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What does your practice’s organisation say about your architecture?

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No wonder students formed the Architectural Association to promote architectural education, writes Paul Finch

A two-part event at the Architectural Association examined how (and whether) the way a practice is structured and organised makes a difference to the architecture it generates. This is not much discussed - surprisingly, given the options available and areas it can cover, from ownership policies to office layout.

We heard about a small practice (Studio Weave), small but growing (Duggan Morris, Phil Coffey), an ‘author’ practice (Tony Fretton’s), and larger offices at home and abroad (Wilkinson Eyre, AHMM). In all cases we were listening to success stories, but the general conclusion from the two evenings seemed to be that the design output of the practices was more about architectural ambition than structure or facilities management.

On the basis of the discussion one might conclude it is the attitude to architecture and architectural production that informs practice arrangements, not the other way round. More or less hierarchy, unit organisation or creative free-for-all were all discussed, and it would be foolish to suggest there is one answer as to what works best. After all, there are plenty of examples of apparently exemplary business-like practices going bust, while more culturally-led offices survive.

We didn’t discuss the ‘squeezed middle’ much, though it is fashionable to claim that only very small or very large practices can survive in the tough climate for UK architects, especially given the public sector’s obsession with using firms with gigantic indemnity insurance arrangements, whether or not they can design their way out of a paper bag. The problem with the argument is that it doesn’t explain how a successful small practice can become a successful large one without going through the middle phase. Nor is it immediately obvious whether the failure of middling practices, when it occurs, is the result of size or some other factor, for example non-existent succession plans.

AA facade

Having chaired the event, my conclusion is the subject is worthy of more analysis. The practices which presented had all ‘designed’ their office arrangements, but this sort of design scarcely features in the curricula of architecture schools, even at Part 3. Yet it is undeniable that the life of a practice, whatever it may be undertaking architecturally, is profoundly affected by this aspect of design thinking.

For one thing, the question of ownership and succession sets a tone. Some practices are based on the founders being sole owners, some even saying they are not interested in equity partners and that when they retire, that will be it. One admires the honesty. At the other end of the spectrum there are co-ownership models based on the John Lewis principle - Make, for example. There is every variety in between, but this doesn’t seem to be much discussed, perhaps because it can be a delicate matter for partners or directors.

There was once a time when the big discussion was about multi-disciplinary practice, with BDP and Arup the leading exemplars. With exceptions like Foggo, that furrow is now only ploughed by mega-offices that are generally engineering-led, and where the organisation and ownership of the architectural division are dictated, at least in the first instance, by corporate protocols that are about international business management.

It’s all a long way from what the creators of the profession in the 1830s envisaged. The idea of the gentleman profession - and it pretty much excluded women for a century - was in retrospect a matter of class distinction, elimination of competition through fee scales, and ideas-free pupillage. No wonder students formed the AA to promote proper architectural education. It was the right place to have this discussion.

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