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No stranger abroad

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Isabelle Priest

Friedrich Ludewig revels in internationalism – his own, his employees’, his practice’s. In a changing world how does Acme adapt to survive and grow?

Friedrich Ludewig, director of Acme, in the practice’s idiosyncratic entrance, gathering and kitchen space.
Friedrich Ludewig, director of Acme, in the practice’s idiosyncratic entrance, gathering and kitchen space. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

When the government announced its intention last autumn to make companies declare and publish their foreign workers, Friedrich Ludewig, director of Acme Architects, based in London’s Shoreditch, did just that. He reviewed the practice’s ‘About’ section on its website and added a list of all employees past and present in a proud display of diversity.

The exercise revealed troughs and peaks of different nationalities arriving to work in London that correlated with economic shifts elsewhere: the Spanish crisis, Greek crisis, Italian crisis. But being from Germany and a student in 1990s Berlin, he remembered when British architects in the depth of  recession here sought to do the same thing there.

Ludewig is a German-born architect from Lübeck, who through searching for the best tutors for his higher education ended up in the UK – he studied, worked and stayed. We’re sitting in the library of his spacious two-floor office near Old Street roundabout. Around us is a substantial collection of architecture books arranged by country, the odd couture book or artist monograph slipped in. We’ve walked through a Alice in Wonderland foyer/lunch space to get here, drawn along by soft light seeping through layers of rippling off-white full-length curtains in the distant corner.

Competition entry for the UN Memorial building competition in South Korea in 2009.
Competition entry for the UN Memorial building competition in South Korea in 2009.

That entrance space has gloomth and is filled with an assortment of textures, colours and objects that provide inspiration. Dried eucalyptus leaves and flowers hang from the ceiling, a huge vase overflowing with fresh mimosa sits on a museum cabinet stuffed with models and building part prototypes. Vintage cut glass bowls and cake stands line shelves above a wall of gold fitted cabinets and a mirror splash-back. Unfolded golden heat blankets above the work surface rustle when anyone walks past. The bespoke coffee machine has pride of place in the middle. 

Ludewig has a definite sheepishness about him. He shuffles around, hands in his pockets, and is reluctant to smile even if you can see he wants to. His lurid gold shoes shine loudly, and his lime green jumper is made of such a curious plasticky material that it is impossible not to keep looking at it. He’s masterfully in control. He knows his office is pretty genius and strange – beyond the entrance there’s a miniaturised operatic handmade timber stair to the studio upstairs. 

Ludewig decided he wanted to be an architect aged six as he ‘really liked making sandcastles’. Having settled that, he spent the rest of his youth being a film projectionist, selling ice creams, restoring furniture and making jewellery – all before the age of 16. 

‘I don’t think my pocket money was particularly plentiful,’ he jokes.

At 18, he went to study architecture in Berlin, explaining ‘1995 was an interesting time to be in Berlin. Renzo Piano was doing Potsdamer Platz, Libeskind had won the Jewish Museum. Grimshaw was building the Stock Exchange, and Foster was building the Reichstag. Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton [who became Ludewig’s tutors] had just won the GSW Building and moved from the Architectural Association.’

When that stopped around 1999 – ‘as it became obvious there were no tenants because most people had gone to West Germany for the jobs’ – Ludewig decided to ‘get out’ too. Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo had won the Yokohama Ferry Terminal project as Foreign Office Architects four years earlier. He had been recommended to go to the AA where they were teaching and felt that they would be a more natural fit. Over the next seven years he worked for FOA in Tokyo and London, on projects in Leicester (John Lewis), London and Istanbul.

  • Hamburg Saturn
    Hamburg Saturn
  • The new central library for Ringwood, part of Acme’s project for a new town square and shopping mall extension in Eastland, Melbourne, Australia.
    The new central library for Ringwood, part of Acme’s project for a new town square and shopping mall extension in Eastland, Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

Once described as a ‘star in the making’ at the AA, Ludewig set up Acme in 2007. So what of the architecture?

Acme’s first project was a small house extension, which the practice was careful not to get published as it was worried about being typecast. When asked to describe his architecture Ludewig insists it is specific to place, a kind of subverted vernacular: ‘We would love people not to say “that is a building by Acme”, but rather that it is a building that makes sense in Norfolk or Kent, or wherever. I don’t find it hard to do this, though some people in the office do. I really enjoy working with the quirkiness of materiality that you find if you spend more than five minutes anywhere. 

‘If you go to Norfolk, they do all kinds of weird stuff in flint,’ he summarises in his quickly spoken voice. ‘They’re really good at it and have done it for more than 500 years. They also like to use black timber. And in Kent they do oast houses and think that’s normal. Oast houses are not normal to me, they are really awkward – everything is round.’ 

Ornament is what sets Acme’s architecture apart; Ludewig believes that it generates space and activity. He has fought for it on his several retail projects – Watermark West Quay in Southampton, Robina and Eastland centres in Australia – and says that developers still don’t allow enough of it. At Victoria Gate in Leeds, the practice enjoyed working with brick in different ways, as well as exploring a 21st ­century version of the shopping arcade.

Yet despite the ornament and contextualisation – demonstrated for example in its Chester city centre masterplan, now in planning – Ludewig doesn’t think ‘a style verging on PoMo’ is a useful reference, seeing that as an academic exercise disconnected from place. 

Rather nationality and language are at the centre of what Acme does. Ludewig explains that’s how his practice became so international so quickly. The first year of starting out in practice felt like ‘life was your oyster’, but 12 months later banks were collapsing and economies were on the brink.

‘Our way of dealing with it was to expand internationally,’ explains Ludewig. 

  • Cristobal Palma. Eastland, The Shard
    Cristobal Palma. Eastland, The Shard
  • Robina Market Interior
    Robina Market Interior
  • Robina, Coles Mall
    Robina, Coles Mall

With competition from other London practices, Acme used the resources it had available: its people – native speakers from  places other practices couldn’t reach. It exhausted competitions in areas such as Columbia and South Korea. Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, that’s how a young Acme won projects in places like Russia and Bahrain and has already worked on major projects in 10 different countries. It grew through the credit crunch and now employs around 65 people. Like others, though, Ludewig struggles to know how to gear up to run a large practice – which he attributes to being descended from a long line of former OMA employees.

Such an international office does, however, have drawbacks – mainly that people arrive planning to stay only a few years. Ludwig is ‘slightly frustrated’ by how to keep them. 

‘If you have family in, for example, Cambridge, that can help look after kids then you can maybe just about manage, but if you are totally reliant on childcare services in Hackney, say, you will struggle,’ he says.

So Ludewig has made huge efforts in making his practice more progressive inspired partly by client John Lewis. Although international laws make it difficult to create an employee-owned partnership, there is profit-sharing. Acme has maternity and paternity benefits to rival most in Europe, and looked at setting up a kindergarten above the office.

Adidas WOS Aerial View
Adidas WOS Aerial View

Brexit makes the problem of staff retention harder, as existing and potential employees, and he, feel ‘slightly less welcome’.

‘There’s a sense that Britain is closing in on itself. The problem is coming our way; the quality of applications will probably drop.’ He cites a French architect who has already refused a job in London in favour of seeking work in Berlin, despite not speaking German.

With satellite offices in Berlin and Sydney, both set up in the past three years to ‘keep a closer eye on contractors’, is Ludewig saying the office might not stay in the UK forever? ‘We weren’t even thinking about this a year ago,’ he says. ‘It’s a great shame for London.’

On closer inspection, there’s a temporariness to Acme’s office – little is built-in. It gives the worrying impression that one day employees might turn up to find it has been packed up and shipped off elsewhere, with just a ghost office remaining to please international clients. 

‘Clients are happy to come to London. That’s the biggest thing,’ he says, citing a client who recently turned up from Pakistan. ‘We haven’t built much in London, but getting international work is easier here. There are better architects in Berlin who have not done so well because it has a local context, which is very hard to create in London.’ 

What for the future? As Acme’s etymo­logy says: ‘be the best possible’. I’d add: ‘rule nothing out’.