Working abroad: Allies & Morrison
Bob Allies on how his practice has almost inadvertently found itself expanding overseas.
Three years ago virtually all of Allies & Morrison’s work was in the UK, and the practice had just two foreign buildings to its name – the British Council in Lagos and the British Embassy in Dublin.
Now, nearly a third of its work is abroad and it has just opened its first foreign office. Yet this has not been a conscious strategy, according to partner Bob Allies. “We didn’t decide to start trying to work abroad,” he says. “We just started being asked, about three years ago. We never go to Mipim or on commercial trade missions. We hardly ever go to conferences. We do hardly any of that stuff that other practices feel they should do.
“Whether we are right or wrong I don’t know, but we do the work we’re asked to do as well as we possibly can and hope that people like it and ask us to do more.”
Allies acknowledges the practice was lucky the invitations came at a time when the UK market was contracting – and concedes it is now consciously trying to remain abroad. The firm is working in five countries – India, Lebanon, Qatar, Germany and Egypt, though work has stalled in the last of these.
It opened its first satellite studio in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last year. A third office is due to open in Abu Dhabi this year, on the back of expected projects in the emirate.
The practice felt there was enough work to justify a permanent presence in Qatar, and felt the city’s approach to urban design gelled with its own.
Its first job alone is likely to continue for at least another 20 years and the firm is now actively looking for more work in the state.
It was commissioned by Aecom and Arup to illustrate the masterplan for the Musheireb, a 35ha regeneration project in the historic city centre, and has now been appointed to design a number of individual buildings.
“It’s a big challenge in that region to balance the specificity of local context and yet you don’t want it to become pastiche,” says Allies. “They want serious buildings and feel they are building a culture that will endure. We are doing enough work and we like the aspirations enough that it seemed sensible to try and have a base there. It’s not an expansionist plan… but it makes sense to be as available as possible to do more.”
Setting up an office abroad is not without its risks, though it helped that a willing volunteer from the London office stepped forward. “It’s complex,” says Allies. “Several partners have put a lot of time in. There’s a financial commitment, but it’s probably one that will pay off.”
He does not rule out opening other offices, though only “if we feel we could do what we do better by having someone based there”.
Unlike some practices which worry about overreaching themselves, Allies & Morrison would also happily add to the number of countries it is working in if asked.
So far the practice’s foreign encounters have all been positive. Allies describes the people it has worked with as “wonderful” and “serious”. These include the family behind all three of its Indian projects. The brother-in-law of the head of Bangalore-based developer UKn Properties is an architect who first came across Allies & Morrison at an MIT exhibition back in his student days.
Fifteen years later he got in touch when UKn was looking for someone to design its hotels and resorts. Now he is collaborating on some of the projects as executive architect.
The Lebanese also aspire to create quality architecture, says Allies. “What interests us is how they are thinking hard about how they reconstruct Beirut, and
Solidere [the state-owned development company] has been fantastically good about trying to do that job well.”
It found a kindred spirit in Allies & Morrison and commissioned two neighbouring urban blocks. “We have tried to find an urban scale we think is appropriate,” says says Allies. “So it feels like 21 different buildings with one cross street but lots of little lanes.
“Each building has a different architecture but the components – windows, balconies, loggias, shutters – are made in the same way. The theory is like an Italian town where although there are many different buildings they all have the same shutter so there’s a consistency that holds the whole thing together. We think it has variety but unity as well.”
Four overseas projects
Project District //S urban, Beirut
Client Estates SAL
Brief Asked to masterplan and design two blocks in the war-damaged city, the practice is creating more than 20 buildings with 109 apartments and a network of public spaces.
Completion date 2014
Project Kambala office building, Hamburg Docks
Client German developer Gross & Partners and ING
Brief Selected for a competition and asked to design one mixed-use building in a masterplan of four by Dutch firm KCAP.
Completion date 2014/15
Project Musheireb, part of a £3.35 billion regeneration project in Doha led by Arup
Client Doha Land
Brief Allies & Morrison picked to set the architectural guidelines for the masterplan team led by Aecom.
Completion date 2016
Project Luxury holiday resort in Kerala and two hotel/residential schemes in Bangalore (pictured)
Client UKn Properties. The developer’s brother-in-law had been impressed by an exhibition of Allies & Morrison’s work 15 years ago.
Completion date Bangalore 2011; Kerala 2013