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No-deal Brexit risks destroying Britain’s reputation as world leader in architecture

Adjaye smithsonian design museum winner
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Freedom of movement has been a vital factor in building up the UK’s global architectural reputation – but this could soon be a thing of the past, argues architect Mark Leeson

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Ask the public to name a well-known British architect and Zaha Hadid would almost certainly be one of the most popular responses. 

The late Hadid, who died in 2016, helped cement Britain’s reputation as a country for cutting-edge design. Responsible for iconic buildings such as the London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre, London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery or the Guangzhou Opera House in China, Hadid – like many architects working in Britain today – was born overseas but chose to base herself in this country. Others include the late Jan Kaplicky, the Czech-born creator of the Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Selfridges building in Birmingham, and the Tanzanian-born David Adjaye, who designed Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History (pictured). 

It’s estimated that almost half of all architects working in London come from overseas. A 2017 survey found 33 per cent of architects in London firms come from either the EU, the European Economic Area or Switzerland, with a further 12 per cent from other countries. Among some London firms, the number of overseas architects is as high as 80 per cent. 

Norman Foster has said: ‘My practice absolutely depends on talent, and much of that talent is foreign’ 

But Brexit could change all that as we close our borders to migrants. The architecture profession is suffering from acute skills shortages, prompting the recent report from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee. This argued that architects should be added to the official shortage occupation list, which makes it easier for employers to hire highly skilled professional staff from non-European countries because there are not enough British or EU applicants to fill posts. 

Since the EU referendum, long-term immigration has fallen as a result of government policy and is at its lowest since 2013, meaning fewer skilled professionals are coming to the UK – and architecture is one of the most critically affected professions. Figures last year from the Architects Registration Board showed a record 42 per cent fall in the number of registrations in the UK since the 2016 exit vote. 

Over the years, many foreign-born architects have decided to remain working in the UK once they have completed their studies. This has given the country one of the world’s most internationalised communities of architects. As a consequence, Britain has been home to some of the world’s most talented and celebrated ‘starchitects’, responsible for some of the world’s best-loved structures. One of the best-known British-born architects, Norman Foster, has said: ‘My practice absolutely depends on talent, and much of that talent is foreign.’ 

Just like manufacturing, architecture is dependent on international trade. British-based architects export their services, bringing back work and revenue. The influx of foreign architects has helped drive this global expansion and Britain’s reputation as a world leader in design. The profession has benefited immeasurably from the freedom of movement that has enabled many European architects to contribute to the enormous success that is British architecture. 

Cutting off that rich source of diversity could also have a significant impact on our approach to design and its influences

A no-deal Brexit will also mean that British firms pay higher taxes on their fees for work in the EU, leading to a fall in work because of increased costs. Access to European competitions, a source of commissions for publicly funded projects across Europe, will be out of their reach. 

Because many architectural practices have teams that hail from a varied mix of countries, cutting off that rich source of diversity could also have a significant impact on architecture in its wider sense and our approach to design and its influences, which can’t be good for bold design. 

Britain’s reputation in architecture, like many of the creative industries, risks being irrevocably damaged by Brexit. So even if by closing our borders we cut off the direct source of talent that has made British architecture what it is today, let’s remain open to the richness, skills and work ethic of our global influences – otherwise this status as a world leader will be a thing of the past.

Mark Leeson is a qualified architect and a director at McBains, a consulting and design agency specialising in property, infrastructure and construction with operations in the UK and Europe

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