Banking on first success: Establishing and evolving a practice

Words:
Emma Keyte and Rachel Birchmore

Feilden Fowles, Haptic Architects, RCKa and more explain how they embraced, consolidated and moved on from first success, taking advantage of each turning point

Emerging practice from graduation to first project and early recognition, according to McCloy + Muchemwa.
Emerging practice from graduation to first project and early recognition, according to McCloy + Muchemwa. Credit: McCloy + Muchemwa

Is the evolution of a practice strategic or one big risky and opportunistic adventure? Particularly at times like these, most practices have to navigate a series of thresholds as they grow and develop. Some are practical - starting up, taking on a first employee, creating systems - and others more ephemeral and linked to reputation and identity - how to arrive, stay relevant, survive succession.

Intrigued by the varying success practices have in negotiating these moments, we have interviewed nearly 50 practices over the past 18 months to discover how taking full advantage of each turning point can help to set a practice’s trajectory towards the next.

The first of these is emergence. For many, this is probably best defined by a major awards success or significant competition win, accompanied by a spike in column inches and general profile. But increasingly ‘emerging’ - as used in industry media and debate - has become a broader adjective, shorthand for a certain kind of creative energy.

An emerging practice is the antithesis of ‘a safe pair of hands’, promising originality and hunger. But who - and what - defines a practice’s emergence? Do you need to arrive and, if so, how can you take full advantage? This is particularly important at the moment with the economy shrinking and recession in the air – a time of adversity, which history shows often throws up many new practices.

Bo Muchemwa and Steven McCloy: 'We pick our competitions carefully. They're good for getting projects into the world.'
Bo Muchemwa and Steven McCloy: 'We pick our competitions carefully. They're good for getting projects into the world.' Credit: ‘The Buoys are Back in Town’. Luke O’Donovan

The evolution of a practice can be charted in its work, its clients and its reputation but, in the early, emergent days, it’s the attitude of the founders that is crucial in setting the tone for what’s to come. The practice is an extension of them. Those who establish a culture with conviction - and then express that consistently across everything they do - are more likely to arrive, whether it’s the energy and charisma of an individual like Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects or a collaborative collective such as Haptic Architects.

Many we spoke to cited competition wins as turning points, but not always for the obvious reasons of new business and profile. Several mentioned Europan as an important stepping stone that provided a useful way of refining their design angle and, as RCKa described it, 'galvanising [an] ethos for socially responsive design'.

Bo Muchemwa of McCloy + Muchemwa, who were selected for the London Festival of Architecture’s City Benches in 2018, says: 'We pick our competitions carefully. They’re good for getting projects into the world, but some can be a bit superficial, exploiting the culture of "emergingism". Real projects need a much longer conversation with the client.'

Edmund Fowles and Fergus Feilden at their studio in Waterloo: 'We thought we’d emerged when our first project was published, but there have been many steps and spikes in our evolution.'
Edmund Fowles and Fergus Feilden at their studio in Waterloo: 'We thought we’d emerged when our first project was published, but there have been many steps and spikes in our evolution.' Credit: Kendal Noctor

Awards were also mentioned as turning points, but again not necessarily because they made a huge impact on the practice order book. For Murray Kerr of Denizen Works, a moment of arrival came early when, three years after setting up practice, he won the RIBA’s Stephen Lawrence Prize. He recognises that it was a threshold, but more in terms of self-satisfaction than new work opportunities. For him, those will only come by continuing to make architecture of the same quality. 'Every piece of work we do is still an investment,' he says. 'Everyone’s a potential client.'

For many, Feilden Fowles’ shortlisting for the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2019 marked the practice’s true emergence, but to them it was the latest in a series of increasingly significant moments of arrival. 'We thought we’d emerged when our first project was published,' they say, 'but there have been many steps and spikes in our evolution.'

For other practices, too, the moment of arrival can’t be traced to a single point in time. RCKa formed in 2008; six years later (having been shortlisted twice for Building Design Young Architect of the Year Awards), they were still being described as a ‘fledgling practice’. For them, arrival is far more to do with a state of mind. 'We emerged when we became comfortable in our own skin - or our clothes, actually; when we at last dropped the suits.'

Eleanor Dodman: 'At some point you have to find your place. You have to empty your rucksack.'
Eleanor Dodman: 'At some point you have to find your place. You have to empty your rucksack.' Credit: Image taken by GK Smith for the London Festival of Architecture bench competition 2018.

Developing an identity seems critical. Eleanor Dodman of Eleanor Dodman Architecture, who set up on her own after several years at WilkinsonEyre, asked how long you really need to describe yourself as an ex-employee of your former practice. 'It can open doors but, at some point, you have to find your place. You have to empty your rucksack.'

We also found that emergent practices tended to become aligned with clients at a similar stage of evolution. Neil Murphy of TOWN explains: 'If there’s a synergy between our arcs of growth it means we can learn together.' Arrant Land also chooses to work with practices at the same point of trajectory. 'It needs to be the right project at the right time for the practice,' says the firm's director, Duncan Blackmore.

This is not always the case, however. Pip Simpson, director of design, estate and FuturePlan at Victoria and Albert Museum, explains that it’s precisely the fact that the museum is a well established institution that they seek out younger, emergent practices. For her, promoting new talent is an integral part of the museum’s cultural mission.

For many practices, the early days present difficult decisions about what kind of work they should seek. Some do whatever they can find, others make more conscious decisions about the nature and scale of the projects they take on. 31/44 Architects, for instance, were determined to build early on and actively sought realistic projects, ensuring planning permission and budgets weren’t jeopardised by over-ambitious architecture. Their Red House with Arrant Land set the tone for what was to come.

And while pavilions and benches can offer an early opportunity to build, many practices still find it a difficult leap from temporary structures and house extensions to larger projects. Haptic Architects’ desire to work at scale right from the start led to a strategy of collaboration with larger practices so that they could punch far above their weight in terms of project size.

Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio: The architect-entrepreneur set out with a wider business model.
Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio: The architect-entrepreneur set out with a wider business model. Credit: Tamed Photography

Some base their practice on a completely different set of ambitions. Architect-entrepreneur Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio, for example, set out with a wider business model. Asked to identify her point of emergence, she explains that she arrives every day. Quietly disruptive in her own way, Tamsin Bryant of Adams + Collingwood Architects, describes successful evolution as finding a balance between a fulfilling creative business and a happy home life.

Although many of our discussions revolved around reputation and external recognition, others identified far more workaday moments of arrival, such as the introduction of timesheets or management accounts. Such operational shifts reflect a tangible commitment to going it alone. Steven McCloy explains: 'As we emerge we need to make sure that we’re a viable business, that we’re resilient and that we can support any staff we take on.'

Whatever form a practice’s emergence takes, be prepared, take on help if needed and don’t be afraid to use the opportunity to open doors. Moments of arrival set the tone, recharge everyone’s energy and provide a springboard. Build on it, move on and don’t let your moment of emergence define you forever. 

This is the first in a series of four articles on thresholds in practice. In the next we look at how practices hold onto this momentum and consolidate their position.  

Emma Keyte is a communications consultant and writer. Twitter @FreeEmma 

Rachel Birchmore is a business and leadership coach with a marketing background. Twitter @rachelbirchmore


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