and may even have effectively killed off the £185 million Thomas Heatherwick-designed scheme. 

In January, the AJ discovered that Heatherwick himself had accompanied then London mayor Boris Johnson on a meeting with Apple in San Francisco in early 2013 as part of an unsuccessful bid for Garden Bridge funding. The meeting took place days before the Transport for London (TfL) bridge design contest which Heatherwick went on to win and which made no mention of a garden element in its brief. 

The following month, RIBA president Jane Duncan intervened to demand an independent investigation into the project’s procurement, but this was refused by Johnson. Further evidence of a stitch-up emerged in April when, through a Freedom of Information request, the AJ uncovered a 2012 TfL briefing note that showed, for the first time, the mayor’s personal preference for a Heatherwick-designed bridge. 

Garden bridge graphic new

In July, the new mayor Sadiq Khan demonstrated his support for the project was only lukewarm when he halted preparatory work at Temple Station due to concerns that further public money would be called upon. In September he appointed Labour grandee Margaret Hodge to investigate the scheme’s procurement and value for money. 

Things went from bad to worse the following month when the National Audit Office published a damning report saying the Department for Transport had provided £30 million of grant funding despite its own conclusion that there was ‘a significant risk that the bridge could represent poor value for money’. This prompted Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier to warn of another ‘Kid’s Company fiasco’ – a reference to the charity propped up by powerful backers and the taxpayer, which had collapsed the previous year. 

The charity behind the bridge, the Garden Bridge Trust, still hopes to begin construction next year. But with this much bad publicity and a funding gap of £56 million, the odds are stacked against it. 

5. Another tough 12 months for the RIBA


The RIBA was hoping to have a calmer year after the bedlam of 2015 and the hugely controversial ‘Israeli motion’. Yet 2016 began with the shock resignation of opinion-splitting chief executive Harry Rich. In some ways, his departure should have come as no surprise – former presidents Ruth Reed and Angela Brady had both struggled to get along with Rich, and Jane Duncan, it emerged, was no wallflower when it came to driving through change.

But love him or loathe him, the departure of the £152,000-a-year employee in the wake of exits by other senior staff – notably Andy Munro, Gill Webber and Richard Brindley in 2015 – left a worrying void in the institute’s leadership. The churn of top-level staff was also estimated to have cost the institute upwards of £750,000 in severance payments, interim wages and other recruitment fees.

Sentiment towards the institute was also being tested. In an AJ readers’ poll early in the year, a worryingly high number (56 per cent) said the institute was poor value for money while almost half (45 per cent) said they were pessimistic about its future. Yet three quarters of AJ readers (77 per cent) claimed they still wanted the RIBA; prompting past-president Paul Hyett to remark: ‘We want an institute, we want this institute, but we want it to function.’


Even so the turnout for the summer’s presidential election was again ominously low. Just 15.2 per cent of the 27,351 eligible voters returned their ballot papers, meaning the institute’s next president, Ben Derbyshire, was backed by only 8 per cent of the RIBA’s membership. 

However September’s eventual confirmation of Alan Vallance as the RIBA’s new permanent chief executive seemed to steady the ship. Speaking about his appointment – on a salary of more than £180,000 – RIBA councillor Elsie Owusu said: ’Vallance has the capacity to support the RIBA’s transition from 19th-century gentleman’s club to the nimble and creative 21st-century profession which architects and our clients truly deserve.’

6. An education system in trouble

The care and future of the next generation of the nation’s architects was never far from the AJ’s news pages in 2016. There were stories about the ongoing uproar at the Cass, where students threatened to quit over the decision by the London Metropolitan University to move its architecture school from the East End to a consolidated mega-campus in Holloway Road. 

Cass students protest outside Central House

Pupils at the Royal College of Art showed their anger at a shake-up of its architecture school and the forced departures of much-loved staff, including Joe Kerr.

There was trepidation and confusion about what the Brexit vote might mean; would EU students be reclassified as international students, with their fees sent rocketing to prohibitive levels?


Then came the AJ’s student survey, and its findings were deeply concerning. Of the 450 students surveyed, more than a quarter (26 per cent) said they were receiving or had received medical help for mental-health issues. A further quarter feared they would have to seek medical help in the future. Anonymous comments from respondents painted a bleak picture of life at university for wannabe architects faced with issues such as student debt and overwork. One said: ‘I started getting panic attacks during my Part 2. I’ve had thoughts of suicide and self-harm.’

According to the survey, nine out of 10 students admitted to working through the night during their course, and two-fifths (38 per cent) predicted they would have accumulated a debt of £30,000-£50,000 by the end of their studies. These disturbing figures received national media coverage and the story was one of the AJ website’s most read ever.

7. Money – architects and their paltry pay packets


In June, research from the AJ100 showed that wages – particularly for those at the top and bottom – had edged up. The average wage for partners at the country’s biggest firms had crept up to £85,000, finally passing the pre-crisis peak of £84,000. Yet the pay packet for the jobbing architect was going nowhere fast. As Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Teresa Borsuk said: ‘Pay levels are still mournfully low compared with other professions.’

This landscape of substandard salaries, especially in private practice, was laid bare by a survey of 1,200 architects, students and architectural technicians carried out by recruitment firm 9B Careers. Those in the profession who stay in practice for more than 11 years, the results showed, could expect their salaries to peak, on average, at £53,000. And while there were differences in salaries depending on where you worked and the size of your practice, the biggest gap was recorded between those working in private studios and those employed by contractors, developers and clients. An architect with 11 years’ experience could earn roughly £20,000 more working for a developer and a staggering £30,000 extra if employed client-side.

2016.09.07   AJ100 Graphs   How do you feel about your salary

Robert Firth, business coach and president of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales, asked: ‘When will the majority of architects value their real worth? When will architects cease undercutting each other on fees? Is the profession of architecture transforming itself into a subcontractor service?’ In response the AJ launched a fee survey, the results of which will be revealed in 2017 (the fee survey is still open – please spend 15 minutes filling it in).

8. More homes, worse homes?

Novation lead pic

The housing crisis was, if you believed the endless ministerial statements, at the very top of the government’s agenda. Announcement after announcement heralded more funds for housing and private rental homes schemes.


But where was design quality on this agenda? Though housing minister Gavin Barwell spoke eloquently at the RIBA Stirling Prize ceremony about the need for architects and good design, a fair chunk of what was built in 2016 fell way short of the mark. A stark example was the tragically dumbed down Gatefold Building at Hayes, west London. A humane and lightweight scheme by Studio Egret West was value engineered by contractor-cum-developer Willmott Dixon.

There were reasons for the alterations – notably that a scheme for private sale had changed to one for rent. But the fact that Studio Egret West had not been novated – or even kept as a design guardian – was evident in the final, dismal result. The practice, quite rightly, wanted nothing to do with the completed homes. This story lifted the lid on a hugely serious and widespread issue of how what is eventually built can all too often fail to match the design-intent of what won planning consent in the first place.

9. Design taste


In a typically irreverent speech delivered at the AJ100 Awards at the Tower of London in June, architecture’s enfant terrible Peter Cook told quite a lot of the room that he did not appreciate their architecture. ‘There is a camp, probably represented in this tent, that enjoys what I call the grim, biscuit-coloured world,’ Cook said, going on to praise Bjarke Ingels and his Serpentine Pavilion while lambasting the ‘biscuit boys’ for their disrespectful attitude to the late Zaha Hadid. 

Two months later, the theme re-emerged in response to visualisations of Olympicopolis in east London by a team led by Allies and Morrison and including O’Donnell + Tuomey and emerging Spanish firm Arquitecturia. Cook, who called the designs ‘calculatedly innoffensive’ was joined in his criticism by fellow grandees Ian Ritchie and Will Alsop, with Alsop calling the scheme ‘dull as ditchwater’.

10. Success stories

Tate Modern HdM 0498

Of course not everyone was wallowing. Some practices smashed 2016, not least Herzog & de Meuron. The Swiss practice’s showpiece Tate Modern extension made headlines for various reasons as did its Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford – allegedly the runner-up for this year’s Stirling Prize. On top of this, the practice won the contest to design a £108 million extension to the Royal College of Art’s Battersea campus, as part of a shortlist controversially made up almost entirely of foreign firms. The firm also saw off Zaha Hadid Architects and David Chipperfield to land Berlin’s new £180 million modern art museum.

Another overseas name making an impact in Britain was Bjarke Ingels’ global practice BIG, which popped champagne corks as it eyed up and secured more work on UK shores. As well as setting up an outpost in London, completing its first scheme in the UK (the Serpentine Pavilion) and landing work for Sellar Properties at Canada Water, the Danish firm pulled off a major coup when Google officially signed off on its new headquarters at King’s Cross, designed with Thomas Heatherwick.


Caruso St John celebrated its Stirling Prize victory for Newport Street Gallery in typically low-key style (only Peter St John attended the prize ceremony) while continuing to build more in mainland Europe than at home. There were others flying the flag for the UK around the globe too. Foster + Partners, the winner of major projects in Madrid and the US, once again grew in size (1,480 permanent staff around the world) and turnover (£257 million), cementing its place at the top of the AJ100.

Smaller practices also enjoyed success in 2016. Rising star vPPR Architects moved into a new league with housing schemes in Croydon, and there were impressive project victories for Takero Shimazaki and Dyvik Kahlen Architects. And Gibson Thornley, Feilden Fowles and Periscope all revealed schemes that suggested they are talents to watch.

Manser Medal winner Loyn & Co had a fantastic year, while Francis Terry struck out on his own to plough his Neoclassical furrow without his father and former business partner Quinlan. 

11. Competitions – crackerjacks and chaos


Cultural projects hogged the competition headlines this year. While the Museum of London was proudly parading the victors in the contest to design its new home in Smithfield Market – Stanton Williams and Asif Khan – the likelihood of its current Baribican home being replaced by a major concert hall began to look increasingly slim. In November the government pulled its funding for a new £278 million venue for the London Symphony Orchestra, backed by conductor Simon Rattle and thought to be worth around £4 million. It claimed the project no longer represented ‘value for money’. Many believe the site is worth more to the City of London as a purely commercial development opportunity.

1 gallaudet university malcolm reading consultant and hall mcknight crop

1 gallaudet university malcolm reading consultant and hall mcknight crop

And in Helsinki, councillors killed off plans for a £110 million Guggenheim Museum, designed by Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architects, meaning it wasn’t just the 1,714 unsuccessful participants in what was the world’s most-entered design contest who were left disappointed. Elsewhere, however, there was considerable overseas success for British practices. Three competitions organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants saw UK-based teams excelling: the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art was won by David Adjaye; Hall McKnight bagged Gallaudet University in Washington DC (pictured); and SimpsonHaugh was a finalist for Science Island in Lithuania


Reading said: ‘These international competitions cruised through Brexit and other global shocks, illustrating that talent is one of the few reliable currencies in times of flux.’ No one exemplified this more than Grimshaw, the UK’s most successful competition-winner according to a breakdown of our extensive contest coverage. The firm picked up jobs at the 2020 Dubai Expo, in Korea and on the Paris Metro expansion. 

But closer to home, procurement remained problematic. In a mercenary move, East Sussex and Surrey county councils demanded that consultants on its three-year framework stump up £1,000 per year, potentially netting the councils a quarter of a million quid. Elsewhere architects complained of wasted time and effort after Sheffield University requested outline plans with every expression of interest for its new music centre. Russell Curtis of RCKa and procurement watchdog Project Compass said: ‘Those with their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone of public-sector procurement will know that this annus horribilis has presented an increasingly exasperating array of pungent procedures and cack-handed contracts. ‘Despite evidence of good practice in isolated pockets across the UK, many of us continued to wrestle with excessively complex, unnecessarily verbose pre-qualification questionnaires and archaic and bewildering web portals.’ 

12. Bishopsgate boost – a sign of hope for the future?

Plp 22 bishopsgate credit riverfilm martin richardson

As the year drew to a close, the development world’s jitters eased and architects’ battered confidence began to slowly recover. And one skyscraper scheme seemed to epitomise this turnaround. Shortly after the Brexit vote, French investment manager AXA and its sidekicks, backed by overseas pension funds, decided to park their progress on PLP’s 22 Bishopsgate Tower in the City of London. But then in October the consortium committed hundreds of millions of pounds to build the speculative and ‘iconic’ 62-storey office block. Developers in the capital breathed a sigh of relief as this bellwether scheme – which will have to be shortened by 22m to meet aviation rules – took a huge step forward with the signing of construction contracts.

At the beginning of this month, a survey by RIBA Enterprises company National Building Specification (NBS) revealed that architects were feeling increasingly optimistic. Those polled both shortly after the referendum and again in November had become less gloomy, with 19 per cent now predicting growth, compared with only 5 per cent in July. This despite the immediate effects of the Brexit decision still having an impact. While only one in five architects and designers in July had seen projects cancelled, that figure had risen to a quarter in November, according to NBS. And estate agent Savills pessimistically forecast that around half the planned developments in central London were likely to stall in the near future, with a decline of up to 40 per cent across the rest of the country.

January 2017 will be a critical month for the profession and a potential marker of how the year ahead will pan out. Surely the next 12 months cannot be as explosive and unpredictable as the last.

Can they?


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  • Oh I do love the notion of the RCA - a graduate college - being filled with unruly "pupils".

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