Some of the UK’s most interesting architects are doing their best work for developers. We investigate what’s behind the property sector’s apparent conversion to the cause of good design
Developers have not, traditionally, enjoyed a very good reputation within the architectural fraternity - or with the general public, for that matter. At worst they are seen as sharp-suited pirates of urban space, stripping out centuries-old residential or commercial buildings to replace them with shoddy, design-by-numbers structures, thrown up with no driving objective other than maximising their cash before they move on.
But times have changed. Whether it's economic necessity - driven by the lack of buyers for bad housing or poor office space - or just good sense, there is a growing number of developers out there that appear to be cherry-picking some of the UK's better practices to transform our urban wastelands and unloved spaces. This new breed appears to enjoy and understand the value of architecture and design. Some of them even consider architects their natural collaborators - the creative yang to their commercial yin.
Buckley House, Clerkenwell by BuckleyGrayYeoman for Derwent London
Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture (NLA) - the capital's networking and knowledge-sharing hub for all built-environment professionals - agrees there has been an evolutionary shift. He says: 'The days of evil developers have not totally disappeared because clearly there are those around that only want to make a quick buck. But most of the developers that we see here do recognise that they have a wider duty and generally see that good design is in their own best interests.'
Derwent London is one of the most visible of this latter breed. Along with Urban Splash (and predating it slightly), the company is a pioneer of design-led development as well as adaptive reuse -more than 80 per cent of Derwent's schemes involve the regeneration of existing buildings. Derwent is also, more to the point, an investor: it owns its properties as longterm
Elephant House, by Hawkins\Brown for Derwent London
landlord. Which is undoubtedly why, since the earliest scheme (an Old Street factory conversion with AHMM), it appears to have prioritised quality. If you look at the firms the company has worked with since the mid-Eighties, Derwent director Simon Silver emerges as an architectural equivalent to Charles Saatchi - nurturing British architecture practices from their early years like Saatchi did for YBAs Hirst, Emin and Lucas. Along with AHMM, whose Angel Building won it a coveted Stirling Prize shortlisting in 2011, the established and emerging architects on its books include: Stiff & Trivillion, Duggan Morris, DSDHA, Hugh Broughton, Sergison Bates, Hawkins\Brown, BuckleyGrayYeoman, Bennetts Associates, Piercy & Co, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and Squire and Partners.
Silver's team may get a price advantage in picking young talent but when it finds an architect it likes, it sticks with them; AHMM was only 10 strong when it first started working together - now the practice has 160 staff. Says Silver: 'We take all these people along the way. And they are strongly influential. I'd like to think we get the best out of them. We work as a team. It's a collaboration.'
What the architect gets is good, old-fashioned patronage. Stuart Piercy, of Piercy & Co, who is now on site with Derwent's Turnmills building in Clerkenwell, says: 'Turnmills has been seven years in planning...but [Derwent] kept us all the way through four complete redesigns. A lot of developers might have been tempted to try another practice.' The trust this generates is a precious commodity in today's tough marketplace.
says Piercy. 'When you feel like you are trusted, then you can do your best work.' Piercy also appreciates that, due to the size and scale of Derwent's operations, 'it is always doing new and bigger things, which brings the practices up that trajectory with it.'
The payoff for Derwent is an incredibly low vacancy rate - around 1.5 per cent. But it also leverages the value of its buildings through the perceived prestige of the architects' involvement and the obvious quality of the buildings. At last summer's launch event for its Buckley Building by BuckleyGray Yeoman (recent recipient of an AJ Retrofit award) in Clerkenwell, you could practically see the agents salivating over their sharp suits as they calculated the fees on the lofty ceilings and sweeping views over EC1. As one insider says: 'If creative and technology businesses weren't willing to pay top dollar for great buildings, would they still be as interested?'
Developer Urban Splash is working on Park Hill Estate in Sheffield with Hawkins Brown and Egret West
But is this a problem, and if so, for whom? God knows, UK architects have needed the work over the past five years. For all the rapacious practises of some developers and the perennial battles over community consultation and environmental impacts, there is a greater spirit of cooperation now perhaps than there has been for decades between a growing number of developers and their architects.
You don't have to dig too deeply to find small to mediumsized developers which have clearly come to appreciate the architect's importance within a strategic team, valued for their expertise in engaging with a site's social, historical and architectural context as well as creating inspired masterplans and well-designed, appealing buildings. Those who get good word of mouth include GPE, Cathedral, Exemplar, Igloo and, of course, Urban Splash, whose fortunes may have dipped but it's still out there, and planning to embark on the next phase of the Hawkins\Brown-led refurbishment of Sheffield's iconic Park Hill estate.
There is an undoubted London bias, however, when it comes to the really interesting projects. Long-serving Urban Splash collaborator Shedkm felt compelled to add a London office to its Liverpool base last year in order to win business from the design-savvy developers in the South East. Apart from Urban Splash, progressive developers outside of London are 'few and far between', says Ian Killick, director of Shedkm. He is, however, encouraged by young, forward-thinking consortia such as Capital & Centric, which has put Shedkm's scheme for Liverpool's Littlewoods Building back on the cards.
The practice's London move has already paid off with its winning a major mixed-use project in Brighton, for Cathedral Group, at the end of last year.
Cathedral - like most of the more design-led developers here - is an investor and regeneration specialist rather than an out-and-out developer. Cathedral's USP is regenerating difficult sites with mixed-use schemes (at Deptford and Hayes in particular) as well as pioneering clever schemes through public private partnerships (PPP) with local authorities - such as in the Clapham One project with Studio Egret West (see case study).
For Cathedral's creative director Martyn Evans, good design and good development are the only way out of recession. 'Property is the building blocks of economic prosperity', he says. 'If we are going to change the way we work and find new ways of making money, property has to foster it, fuel it, create social enterprise, give people good places to live that they can afford when they aren't earning so much money, [and] give them nice public facilities.
'The only way that can begin is by being clever and collaborative and understanding people and the way they live, work and enjoy themselves. Good architects are at the absolute epicentre of that.'
Christophe Egret, of Studio Egret West, says: 'There are developers that want an easy life, and want to keep on repeating what they've done before if the recipe works. They don't want to complicate their lives with mixed use. They don't want consultations because it's complicated, and they don't want to work with artists because it's messy.
'What Cathedral does is embrace that complexity and see that it adds value. It also sees that it helps convince the planners, the council members, the partnerships that they get into that the [scheme] is better. So all the time they come to a project with [that perspective of]: "What can we do that's extraordinary?". They enjoy working with us because the fact is we come from the same place.'
If 'public consultation' has long been perceived as anathema to developers, Cathedral has also inverted that stereotype with its commitment to 'meanwhile' Victoria Library housing and office, by Patrick Lynch for Land Securitiesuses - inhabiting its sites in the short-term to enrich usage for the long-term. For example, with the Deptford Project, a joint venture with Lewisham Council on a derelict site adjacent to Deptford station, Cathedral shipped in an old train carriage and turned it into a cafe. With the help of Studio Myerscough's funky graphics, it has become a real community hub. Cathedral also cleaned up and then let the railway arches to artists and artisans, and programmed markets and summer cinema events. No doubt it was trying to make the best of Network Rail dragging its heels over the development (four years and counting).
However, thanks to these initiatives, says Evans, 'We have had a permanent public consultation facility for four years. All the staff who work in the cafe are trained about what's happening and can talk about our scheme. It enriches the process because the architects go and have meetings in the train carriages...It de-risks our project, which means that it happens. It makes the planning process easier because our consultation is deeper and better. It makes the marketing for the place easier. And it means there's no way we're not going to do the right thing on that site.' (For the record, Evans has promised not to turf the artisans out of the railway arches when the adjacent Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed flats are completed).
There are one or two big players also surfing this evolutionary wave. Argent's efforts in King's Cross, for example, are widely appreciated, not least for the care taken to ensure that a good mixture of interesting practices work on individual buildings, but also for its commitment to investing in highquality public spaces that will help knit the disparate communities together. Meanwhile, Land Securities - the biggest commercial UK developer of them all - is midway through a 10-year, £2bn project in Victoria that harnesses the talents of Sir David Chipperfield alongside younger, edgier practices like Lynch Architects and Henley Halebrown Rorrison.
Land Securities' head of London development management, Oliver Gardiner, would dispute that an appreciation of design and good architecture is anything new, but he admits that relationships between all in the design team are tighter these days. 'When we work with the teams we take the design side very seriously,' he says. Undoubtedly, using high-end architects is part of their strategy to draw a significant number of fashion businesses to the reinvented Victoria quarter. But plans for this area have evolved substantially since 2005, with a huge amount of input from its architects and Westminster's own planning department. Architect Patrick Lynch says Land Securities has agreed to almost every proposal he's made in the three buildings he's designed for them in Victoria. They are happy to listen, he says, as long as he can demonstrate that his interventions improve the building quality, longevity and performance, along with public realm and connectivity.
Ultimately, Lynch feels that it's pointless to single out developers as a different species of client to any other type - there are good and bad among all of them. 'The whole history of London is speculative development,' he says. What's happening now is that good planners, developers and architects are 'working intelligently together', and maybe, he thinks, architects have facilitated this shift by taking a more pragmatic, less pretentious role - by presenting themselves as problem solvers rather than purveyors of 'self-expression'. Says Lynch: 'A lot of architects are stuck in this attitude that they can do what they want - it's baby-boomer bullshit. If you can make a plan work and talk to a planner, you can make it happen.'
Also by Lynch Architects for Land Securities, Kingsgate House, Victoria
Do the architects involved get paid fairly for their time and skills? It's impossible to get an honest response. Ultimately, developers get the craft and the kudos, architects get to create some really good buildings, unlovely parts of our cities are looking better - if collaborative spirit is responsible, then we need not just a trickle but an epidemic
Victoria library housing and office
Patrick Lynch for Land Securities
Project summary: A mix of retail, office space and affordable housing with a new library, the building will connect with the adjacent Victoria Palace Theatre, adding opportunities for use of its food, event and performance facilities. Constructed above TfL's proposed Victoria Station upgrade and the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer, therefore requiring use of a lightweight, engineered timber structure.
Prof Samuels says: 'The play of proportion in the fenestration does something to space, opening it up in an oddly asymmetrical yet balanced facade. Spatial games and historical quotations are clearly present in this highly intellectual composition, evidently an immense investment of care on the part of the architect. This gives the building the necessary authority for this august location. It won't be outdated in a hurry. All this was achieved while working within the alarming constraints of building over a large railway intersection.'
Turnmills, Clerkenwell: Piercy & Company for Derwent London
Kingsgate house, Victoria
Patrick Lynch for Land Securities
Project summary: Replacing an existing mammoth office building with two new buildings to incorporate retail and office space in one, and retail and housing in the other, thereby breaking down massing and allowing two new public spaces to be created between the buildings and their neighbours, improving public realm as well as connections to the streets behind. Prof Samuels says: 'Kingsgate House has a layered facade that fits immaculately well into its surroundings, offering colonnaded urban space at base level. I can actually read the layers of architectural history that have gone into its evolution. 'Subtle articulations of form create in plan a perceptible sense of arrival, a public space, a bead of experience on the string of Victoria Street. There is strong engagement between site and building. To walk round or past the building is not a dull march but a meander through columns, variable shade and texture evocative of landscape: urban fabric at its most humane.' Turnmills, Clerkenwell
Piercy & Company for Derwent London
Project summary: The old Turnmills nightclub is being replaced with more than 6,500 sq m of high-quality office space, with ground-floor restaurant and retail. Massing and materiality were inspired by Barbara Hepworth sculptures where textured exterior surfaces transform and curve inwards to become smooth interiors. Each window reveal is chamfered to maximise daylight and views from within the light-filled, 'gallery-inspired' offices.
Prof Samuels says: 'The concept model is of a crystal object wrapped in a striated veneer. This veneer takes the form of different-coloured clay bricks by Petersen, Kolumba. There is a strong message here that this is inspired by research into the possibilities of facade and form. Although this may not be tremendously profound, a simple diagram is a nice thing in my book and it is good to have a 'concept model' on show. Many architects I know feel that they have to keep quiet about the underlying conceptual frameworks of the projects lest they appear over intellectual, unnecessarily expensive or somehow off-putting.
The ground floor is elegantly planned, making good use of the geometrical potential of the site. Here, maximising the extent of the shop fronts allows the entrance to be gently squeezed before expanding into the hallway, adding drama to the journey.'
Clapham One, The Library building: Studio Egret West for Cathedral Group
Clapham One, The library building
Studio Egret West for Cathedral Group
Project summary: A 12-storey, mixed use regeneration scheme, in partnership with Lambeth Council and United House, wrapping luxury private accommodation around a public library and performance space, cafe and GP surgery.
Prof Samuels says: 'It is great to see the developer providing something truly useful. Furthermore, you have to applaud all concerned for building in a position of such extreme complexity... I just can't help feeling that the pursuit of dramatic architectural form, the perforated drum at the heart of the block, has relegated all other activities to the periphery. Inside, the drama of the drum is, however, unquestionable.
'It seems regrettable in such a densely urban place as Clapham that there is no atrium or courtyard space to allow the possibility of natural light, ventilation and vegetation. The site, fully occupied, is completely out of scale with the grain of the surroundings in plan.
'The block breaks down at higher level into a series of ovaloid towers and has a pleasingly uneven roofline and offers a variety of window types. I enjoy the character of the housing above but wonder what it has to do with Clapham, an urban centre of very distinct character.'