Eleanor Jolliffe talks to the Allies and Morrison founder about a formative period in his early career

Bob Allies photo

L-R: Richard Talbot sculptor, Virginia Bodman painter, Lorraine Gleave sculptor, Jill Franklin art historian, Seamus Carmichael printmaker (and taker of photograph), Bob Allies architect, Sally Cann archaeologist, Rob Birbeck archaeology assistant, John Cotter archaeologist, Barbara Keizer printmaker. Taken in the BSR courtyard, 1981 or 1982

“John Tuomey applied for the Rome scholarship the same year I did. However, James Stirling had just won the commission for the Neue Staatsgalerie, and wanted John to work on it, so he withdrew his application. Just as well really,” Bob Allies muses, “John probably would’ve got it if we were competing”.

It’s with this rather characteristic modesty that Allies, co-founder of Allies and Morrison, describes the application that led him to spending nine months in Rome between 1981 and 1982 as the Rome scholar in architecture. Allies had applied to the British School at Rome (BSR) four years after finishing his Part 2, while working for Michael Brawne.

His time in Rome was spent considering the parallels between Renaissance architecture and Mannerism. Allies found himself fascinated by the evolution of architecture in this time from a stylistic rule that considered the building as a perfect object, to one prepared to adapt or adjust to something more complex. This shift was one he saw mirrored in the changes in modernism in the 1980s.

Rome, Allies explains, opens your mind. It’s not so much what you achieve, or draw, or write when you’re there - but the resource it gives you that helps in design later. The themes which formed his Roman research would go on to inform and inspire Allies, and his friend Graham Morrison, when they set up their practice after his return from Rome. Allies acknowledges that this sense of a sort of evolved complexity still inspires the work of their practice, Allies and Morrison, to this day.

I think many Rome scholars would agree with Allies. For those I’ve spoken to over this series of interviews, most, if not all, of their Roman research is still sitting in notebooks and on harddrives. However, whether they went into careers in practice or academia, the principles of design and space they discovered in Rome have survived as a constant thread and inspiration in their subsequent work and careers.


Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Plan and section of Bernini’s Scala Regia, from Templum vaticanum et ipsius origo by Carlo Fontana

Allies is no different really. He wrote two essays during his time in Rome one of which was published, and one which still sits in a ring binder on his bookshelf. This unpublished essay considered Bernini’s Scala Regia- a staircase that forms part of the ceremonial entry to St Peter’s by the Pope. It is famous for its clever use of perspective, narrowing as it ascends, thus appearing grander from the base.

It is not new to scholarship, but Allies considered it from above (a perspective hard to achieve for the average tourist but one that the BSR’s permissions officer enabled him to get). The illusion viewed from above is one Allies described as “still and calm, as if you are looking into a perfect volume”. He said this calm gave one great serenity- perhaps preparing popes for their entry into St Peter’s Basilica.

“I enjoyed thinking about that” Allies recounts. “We still think about that in the practice - there’s more to making spaces than forming parallel sides”.


Source: Errem / CC BY-SA 4.0

Palazzo del Te at Mantua

His published Roman essay considered the Palazzo del Te at Mantua- a superbly “weird” Mannerist building. The key here was the ingenuity with which the architect Giulio Romano applied the classical orders to what was a pre-existing facade. The importance of this project is in accommodating the realities of the pre-existing, Allies notes.This will always be important he adds. History is always worth investigating - it makes you think more deeply about what you’re doing today.

Allies’ time at the BSR was mind expanding and confidence building. He would meet his late wife there, and the BSR seems to sit in the background of much of his subsequent career. Allies recounts not only the libraries and the buildings he visited, but the trips the scholars and artists organised together. Seeing a site through the eyes of an architect, an artist, an historian, an archaeologist, all of whom are engaged in the world of Rome - you can’t easily replicate that kind of experience.


Source: Shutterstock

The Baths of Caracalla

The BSR Allies went to, and which remains today, is a social place with its core of staff and resident scholars and a constant flow of transient academics and students. Mary Beard passed through when Allies was there, and noted structural engineer turned archaeologist Janet DeLaine led them around the Baths of Caracalla. Visiting these places with a specialist is a privilege Allies notes, you experience them with an intimacy you would never otherwise have.

Allies is now Chair of the Faculty of Architecture at the BSR. He’s passionate about creating opportunities for more architects, especially those from under-represented backgrounds, to experience something of life there. The summer school he launched last year led by O’Donnell and Tuomey will continue in 2024. I have promised not to reveal who will lead it but Allies has managed to find someone as exciting as the RIBA Gold Medal winners and I envy those who will participate!

Allies’ aim though is to keep architecture at the BSR alive - he has spoken to myriad young architects about their applications over the years. He is optimistic about the future of architecture at the BSR - and quietly evangelical about the potential impact even short periods of time in its unique environment can have on young architects. It galvanised him, giving him the energy and perseverance to establish his own practice. It has done the same for the many scholars I’ve interviewed in this series.

It may seem an odd, old fashioned sort of idea - to send architects to Rome to learn about architecture. However, I hope this series has demonstrated some of the diversity of careers and experiences that have resulted. The positive impact on our profession is profound- and we shouldn’t undervalue that.

The BSR in two words according to Bob Allies? Eye-opening and time-expanding. Long may it continue to be thus.

>> Also read: Simone Shu-Yeng Chung on ‘the city as text’