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A world of satisfied customers – Steve McCormack

A look at the influence of UK architecture firms on the world’s built environment.

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Benoy-designed ION Orchard in Singapore

UK architects are not just responsible for Britain’s changing landscape. Today, the UK — and particularly London — is seen as one of the world’s leading centres of architectural expertise and the location of choice for international clients seeking excellence in urban design and architecture. Big-name UK brands are well known for their work on high-profile international projects. But many architects, including specialist firms, are now looking beyond the domestic market to maintain and grow their business. Among the vanguard of UK architects to move seriously into the export arena is Foster + Partners, which has worked on a string of landmark projects, beginning with the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, completed in the mid- 1980s. Among the slew of overseas schemes that the practice has won over the following decades is Chek Lap Kok airport, again in Hong Kong, the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin and the Millau Viaduct in France. More recently, last year’s MIPIM saw the unveiling of Foster + Partners’ plans for Hermitage Plaza, a new community to the east of La Defense in Paris.

According to the 2010 survey carried out by the UK professional publication, The Architects’ Journal, 14 of the top 100 firms surveyed have 100 or more architects working overseas. The largest markets are still Europe and the Middle East, which account for almost 60% of overseas business. However, UK practices are moving into other areas, from Africa, central and South America to Russia, Eastern Europe, India and China. UK architectural talent is in demand across the spectrum of developments, from urban regeneration, transport infrastructure, sporting venues, residential and office architecture to the design of landmark structures such as hospitals, museums and government buildings. UK firms are also renowned for their creativity and innovation, pioneering the development of sustainability in the design of low-carbon, energy-efficient buildings and other green technologies.

So what are the factors that underpin this success? Chris Lanksbury, Chapman Taylor main board director in charge of international development, believes that overseas clients trust British architects. “There is a strong ‘brand’ acceptance around the world, which has grown with the number of successful projects undertaken over the years. Clients believe we will produce imaginative but practical solutions — concepts that can be built as well as looking good on paper. We have built a reputation for delivering good looking, well designed buildings, which is what clients want.” Graham Cartledge CBE, chairman of architecture firm Benoy, agrees. “UK firms are known for providing solutions that satisfy clients’ needs, but in a commercially successful and practical way,” he says. “The UK is recognised for producing highly regarded, leading-edge design. This is true of the whole UK creative sector, not just architecture. The sheer weight of success from the UK creative industries is driving the UK economy forward.”

Benoy moved into the emerging Asian markets about 10 years ago in anticipation of the changing shape of the global economy. The company now has offices in London, Newark, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Mumbai and Abu Dhabi. Some 80% of its business is conducted overseas, with China accounting for just over 50% of this figure. Recent developments include the Elements mall in Hong Kong, ION Orchard in Singapore, Shanghai IFC and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. In January, a further four contracts in India were announced, representing fees of £1m for the company.

But while Benoy is a UK firm in the traditional sense, the definition of a ‘British’ architect has more to do with the environment in which he or she works than where they were born, believes US-born Lee Polisano. One of the five former partners of Kohn Pederson Fox’s London office, Polisano founded PLP Architecture in 2009. According to Polisano, UK architects, particularly those based in London, have a distinct way of working — an approach that leads to designs that are different to those produced elsewhere. “Operating as a London-based practice for the past 20 years, we have developed a design ethos that is unique to us and the environment in which we live and work, and the issues we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

Polisano observes that the creative sector in London is “a crowded environment”, offering rich opportunities for interaction and the exchange of information. “There is no doubt that London has the talent to deal with complex urban problems of any scale in any location,” he adds. “This particularly innovative approach is much sought after in global markets.” At least 50% of PLP’s business is currently overseas, including a Four Seasons hotel complex in Abu Dhabi, the new Deloitte headquarters in Amsterdam and a large urban-planning project for the Qatar Foundation.

Mark Davison, head of design at the Yoo Design Studio, the London-based concept design, interiors and architecture company, also recognises the ‘London effect’. “London is where the energy is,” he says. “It’s where people want to be. There is a perception across the planet that we have a design pedigree that people want to buy into. Often the developer is looking for that something extra that will bring their project up a notch. They look to UK designers to help ensure the success of a development by providing a marketing difference at an early stage.”

Since 1999, Yoo and its star designers — Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, Anouska Hempel, Jade Jagger and Kelly Hoppen — have been working with international developers on residential, hotel and commercial projects throughout the world. A whopping 98% of its business is overseas, including the recent Icon development on Miami South Beach. Undoubtedly a key factor behind the success of UK architecture is the quality of training and the ability of British schools of architecture to attract the best talent from around the world. “Our training prepares us for working in overseas environments,” says Chapman Taylor’s Chris Lanksbury, speaking from the company’s Shanghai office. “It gives us flexibility, which is key to understanding local culture and needs, and means that we do not try to impose our own concepts on overseas clients. Our work must be contextual with local culture. We work with local architects to arrive at solutions that have an international flavour, but successfully respond to the local urban-design situation. This is important because many countries do not have our basic grounding in urban regeneration or commercial development. It’s not part of their culture.”

Chapman Taylor began looking outside the UK in the early Nineties, having gained extensive experience of major UK urban-regeneration schemes in the Eighties. Fifty per cent of its work through the UK office now comes from overseas, although Chapman Taylor also operates as a global business with 15 offices across Europe, China, India and South America. The company has been involved in 70 projects in the past three years, including retail schemes Forum Istanbul and splau! in Barcelona, and the Airgate office development in Dusseldorf.

As well as training in the UK, many architects from around the world choose to base themselves in the UK once they have completed their studies, giving Britain one of the most diverse communities of professional architects in the world. Lee Polisano notes that there are 20- 25 nationalities currently represented in PLP’s London office. “This reflects London’s status,” he says. “Young talented people want to come here to learn and to work, producing a talent pool that is different to that available anywhere else.”

This article was taken from MIPIM 2011 Focus on the UK supplement. Read more here.

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