Flying in or flying out, Houben, Prasad, Prior and AKT’s O’Brien discuss the economics and culture of working overseas
Winning international work has been the subject of many seminars. But for this RIBAJ 120 discussion, supported by Gerflor, the focus was firmly on the big questions of why practices choose to work abroad, what it does to them and to very idea of rootedness which is so integral to the best in design. It also touched on some personal and cultural dilemmas posed by working overseas.
The line-up included a great variety of ‘whys’ with very different business models. Francine Houben of Netherlands-based Mecanoo kicked off. Still a little jet lagged from a site visit to Boston, USA, and in the UK to attend to projects and tenders in Manchester following her Birmingham Library opening, she spoke with enthusiasm about being an international ambassador (and tourist) for Mecanoo. In fact she was lecturing and in demand beyond the Netherlands before the practice had international projects. ‘I love to cross borders and see places,’ she said. And bumping into her later, ranging around buildings in Manchester, you could sense that appetite. But the secret of the practice’s continuing success has been down to its organisation. ‘With 80 people I feel I could conquer the world,’ she says.
Structural engineer to the stars, AKT II might have followed the lead of its ambitious architects to the Middle and Far East but director Gerry O’Brien was clear that the building challenges also had a large part to play. ‘St Paul’s Cathedral has been done in the UK, but in some places they are still designing buildings of that grandeur,’ he explained. Working through a solution, going on a journey with the architect, was how AKT II justified their higher-than-local UK fees. But even when the plan is to hand over the solution to a local engineer AKT II is sometimes retained – as at the Stone Towers in Egypt where a commission for two towers turned into engineering all 18.
Sunand Prasad, co-founder of Penoyre and Prasad and past president of the RIBA, stepped back to give a snapshot of this moment when the creativity and inventiveness of UK architects is in demand. The window would not last long, he warned, given changes to our education system and developments in countries often targeted by UK practices. But even with the window open the question remains: ‘Why?’ Turnover is hard to ensure, profit harder, he insisted, suggesting there was a strong element of wanting to impress friends, and enemies.
Aecom’s Jason Prior sounded like he was well past wanting to impress people and would give a lot for a few mornings waking up in his own bed rather than a soulless hotel room in yet another city. That feeds into design. ‘I find it quite difficult working outside the place where I was educated and where my cultural roots are,’ he said. With a global business behind him and offices all over the world his role is to export UK talent – but only where it is needed. He made a point of saying that he didn’t bid for work where it could be better delivered by truly local consultants but was still excited by the prospect of bringing a great idea (stadium design, housing typology) to a new place where it can be truly innovative.
Questions from the audience probed the local/ global dichotomy. Houben spoke about the importance of partnerships, of friendship and trust, and a stint working in the same space. Prior plumped for local. Prasad admitted his urge for control ‘I always want to take all decisions centrally and ideally myself.’
Fang Fang, Director, Hawkins\Brown
Yes, British architects need to internationalise; the UK is an international market itself attracting foreign architects and having to deal with fierce competition. They should play to their strengths. UK architects are renowned for design quality, rigorous management and programme, and the occasional ‘British eccentricity’, which makes them more competitive. Here, architecture opportunities at the moment are either about ‘filling the gaps’ or refurbishment, and building them can be a painfully drawn-out process. Projects in the Middle East or China are fast paced and offer a blank canvas, as well as rewarding, intricate historical sites. UK architects can work at a scale and complexity not really possible here – good news for anyone really wanting to make their mark on the planet.
Phil Holden, managing director, Pascall + Watson
At the moment there are great opportunities for British architects. Our expertise is respected, especially if it is in a particular building type, say museums, or airports, as we have. The biggest architect in a local city may not have designed an airport. But it is like going to bigger and bigger playgrounds and realising everyone is just as bright. So the idea we can go abroad with our expertise will be shortlived. As long as British engineers and architects continue to innovate and remain market leaders we will have something to export.
The answers about dealing with corruption suggested a ‘wash my hands’ approach. This was picked up on by chair Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society of Arts with his questions about the ‘Pontius Pilate’ attitude. Ensure you don’t pay such charges yourself and leave it up to the locals, seemed to be the prevailing view. Prasad had a more cogent defence pointing to the practice’s first buildings in Belfast where they knew protection money was being paid. ‘But do you boycott Northern Ireland for this?’ Aecom on the other hand has set up in countries then pulled out because of corruption.‘We won’t work in the public sector in some parts of the world,’ said Prior.
The final question about the panellists’ dream job garnered answers from poignant (‘we had it and we lost it’, Prasad) to contented (Houben: ‘I am happy to make a difference’) and visionary (‘rewilding’, Prior) but Scotsman O’Brien got the biggest laugh with his answer: the Scottish Embassy in Gran Canaria.
Marco Guarnieri, Director, Guarnieri Architects
Yes, the geography of demand for architectural services has changed in recent years, with the majority of demand now coming from outside Europe – demand is outstripping supply in places like China and some parts of Africa. With nearly half the worldwide population of architects based in Europe, EU architects generally will have to grow their presence in those markets. The market here is highly competitive, especially in the south east, which will bring valuable skills to UK architects when competing with other firms for foreign work. Such projects can give architects the chance to enhance their reputations quickly. Sutherland Hussey grew its portfolio of work faster in China than here, which had positive repercussions for its reputation here.
Patrick Richards, Stanton Williams
Working abroad is about mutual understanding and respect of cultural differences and we see it as complementary to our work in the UK. Common ground results in interesting new approaches and strategies that are site specific as well as relevant to the way we practise in the UK. We take on projects abroad when we feel our expertise and knowledge will be beneficial and appropriate, while specifically looking for projects that will build on our creative experience built up in the UK over the years.