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Collaboration is a condition of architecture, not a problem to be overcome

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Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Early collaboration ought to take the place of confrontation at London’s estuary airport, writes Paul Finch

Last month I had the pleasure of chairing a conference at the RIBA marking the 150th anniversary of the engineers, Hoare Lea - the first firm to describe itself as a consulting engineer. The subject was collaboration and ranged across technology, practice, construction futures (including BIM) and - not least - how the world of theatre collaborates to put on a show.

A very engaging presentation came from Jez Bond, artistic director of the Park Theatre in north London, due to open soon (to designs by David Hughes Architects). Bond hasn’t commissioned a building before, and Hughes hasn’t designed a theatre, so this is of necessity a critical collaboration, about which Bond was very positive.

Putting on a show sounded like the RIBA work stages: the read-through, the get-on (actually walking about on stage), then blocking (exact positions of actors) and so on. One big difference is that in theatre the collaboration is total, so that the humblest employee is considered part of the team: very different to the construction world, where you hope that collaboration will take place at an early stage between all the designers and the principal contractors; engagement with site workers is usually a very different matter.

The greatest difference, however, is that in the theatre you rehearse and get a chance to refine the performance. Making a building is an activity where the prototype is also the finished product: that is it, unless you are lucky enough to get a repeat order for the same thing.

A magnificent example of professional collaboration in the provision of such a project won the biggest award at the World Architecture Festival last week. The Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore has many different elements and, while the two biomes are rightly credited to Wilkinson Eyre, the WAF judges awarded the World Building of the Year accolade not just to the buildings, but to the landscape, structure and environmental design as well. And indeed to Singapore’s National Parks Board, for its inspirational client role. Happily, all of the winning design team were there for the awards ceremony, so congratulations to Chris Wilkinson, Jim Eyre and Paul Baker (architecture), Andrew Grant/Grant Associates (landscape), Patrick Bellew/Atelier 10 (environmental design) and Neil Thomas/Atelier 1 (structural engineering).

The subject of collaboration cropped up again in Evan Davis’s rather good Sunday night TV feature, Built in Britain, on the importance of infrastructure to the economy. How, he wondered, can we reconcile the desire for roads, tunnels and airports with inevitable local opposition and objections by naturalists and/or conservationists to any major proposal? Norman Foster made a good point when he questioned why landscape, conservation and community could not be part and parcel of huge infrastructure project benefits, rather than seen as something to be imposed.

So it was instructive to hear Fiona Reynolds, the excellent head of the National Trust, talking about how just such a collaboration had taken place in the construction of the Hindhead Tunnel, which runs under the beautiful Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, which the trust owns. Balfour Beatty, Mott MacDonald and RPS created a unified civils, tunnelling and landscape team that achieved the almost unbelievable: a major road project everyone loves, courtesy of the Highways Agency.

If Norman’s estuary airport is going to happen, we need to start talking about the enormous environmental benefits it will bring, rather than obsessing about our feathered friends, which will move up the coast when the airport arrives, in their usual Darwinian way. Early collaboration ought to take the place of confrontation.

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