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The myth of the lone genius is on the wane

Emily Booth
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Most architecture is collaborative, so the growing trend for employee-owned practices is to be welcomed, writes Emily Booth

One of the challenges facing architecture is the idea of the lone genius. It is a compelling notion, and one that doesn’t give up its grip easily. Perhaps because of architecture’s closeness to art, and thoughts around inspiration and authorship, the ‘lone genius’ tag can contribute to a lack of wider understanding about what architects do and how they fit into the practicality of building.

And yet so many established practices have started out with one or two names at the helm: tiny firms with eponymous titles. Then they grow. That initial personal energy and creativity drives the practice and its vision, and brings more like‑minded talent into its circle – and then what?

01.jesus nick kane web

01.jesus nick kane web

Níall McLaughlin Architects’ atrium space for Jesus College, Cambridge

Níall McLaughlin sums up the predicament well: ‘There’s this weird polarised relationship between the hysteria of individuality and the deeply abstract and normative way in which buildings are produced,’ he says.

‘I’m not someone who designs by myself. I’m always designing in company with people who I work with and bringing in other people to make sure that there isn’t a too homogeneous line of enquiry.’ 

The sensitive work of Níall McLaughlin Architects, and the story of how that work comes about, provides compelling insight into the benefit of this approach.

Many architects starting out now are part of collectives, and the eponymous company name is less obviously apparent

So much is summed up in the word ‘practice’. Architects are always practising, developing, learning. And the sort of companies and organisations they own, and to which they belong, display that slightly uncomfortable relationship with hard business. Think of the term ‘partnership’, for instance. Interestingly, many architects starting out now are part of collectives, and the eponymous company name is less obviously apparent among fledgling practitioners.

The reality of practice today, and of the need for succession-planning, means creative vision is increasingly shared and valued – and is reflected in the changing structure and ownership of business entities. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris transformed its ownership structure at the end of last year by converting to an employee ownership trust. 

A sizeable chunk of the top architecture practices (including the likes of Make, which has been employee-owned since its 2004 launch) are in the process of adopting, or have already adopted, this model.

The benefits of increased power to the people can mean better buy-in to a company ethos, stronger staff retention, and, ultimately, the egalitarian sense that strong ideas can come from anywhere and flourish. All in all, it’s likely to make for better architectural business.

This article appears in the Niall McLaughlin issue – click here to buy a copy

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