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Wednesday23 July 2014

Working abroad: John Thompson & Partners

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Community consultation opened the door for work around the world

Overseas work has taken John Thompson to some odd places, but it all began in Russia in the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Emboldened by the brave new world ushered in by glasnost, the citizens were hesitantly flexing their democratic muscles. One group of Muscovites discovered a tower block was to be built in their courtyard and dared to object.

Through a German connection they heard about John Thompson – then one half of HTA but now running his own 70-strong practice based in a converted 1920s Clerkenwell warehouse – and he flew out to take part in a little piece of history.

It was an eye-opening experience. Moscow in 1991 was incredibly poor. The local architects were astonished by their UK counterparts’ ready access to paper since shortages meant their own projects were presented on no more than a single square-metre board.

“They didn’t even have waste collections because no one threw anything away,” says JTP partner Fred London. “If you wanted to buy some jam you had to take an empty jar with you or you’d be carrying it home in your hands.”

Twelve years after that first foray, the firm got a call from its original contact inviting it back to Russia. This time it was plunging into a very different environment.

It was 2004 and the height of the development boom. JTP ended up with 20 projects on its books before the bubble burst in 2008. Some of these are now showing signs of hope again. But the experience left the partners very grateful they had resisted clients’ entreaties to open a Russian office.

The German contact, Andreas von Zadow, now works for the practice out of Berlin but the only office it has actively opened is in Shanghai, where the sheer scale of development convinced the partners it was worth the risk.

In any case the outlook in Britain in 2008 forced the firm to look abroad. It also scouted in India but has so far drawn a blank.

The hunch proved right. After just two years China is providing one-fifth of JTP’s workload and the firm already has more than a dozen projects under its belt there. There are just three permanent staff in Shanghai, augmented when necessary by the practice’s charette team, which flies in for the big hits.

Charettes and community consultation are the practice’s speciality and what won it its first work in China.

It would have taken 20 years to get initiatives to the same point in the UK

John Thompson

After two weeks of meetings with academic departments, local authorities and design institutes, the breakthrough moment was meeting a developer, recalls Thompson. “Our portfolio was UK-based projects, incredibly small-scale and not particularly relevant to the scale of the people we were talking to.”

But they were intrigued by JTP’s approach and the practice was invited to hold a charette at the end of an unresolved competition for a new city south of Shanghai. JTP walked away as the winner. More importantly, it now had a track record.

The practice has found Chinese clients want “inspiration and direction” and are eager to learn everything they can about city development and sustainability to give them an edge over their rivals.

“They are very open to ideas so we are able to influence our clients and lead the debate,” says Thompson. “It’s important we try and turn around the development juggernaut that’s destroying the planet internationally and on a bigger scale in China than anywhere.

“The Chinese are very fast learners. They are now considering developing much more sophisticated things than we are here. It would have taken 20 years to get some of our initiatives to the same point in the UK.”

The only frustration – other than long-haul travel – is trying to maintain the spirit of a masterplan through the planning system when local design institutes are equally intent on “China-fying” it.

It might seem odd to British architects that “community consultation” was the key that unlocked China for JTP. But almost all its overseas work has started the same way. JTP carried out a series of such projects in Germany in the late nineties, as well as in France, Italy, Iceland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Ireland, Abu Dhabi and Lombok in Indonesia.

The client from Lombok introduced the firm to a contact in Stockholm where, perhaps surprisingly, it recently held Sweden’s first community planning event.

“It’s a uniquely British thing to do,” explains London. “Many foreigners have come to participate in our events in the UK and were completely captivated.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • At the risk of stately the bloody obvious, running consultations is not uniquely British. Running it under the 'charette' banner identifies JTP as following the US 'New Urbanists', who as one smart person once remarked is neither new nor urban.

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