You’re in company with the best in the world, says Rory Olcayto
Every year, for our AJ100 survey, we ask Britain’s biggest architecture firms: ‘Which architect, living or dead, most inspires the work of your practice?’ And every year the same answer comes back: Norman Foster. No wonder. Norman Foster is the Usain Bolt of the architecture world: Foster + Partners is so far ahead of the pack in this year’s AJ100, it seems almost unfair.
One startling statistic to emerge this year out of the number-crunching by Manchester University’s Bruce Tether is that the Battersea-based megapractice earned 41 per cent of the total fees brought in to the headquarters of the UK’s 10 biggest architecture firms.
When you set this alongside other recent achievements, such as Fosters’ commission to design Apple’s headquarters, its status as the second biggest user of 3D printing after Nike, its role in designing a moon base for the European Space Agency, and the fact that this year Norman Foster is the only architect to chart in the Sunday Times Rich List, you’ve got the ingredients of a world-class business.
There are other architects with world-class status in the AJ100 - Zaha Hadid springs to mind - but Foster + Partners is the only architect in our definitive survey that combines design reputation with truly big league deal‑making.
We asked AKT II founder Hanif Kara, who regularly collaborates with the biggest and best names in global design, to explain Foster’s magic. ‘They’ve figured out the business of design and the design of business,’ was his efficient, succinct answer. (Kara is an engineer, remember. Straight to the point.)
Not that Foster + Partners doesn’t have problems. But that, perhaps, helps other architects identify more strongly with Norman himself. Running a practice, you might say, is one damn problem after another. When Foster says ‘in certain management roles, you really do need a professional’ in response to Ellis Woodman’s enquiry over the departure of chief executive and architect Mouzhan Majidi, it feels like a question every AJ100 boss must ask themselves regularly: ‘Do I have the right people in the right positions to bring about business success?’
The AJ100, however, is as much about the other 99 as it is about number one. There are some great stories this year. The steady rise of Glasgow-based Page\Park is one: it debuted at 93 in 2010, charted at 71 this year, and landed the 2014 Employer of the Year award. It suggests a corrective to the cliché that says you have to be based in the capital to succeed. Indeed, 38 of the AJ100 are headquartered outside London.
The incredible rise of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris is another standout story. The Google HQ architect is now the third biggest practice in Britain and, as Paul Finch says, the outstanding performer of its generation.
Another cliché-busting development this year is the awarding of Building of the Year to an associate architect. Our top-flight jury decided JM Architects’ role supporting Steven Holl in the design and delivery of the Seona Reid Building for the Glasgow School of Art was worthy of this top honour. The AJ is more than happy to support this view. Executive architects, typically, are unsung. Not any more.
That women architects make up 28 per cent of the AJ100 workforce, a full 12 per cent more than RIBA’s average across the profession, is another surprising but very welcome outcome of our survey. Sometime soon we hope to report that a female architect most inspires your business - although Norman will take some budging.
In the meantime, congratulations to all our AJ100 award-winners and members. You’re keeping company with the best in the world.