Fortune favours the brave

Ellis Woodman

Ellis Woodman - editor

This year’s World Architecture report makes a compelling case for UK firms to look abroad for opportunities

At the end of a year in which good news stories have often proved thin on the ground, the publication of our annual World Architecture report finally offers cause for cheer.

With the arrival of practices such as Zaha Hadid, Archial and 10 Design in this year’s rankings, an extraordinary one in five of the world’s 100 largest practices are now UK firms. That strong showing reflects the esteem in which the British architecture profession is held internationally and the energy with which it has travelled beyond these shores in pursuit of work.

Given the highly challenging state of the domestic market, many more UK practices have had to discover that pioneer spirit of late. Where the annual picture of the global outlook painted by the WA100 report may once have seemed of relevance only to the very largest of practices, this year’s findings will surely be given close attention by many medium-sized firms too.

Countries including Turkey, Brazil, Qatar and South Korea — all the subject of detailed analysis in this year’s report — are offering many UK firms a lifeline in these difficult times. By forging relationships with other design professionals, even modestly sized practices stand a good chance of breaking into new territories given sufficient determination.

In this respect, British architects have benefited enormously from the global presence of the UK’s engineers, contractors and cost consultants. As Denise Chevin says of Britain’s largest engineer (WA100 page 55) “with offices worldwide, Arup has almost become like a consulate to architects trying to win work overseas”.

The benefits of such relationships work both ways. While the architect’s importance in the delivery process has diminished significantly in the UK, in many other parts of the world the architect continues to be the primary consultant, with the power to influence the appointment of the whole design team. Indeed, in many territories, the other members of the design team are employed as sub-consultants to the architect. That is not always good news — the debts amassed by Austin Smith-Lord over its ill-fated Abu Dhabi project would have been several million pounds lighter had Arup and Buro Four been contracted directly to the client. However, British architects would do well to recognise that in parts of the world there is still the possibility for them to assert the authority that is increasingly denied them at home.

Let’s buy into more than just shops

Mary Portas delivered her report on the future of Britain’s high streets this week, blaming their decline on the growth of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres. It is a familiar complaint, but what is impressive about Portas’s analysis is her recognition that the future of the high street lies not in outlawing Westfield but in ensuring that high streets offer a richer urban proposition.

Ultimately that means an encouragement of uses other than retail. 2011 was a year when Britain’s high streets were reduced to riot zones. The need to reinvent them as spaces valued by the whole community and not just shoppers is an urgent one. The Portas report offers valuable support to that mission.

BD’s next issue will be out on January 6, 2012. The BD team sends you all best wishes for the festive season.

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