The rise and rise of big practice

Matthew Lloyd_resize

Growth can be about much more than money, writes Matthew Lloyd

Architecture here in the UK is an amazingly broad church, successfully encompassing one-person bands right through to mega-practices of hundreds of people. Why an architect chooses to work in one size of practice or another really depends on individual character, our predilections for particular lifestyles and work-pressure, our interest in building types or, perhaps, just the luck of the draw.

Some in our profession can only ever work alone – always have done so – liking the thrill of their own chase for work and the happiness of independence. Sole practitioners can more tightly determine their life situation, control their design work: no one is their master. This life can be profitable too, with low costs, often achieved by working at home, and with a loyal local audience, happy to pay reasonably well for a tested service, with already completed projects to visit nearby.

Then there are our middling firms with relatively few staff, stable in terms of size, and catching work from both the domestic market and modestly scaled public projects. This size of outfit produces much of the best architecture in the country, with a creditable awards record per capita. Often they set the trends in architectural language that others follow. Their architects teach. Books on their work are influential. In this respect they have a very important role to play in our professional food chain. Peter Barber demonstrated this wonderfully to a vast audience at the Barbican this month for the Architecture Foundation: outstanding and consistent work from a practice of just six people. He said they had never been greater in number than nine. A notable and admirable thing.

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