The downturn is shaking up the natural order to architecture’s benefit
Bright new talent from tough times
The revolving doors are spinning as high-profile figures depart from established architectural practices to start up elsewhere. But as a recession is a far from obvious time to be setting up a new business, one can only wonder what is going on.
I think these new businesses are creatures of the recession in more ways than one: the times we are living through are not just the maternity ward of their birth but also the stimulus for their creation.
The reasons why people leave a business voluntarily are many and various, but in a recession there are two main drivers.
First and foremost, it’s about money. People who have contributed disproportionately to the success of a business during the boom, but have no real cause for complaint when things are so good, may see things differently when sacrifices have to be made to survive the tough times. They may well feel they have already made enough sacrifices in the name of success, working long hours, spending time away from family and handling pressurised projects and difficult clients — in short, that they “already gave”.
If further sacrifices need to be made, now might be the time for them to launch out, alone or with like-minded colleagues, so they don’t have to share future spoils with anyone less deserving.
This will particularly be the case where a practice has not paid due attention to succession planning and where the generation that is working at maximum octane resents too much of the reward going to a generation they may perceive as operating on cruise control.
The second, more positive, reason for new practices emerging out of old ones is what they refer to in show business as “creative differences”.
This is often a euphemism, but in architecture it is a genuine issue. It is the reason why so few practices get into a second or third generation — the founders seek to protect their oeuvre.
I once asked one of the partners of YRM what he would do if one of his people came forward with a design that showed real imagination and promise, but failed to conform to the Miesian geometry that was then the practice’s central style. “I would tell him to go back and do it again,” he said.
This is great for control and consistency, but not for re-invention and longevity.
The emergence of new practices is also good for architecture. Feeling they have little to lose in such straitened times, newcomers take fate into their own hands and chart new directions in design — “creative destruction” at work.
It is not so good, though, for the old established practices, which risk sclerosis.
If they cannot bring forward talent, allow independence to flourish and share the spoils equitably, then one day their only remaining duty will be to turn out the lights as they leave for the last time.
Or they could try a more radical — albeit so far untested —antidote: a quick injection of extract of Alsop.