Shake it all about

Why we should all applaud a different way of working

‘But,’ said a colleague, ‘how do they manage their insurance?  Do they do PQQs? There’s a whole list of dull questions like that.’ She was talking about Assemble, the refreshingly uncorporate and surprisingly numerous ex-Cambridge self-building collective practice profiled by Piers Taylor in our September issue. Taylor himself has rejected the conventional practice model with his Invisible Studio, and views Assemble as one of the most interesting new firms around – if ‘firm’ is the right word here.

Is it time, then, to strike a blow for freedom, and step forth unshackled by the trappings of... what? Outdated notions of professionalism? Architectural arrogance? Form-filling? Over-reliance on others?  That all sounds good. But then again – given that Assemble has just won a biggish ‘conventional’ job for Goldsmith’s College and will doubtless go on to win bigger – er, what about the insurance?   Who will be the project leader? 

From Tecton via the Architect’s Co-Partnership and the great public sector architects’ offices in the post-war years through Ted Cullinan’s studio and the 1980s Community Architecture movement to today’s bright young things, there has always been a strong collective strand in British architecture. Rogers Stirk Harbour retains some of that. Even BDP, today regarded as a large conventional practice, was a pioneering multi-discipline set up, founded by a lifelong socialist inspired by Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus.  The question for private practice is always: how does idealism survive commercial success, or failure?

How to avoid the hoops so many architects must jump, do good work, and stay in profit?

The main bar to progress is, as all architects know, a now-stifling bureaucracy and the predations of myriad specialist consultants and project managers who cream off the lion’s share of the fees for a fraction of the work. Maria Smith’s hilariously accurate column ‘Civic Slide’ is spoken from the heart. In living memory, things were much simpler. Look at the history of the Chichester Festival Theatre by Powell and Moya for example, now restored and extended by Haworth Tompkins. P&M was appointed, told to produce a design, expected to bring in appropriate engineering and acoustics expertise and to cost the job itself – and that was it. Three months later the adventurous design was ready, it was duly built by a diligent contractor, and came in on time and (tiny) budget.

Now, bureaucracy can have its advantages – building sites are no longer deathtraps, for instance, thanks to those much-maligned health and safety regulations. But the hoops so many architects must jump through before they even get a whiff of a commission, let alone after they land one – how to avoid those, do good work, and stay in profit?

Charm, enthusiasm and talent are what carry architects through and it looks as if Assemble has all three in abundance. There’s a joie de vivre in the way they are shaking things up with such apparent ease, falling into practice, starting with generating their own projects. Don’t be fooled: it’s not easy. But showing there’s a different, nimbler way to do things: everyone can learn from that.