Young practice provided the push

What marks out a leader from a capable manager or talented designer? In the second of our series on Future Leaders, we talk to Mark Williams-Jones, who was nominated by his practice Robin Partington & Partners

Mark Williams-Jones of Robin Partington & Partners.
Mark Williams-Jones of Robin Partington & Partners.

Robin Partington & Partners (RPP) was only a few months old when Mark Williams-Jones joined in 2010. He was 18th through the door of the studio, which was then in a basement in London’s Bedford Square. With staff now numbering 55, the practice is installed in airy offices in New Oxford Street with its own barista-style bar.

Mark’s career mirrored the expansion from small to large practice. Having joined as a newly qualified Part 3, he was promoted six months ago to project leader. He now runs a portfolio of projects at different stages and directly reports to director Robin Partington and two studio leaders.

Mark undertook both Parts 1 and 2 at the University of Newcastle. Having had a rural upbringing, he began his studies with a ‘sheltered understanding’ of what architecture was. However, he found that Newcastle’s emphasis on ‘tectonics and practical problem solving’ suited him well. He graduated with first class honours in 2006 and benefited from the link between Newcastle and Farrells to get a job in the practice. (Newcastle is Sir Terry Farrell’s home town and he is a supportive alumnus of the architecture school.)

At the time Farrells had an interesting portfolio. It was undertaking major infrastructure projects in China, such as the Beijing South Railway Station and Guangzhou South Railway Station. Mark’s work, though, remained confined to the UK: from 2007-2009, he was the architectural team leader on Peninsula Place, an office development in Greenwich Peninsula, the first two buildings within Farrells’ masterplan for the area. 

Ultimately, he started to look for new opportunities as the focus at Farrells shifted to London-based masterplanning and there was less on site for him to gain Part 3 experience from. He heard about a new practice that was being started by Robin Partington. As a young director at Foster + Partners, Partington had led the Gherkin team and then become a director at Hamiltons Architects. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Partington founded his own practice on the back of two big projects: Park House on Oxford Street and Merchant Square in Paddington. Mark, who was at the beginning of his career and with no personal commitments, was up for working in a fast-moving, nascent practice.

Robin Partington & Partners’ 3 Merchant Square at Paddington. Mark William-Jones was the project architect on the 21-storey tower for four years.
Robin Partington & Partners’ 3 Merchant Square at Paddington. Mark William-Jones was the project architect on the 21-storey tower for four years.

The job at RPP ‘provided the catalyst for pushing him on’. From the outset, his main focus was on the realisation of 3 Merchant Square – one of four new buildings by RPP in west London that form a new landscaped public garden square.

It was a defining project for Mark and the firm. A complex 21-storey tower on the Grand Union Canal, 3 Merchant Square anchors the plaza and contains over 200 apartments, incorporating both affordable and private housing. He took the project from planning to detailed design and on to completion and occupation. He worked on for it for four years ‘without coming up for air’.

It was through his immersion in the execution of this single building that Mark’s abilities became apparent to those around him. Jason Geen, the studio leader at RPP who oversaw Merchant Square, says: ‘Mark approaches the design process and the making of architecture with a terrific confidence. There is a rare clarity, rigour and thoughtfulness in his approach to design as he continues to grow. Never failing to bring humour and empathy to a task, Mark brings team members along with him on the lengthy journey that is the creation of good of architecture. He has become an integral part of the RPP leadership core.’ 

3 Merchant Square, Paddington.
3 Merchant Square, Paddington. · Credit: Tim Crocker

After completing work on 3 Merchant Square, Mark started to work across a range of projects again and after a year or so the opportunity arose internally to formally recognise his proven ability to lead. Having started out with a flat organisation with staff members reporting directly to the founding director, RPP now required clearer reporting lines for larger projects. Mark was one of six architects appointed to be a project leader.

In parallel with this new management structure, chairman David Hearn introduced an initiative to acknowledge and grow the skills sets of motivated project architects to ease their transition into management and leadership positions. A highly experienced businessman rather than an architect, with over 35 years’ experience in senior executive roles globally, Hearn hosted away days and set up one-to-one mentoring with an ‘open door’ approach. The areas that he covered included ‘clear vision, building collaborative processes, the importance of clear and consistent communications and the courage to lead by example.’

If management is about doing things right, then leadership is about doing the right things

Hearn is very clear in his approach, differentiating leadership from management: ‘If management is about doing things right, then leadership is about doing the right things.’ The role of the leadership programme is ‘to give the project leaders the tools to enable them to both identify the right things to be doing and the skills to guide and motivate their teams to deliver the goals’. 

For Mark, taking on the project leader role has meant learning the ‘intangibles’ and moving away from the deliverables of design, absorbing client indecision and resourcing issues so that the project team can get on with their jobs. The direction and insights that Hearn has proffered have proved invaluable. This is partly because they are ‘not clouded by emotions of architects’, focusing more on ‘insight into human nature’. Mark admits that he has a natural empathy and an instinctive ability for dealing with people, but it is clear that the internal leadership programme initiated by Hearn has provided a means to hone his skills and a vital chance to analyse and reflect on what does and what does not work.

Helen Castle is consultant editor of Architectural Design and head of professional programmes at the RIBA.

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