September 5, 2007
by: Bill Millard

Event: New Practices London and New York: Milieus and Methods
Location: Häfele Americas Showroom, 08.22.07
Speakers: Tom Emerson & Stephanie Macdonald — Directors, 6a Architects; Vincent Lacovara — Founder, Agents of Change (AOC); Andrew Groarke — Carmody Groarke; David Howarth, RIBA, & Daniel Rosbottom — Co-directors, drdharchitects
Introduction: Elias Redstone — Curator, The Architecture Foundation, London
Moderators: AIANY New Practices Committee co-chairs Matthew Bremer, AIA — Principal, Architecture in Formation; and Marc Clemenceau Bailly — Founding Partner, Gage/Clemenceau Architects
Organizers: AIANY; The Architecture Foundation, London
Sponsors: Exhibition Underwriters: Häfele Americas; SKYY 90; Associated Fabrication; Patrons: 3form; ABC Imaging; Sponsors: Severud Associates; Thornton Tomasetti; OS Fabrication & Design; The Conran Shop; Supporters: Arup; Bartco Lighting; Fountainhead Construction; FXFOWLE Architects; MG & Company; Microsol Resources; Structural Enterprises; Friends: Barefoot Wines; Cosentini Associates; DEGW; Delta Faucet Company; Perkins Eastman; Media Partner: The Architect’s Newspaper

New Practices London

Center for Architecture

The Architecture Foundation, London’s equivalent to the Center for Architecture, has joined forces with its American counterpart to bring the principals of four up-and-coming British firms to Manhattan for an exhibition and two symposia. The opening event at the Häfele Showroom focused more on day-to-day practice topics than on particular works and styles. (The accompanying exhibition, New Practices London, at the Center goes a bit further in that direction.) With the presentation component limited to two slides each(!), the panelists only had time to hint at their practices’ defining principles.

If the four selected British firms are representative of their local scene, they give a collective impression that under-publicized UK practices are thriving, even while most international attention is concentrated on the usual suspects, the Zahas, Fosters, and Alsops. Younger practitioners are inclined toward understatement — they recoil from grand proclamations and aggressive manifestos — and independence. Daniel Rosbottom of the housing-specialist firm drdharchitects, for example, proclaimed a reluctance to join the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on political grounds, charging RIBA with promoting “too corporate a view of practice,” and lamented the local emphasis on “wow factor” designs. He favors more circumspect “things that sit back” and asserted “the things you’re stubborn about give you character.”

Prominent awards and commissions do find their way toward these firms: 6a Architects is shortlisted for the 2012 Olympic Athletes’ Village and designed The Architecture Foundation’s first installation at its new gallery in 2005. Carmody Groarke may be already familiar to New Yorkers as winner of the 2005 Coney Island Parachute Pavilion competition. Agents of Change (AOC), whose founding trio includes a linguist or “cultural interpreter” (spokesman Vincent Lacovara is one of the two architects), won the London International Festival of Theatre’s competition for The Lift New Parliament, a transportable meeting and performance space that will be the centerpiece of the 2008 Lift Festival. (The two other firms represented in the New Practices London exhibition, Ullmayer Sylvester and Witherford Watson Mann Architects, were unable to send representatives in person.)

The practice environment for newer London firms has changed in response to the current construction boom. Rosbottom reported that when he left school, the graduate unemployment rate was around 60%, and many colleagues “escaped practice”; there is now so much work that many of drdh’s clients are fellow architects, farming out the details of major projects. Experience in a larger, more established practice led Andrew Groarke to a wake-up call when he and partner Kevin Carmody went independent: drumming up new work calls for real-world rainmaking skills that go untapped in a larger firm where senior personnel handle client contact. Many of the panelists’ concerns appear universal: the value of careful partner selection, the challenges of working with mentors, the capacity for refreshing one’s thinking by teaching on the side. Competitions appear to occupy a larger proportion of the Londoners’ attention, and that of Europeans generally, than the theoretical positions favored by American architects. If England and America are, in George Bernard Shaw’s famous description, “two countries divided by a common language,” there’s plenty to be gained in translation.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, and other publications.


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