NIGHT SCHOOL: How To Build An Office Review

by Meneesha Kellay, AA Night School

30 June 2013
AA Soft Room, London

 

How To Build An Office was conceived within our larger idea for the ‘professional practice’ element to Night School, to act as everything you didn’t learn in Part 3 and the realities of working in practice. The idea was to have six practices of different shapes and sizes discuss, over two sessions, how the nature of their practice has opened up, limited or defined their architecture.

 

Paul Finch chaired both discussions and noted that it was a rare opportunity to discuss the structures, formations and nature of practice in school but in fact its not actually discussed that much in practice either. However, the current model of architectural education is more based on structures of practice than we imagine. Finch elaborated on this theory by explaining schools employ people, they have programmes and have to produce a product – end of year shows, which are designs produced by people within the institution: ‘that fluidity between what we think of as exclusively education and exclusively practice on examination, there are tendrils of both extending into one another.’

 

Simon Allford of AHMM began the presentations by addressing the way in which AHMM, Architect’s Journal Practice of the Year 2013, has reached its size of 200 people, not through the projects themselves but the practice’s attitude towards making architecture. Structurally AHMM is set up as two studios that are run by a pair of partners each, one designs the way the practice works and the other partner runs the design studio. This is to deliberately challenge each other, raising the bar by competing with your peers. Allford aptly compared this model with the organization of the British cycling team, underlining the importance of looking outside the world of architecture for inspiration and guidance. Spatially, how you set up the way you make architecture may have an impact on the architecture you produce. Allford noted that if your office is spread over a number of locations, you make a concerted effort to make the connections to feel whole, on the other hand if you’re all on one floor there is a risk of being complacent about making the connections. Being aware of these intricacies is vital.

 

The next presentation was by Studio Weave who opted for an interview-style discussion between founding partner Maria Smith and one of the practices’ more recent employees Nina Shen-Poblete. They gave us an insight to a more alternative mode of practice. Studio Weave was set up by Smith and Je Ahn during their Part 1, and aims to work as a collective that shuns hierarchy. The social structure of how they work is important; every member of the 7-person practice brings a different skill to the table where they operate a buddy system so no-one works alone.

 

The final presentation of the night was made by Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects, who took us through the story of his practice. Coffey began as a sole practitioner but now has 8 people working with him, which he largely attributes to the relationships he’s made with clients and developers along the way. We were told anecdotes of oligarchs, deception and court proceedings that actually resulted in getting a job with a QC who was very impressed with his work. After which Coffey worked on a number of lawyers and barristers houses, one of which won a Grand Designs award and another is shortlisted for an RIBA award.

 

In the discussion that followed the presentations the question of name was raised. Joe Morris of Duggan Morris who presented the following week asked, ‘What’s in a name?’, how does it define your practice? And then how does it become brand? The practices who presented that evening could be defined as: AHMM, a collective abbreviated as a singular; Phil Coffey is a singular residing under a collective; and Studio Weave which is a singular act or method hidden within a collective. Maria Smith and Je Ahn felt using their names wasn’t really an option (Ahn Smith?) but also thought that ‘Studio Weave’ was a reflection of the age in architecture we’re currently in and who they’re reacting against. Coffey felt it was important to have his name above the door as people feel they can trust you more as its your name, your reputation on the line.

The first presentation of the second session was made by Jim McKinney of Tony Fretton Architects who spoke of a meta-design discussion and meta-practice discussion as a way of talking about talking about what we do. Education and practice working concurrently is important to the culture of the office; Fretton and McKinney have taught at the AA, TU Delft, Lausanne, Zurich, Cambridge and Harvard. In terms of structure the practice have implemented a reverse hierarchy model where architects, assistants and the partners shift their roles in the office for example an assistant could be working on the initial design stages and an architect could be doing detailing for short periods. Crucially, people don’t sit on one project and could be working on more than one project at any time.

 

Joe Morris of Duggan Morris, a husband and wife partnership, presented next, Morris previously worked under Simon Allford at AHMM who told him, “Joe you know fuck all”, when he started his own practice! Contrary to this Morris presented his multi-award winning projects and gave us an insight into the practice’s structure, a classic pyramid with everyone at the bottom – directors, senior staff, cleaners, assistants, admin who are all working towards the cultural ambition of the practice. The middle layer is ‘the filter’ where discourse, dialogue and exchange takes place and those ideas are put through a process machine to achieve the top of the pyramid – the ‘idea’, the objective.

 

Working on an entirely different scale, Jim Eyre of Wilkinson Eyre was the last practice to present. The practice is large and internationally prevalent. With over 30 years of experience, Eyre gave nuggets of advice which hadn’t been discussed previously. Firstly, avoid debt as much as possible, ideally keep 3 months turnover in the bank and you’re safe, although difficult in today’s climate. Secondly, good publicity is massively important for practices both for getting attention and getting work. Finally, Wilkinson Eyre have found success in consciously developing multiple specialisms. Eyre claimed that you only need to do one or two of a type of project and you’re a specialist.

 

In conclusion, the younger practices felt there is a huge amount that should be taught formally in schools but isn’t, such as business management, negotiating contacts and accounting. Schools could work harder to expose students to these challenges, in fact, ‘we never had a business plan’, was a reoccurring statement in many of the presentations. The relationship between education and practice needs to be reexamined, as Simon Allford commented, ‘practice has got dumber by not being engaged with education’.

 

Education in architecture is structured in an old fashioned model which suggests there is a beginning and end to your education: RIBA Part 1 to 3, finish and you’re an architect. In fact, both How To Build An Office evenings and Night School as a whole are using experimental formats to readdress this condition and suggest an alternative. Hopefully we are going some way to achieve this: one attendee commented, ‘Interesting and useful experience, framed within the night school idea it felt like Part 4 – starting independent practice.’

 

For more information:

Night School Programme Brief

Night School Microsite

Night School Book Club: Satire & the City

Night School Crit Club: The Post-Retail Town Centre

Simon Allford asking, “What is this thing called architecture?”
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

AA Director Brett Steele introducing the session
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

Simon Allford presents
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

Session 2: Paul Finch, Simon Allford, Jim Eyre, Joe Morris and Jim McKinney
Image Credit: Meneesha Kellay