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UK architecture thrives on a world of talent

Hugh Pearman

Why freedom of movement matters to to the profession

The month that Sir Nicholas Grimshaw receives the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture is a good one to consider the role of UK architects on the international stage, and architects from other nations who work here. UK readers will find a special Grimshaw supplement with this issue: you may be surprised at the range, scale and geographical spread of their work. 

Grimshaw, the practice founded by Sir Nicholas, has long done projects outside the UK and has expanded vigorously overseas in the 21st century – it has eight studios around the world, from Los Angeles to Sydney. Only two are in the EU: London and Paris. Yet Grimshaw, in common with all large UK based practices and many smaller ones, runs a very international studio in London with a strong contingent of talented architects and designers from across the EU. It is not unusual for its architects to hop between offices as opportunities arise. It’s a great way to broaden one’s design and life experience. 

I am writing this the day after the latest bout of inconclusive parliamentary voting on Brexit in which our elected representatives were still negotiating with each other as the rest of Europe – which had already agreed a departure deal – looked on, baffled. Whatever transpires, one thing is unarguable: for architecture to thrive, skilled architects must be able to move around as freely as possible. Remember how much British architecture owes to émigrés: freedom of movement in the EU has brought comparable benefits in both directions. So what now? 

The RIBA last month published an important report, ‘Powered by people: building a post-Brexit immigration system for UK architecture’. It pulls no punches: many architects will shortly encounter the UK system for the first time, it says, but ‘It is widely acknowledged that the system, as currently stands, is broken – burdensome for business, distrusted by the public, it has failed to drive the UK’s priorities or targets.’

The report, part of the RIBA’s lobbying of government, is full of welcome detail on the practicalities of life for architects post-Brexit. Recommendations include: ‘Ensure that the immigration system provides flexibility to travel and work abroad: allow high-skilled professionals to switch roles and employers; maintain Tier 1 (exceptional talent and excep­tional promise) visas, and extend the number of available visas to meet demand; utilise mutual recognition of professional qualification agreements to keep costs and administration burdens to a minimum; streamline the application process within the immigration system. 

There are 10,000 international archi­tects registered in the UK; 80% are from other EU nations and a third are in senior roles. These friends and colleagues are considerable export earners for the UK, as a firm of the calibre and size of Grimshaw amply demonstrates. It also works the other way: the RIBA has a large and growing membership based overseas. Message to government, whatever that government turns out to be: this is important. Neglect this at your – and our – peril.