Brexit red tape sees RSHP establish Paris office as potential damage limitation. Meanwhile, with fire still in the news as MPs and RIBA slam government's post Grenfell cladding plan, ZHA wins the toss for its timber football stadium. And Denise Scott Brown gets a new career as comic strip star
So how is the UK’s departure from the single market going for architects? There was plenty of ‘doomster and gloomster’ talk beforehand of how it would stifle practices, restricting who they could hire and what work they were likely to win. Foster + Partners even threatened to move its headquarters out of London and set up within the EU.
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) isn’t going quite that far, but it has announced that it is setting up a Paris office – a move it described as a ‘professional necessity’ if it is to continue working in the EU.
The practice is no stranger to working in France, of course. Founder Richard Rogers made his reputation as co-designer of Paris’s Pompidou Centre and the practice has also worked on such high-profile projects as Bordeaux Law Courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It recently completed The Richard Rogers’ Drawing Gallery in Provence, Rogers’ final work before his retirement last year.
But at no point until now had it ever felt this necessitated setting up shop in the host country. As RSHP partner Stephen Barrett says, Paris was only just over two hours away by train.
Now that has all changed. ‘Suddenly there is a sense that clients are going to be very much more cautious about employing UK-based architects,’ Barrett told Dezeen, echoing architect Arthur Mamou-Mani’s remarks to the website a few days earlier that ‘everything has become an admin nightmare, uselessly complicated and deterring European clients.’
High on Barrett’s list of concerns is the lack of reciprocal recognition of architectural qualifications, which could make it impossible for UK architects to practise in the EU. He also thought obtaining professional indemnity insurance was going to be ‘much more complicated’.
Not only does he hope the Paris move will help RSHP retain its European workload, he is aware of many clients who are also looking to transfer their focus to EU cities. If they were planning shiny new office buildings there, the practice wants to able to benefit.
The Paris office will initially have 20 staff, but Barrett told Architects’ Journal it hoped to move to bigger premises as it won more work.
There was perhaps a sense that Barrett hoped such expansion wouldn’t be necessary. While saying he was aware of a large number of other practices planning to follow suit, he urged them to actively campaign for convergence on mutual professional recognition.
If such arrangements can’t be achieved, there will be concern that London’s reputation as a global centre for architectural excellence is going to struggle to survive.
Kick-off for ZHA’s all-timber football stadium
While Zaha Hadid Architects’ Al Janoub Stadium will be getting plenty of attention when it features in next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, it has also won the go-ahead for a rather more modest football venue: a 5,000-seat stadium for Gloucestershire club Forest Green Rovers.
It’s a slightly improbable commission for a club that played in the fifth tier in English football when ZHA won the competition for the design job in 2016, and which, pre-coronavirus, had an average attendance of 2,700.
But it could nevertheless prove very significant. The building, which has all the flair you would expect of a ZHA design, is being promoted as the world’s first all-timber stadium, and is also set to run entirely on renewable energy.
The proposal initially appeared dead in the water after it was refused planning by Stroud District Council on the grounds of noise, traffic and harm to the environment, which might have been taken to mean: this is a local area for local people and we’ll have no trouble here.
But following some tweaks, the council reconsidered its hardline stance and approved the project, which has now also been backed by the English Football League.
The stadium is very much in line with the environmentalist philosophy of club owner Dale Vince who, since no one ever got rich owning a football club, also owns green energy firm Ecotricity.
On acquiring the club 10 years ago, Vince was quick to implement his planet-saving agenda, notably making Forest Green the first vegan football club, only serving plant-based food in the catering areas and training ground.
Championing the all-timber design, he points out that wood has a very low embodied carbon content, and that ‘three-quarters of the lifetime carbon impact of any stadium comes from its building materials’.
Vince is also teaming up with the Daily Express on its newly launched Green Britain Needs You campaign, which among its aims is calling for VAT parity so that newbuild is no longer favoured over retrofits.
But while no one is arguing about the stadium’s environmental credentials, disquiet has been expressed over an all-timber structure from a fire-safety perspective –particularly thinking back to the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, where a wooden stand caught alight, killing 56 spectators.
Government’s cladding fix fund denounced as a betrayal
Reading about Bradford fire 45 years on, it is striking to learn how numerous warnings over the fire risk were ignored; pre-echoing the concerns expressed by Grenfell Tower residents in the months before that tragedy.
As generally happens with such disasters, the government was quick to announce that it would take measures to prevent such an event ever happening again, yet the previously unrealised prevalence of combustible cladding has made this a bigger and more expensive task than it could have envisaged.
It has now announced a £3.5 billion fund to help fix dangerous cladding, to be funded by a levy on future tower projects. However the cash can only be used for buildings higher than 18m or six storeys.
Those in flats of between four and six storeys will be able to get a loan to pay for the removal of unsafe cladding, with repayments capped at £50 per month. Those in buildings of three storeys or fewer with combustible cladding better familiarise themselves with the quickest fire exit.
Only the previous week, Boris Johnson had told Parliament: ‘No leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they didn’t cause and are no fault of their own.’
Conservative MP Stephen McPartland led backbench criticism of the announcement, calling it ‘a betrayal’. Former RIBA president Jane Duncan, who now chairs the institute’s fire safety panel, said she was ‘shocked by the government’s continued underestimation of the scale of our building safety crisis’, adding: ‘Fire does not discriminate by height’.
Meanwhile, can anyone have been particularly surprised by the latest revelation heard at the Grenfell inquiry? Deborah French, former UK sales manager for Arconic, which supplied the panels used to clad Grenfell Tower, told the inquiry she had always pushed the flammable product over the safer one because it was cheaper and she was therefore more likely to make the sale.
Inside Housing reports how, when explicitly told that the Reynobond PE product had had its fire safety rating downgraded, French said she made no attempt to inform buyers about the update, and sent a by now defunct BBA certificate to cladding subcontractors working on Grenfell Tower two months later.
Previous inquiry evidence has revealed a widespread lack of interest in fire safety from everyone involved in the refurbishment. But true culpability surely lies with Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan, all of whom have admitted to misleading customers into believing their products were inappropriate for a 67m-tall tower.
If we want to find someone to foot the multibillion bill for replacing dangerous cladding, they would seem the obvious recipients.
Denise Scott Brown becomes unlikely comic-strip hero
Denise Scott Brown may, notoriously, have been snubbed for the Pritzker Prize which in 1991 was awarded solely to her professional and life partner Robert Venturi, but Venturi never got a manga comic created about him.
A comic telling the life story of the celebrated postmodern architect is the first in a series that will be made about the lives of winners of the VIlcek Prize, which celebrates the contribution of immigrants to the United States. Scott Brown was born in Zambia and grew up in South Africa, receiving the prize in 2007.
Dezeen reports that the comic tells her life story, from her childhood in South Africa through to her career in the US and ‘the difficulties of being recognised in a field dominated by men’.
The comic was drawn by artist Hiroki Otsuka with Scott Brown’s full cooperation. Speaking to the architect herself was ‘mind-blowing’, Otsuka said. ‘All of her ideas about architecture and cities and life just come flooding out. She's a genius.’
Among the buildings featured is Venturi Scott Brown's National Gallery Sainsbury Wing in central London. If you feel this is a building you could improve on, the gallery is looking for an architect to remodel the wing, improving the visitor experience and rethinking the entrance sequence.
You can read the full comic here.