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Copy of ‘Crossing the Pond’ 20 Years On … Part 2 of 3

Fiona Mckay


Continued from Part 1… 

Crossing the Pond’ was Architectural Record’s contemporary celebration of the success of large American architectural firms and the London market’s reaction to being ‘invaded.’  The article remains an insightful commentary on the times, but it is time to reconsider its analysis. (Read AR July 1999 HERE.)

 PART 1 of ‘20 Years On’ restarted the 1999 conversation and looked back at the technical advantage US architectural firms had when they arrived in the UK in the 1980s and early 90s, and how that situation continued changed since 1999. 

PART 2 continues the conversation with those large American firms that survive and even thrive in the highly competitive UK market.  [A summary of current participants is included HERE.] 

Most US firms have opened up their design approaches. Others have become more global, using the UK as a springboard to the rest of the world. Many have diversified; a few have specialised.

Addressing Design

In 1999, Stuart Lipton, then with the developer Stanhope, while admiring of American implementation skills, was particularly scathing in his remark on American design, claiming that ‘a number of American practices have been producing pastiche … their designs are often very boring, mundane and inappropriate’, but his negative words were also echoed in contemporary comments by the US architects themselves.  One freely admitted, ‘much braver work is being done by the Europeans’. 

 As the American firms settled in, the original Chicago prototype lost its allure, and - in response to increasing emphasis on design performance -  American firms opened their approaches to local conditions and beyond. Today’s architects shortlist a few key ideas - ‘innovation’, ‘local sensibilities,‘local regulations’ and ‘life quality issues’ – to start the discussion.  Yet – arguably - the most important change has been an update in mindset.

Innovation as the Key: Eugene Kohn, FAIA, Principle at KPF, acknowledged as early as 1999, ‘to win competitions, your designs must be technologically and environmentally innovative’. Reiterating the importance of innovation today, Chris Harvey, AIA, KPF (one time SOM) explains that ‘The rules for a basic commercial building are easy to follow,’ he says, ‘butin idiosyncratic London – with its quirky streets and contextual mix – Miesian boxes are just out of place. Good design boils down to how you innovate – through technology or by typology, facades, massing … or by whatever other creative means’.

KPF’s Sixty London (Amazon Headquarters): Designing in a quirky environment. (Photo credit: Tim Soar)

KPF’s Sixty London (Amazon Headquarters): Designing in a quirky environment. (Photo credit: Tim Soar)

Harvey stresses the importance of teamwork and collaboration with other disciplines as an aid to innovation and finds London – with its rich mixture of professional support and global connections – appreciative of this approach.  

As an example, Kevin Flanagan at PLP Architecture has been instrumental in collaborative research with structural engineers and Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture on the use of timber structures in tall buildings – the ‘Oakwood Timber Tower Series’.  Starting off as a feasibility study, the research is now bearing fruit with a 35 storey timber building in the works for the Netherlands. Independently, David Walker has consulted specialist consultants and subcontractors before submitting plans for high-rise, timber office building – Tenter House -  in London and is anticipating approval shortly. 

PLP Architecture’s Oakwood Timber Tower / David Walker’s Tenter House: Innovation in material usage.

PLP Architecture’s Oakwood Timber Tower / David Walker’s Tenter House: Innovation in material usage.

PLP Architecture’s Amsterdam headquarters for Deloitte - the Edge – has been described as ‘officially, the greenest office building in the world’ (Blomberg 2015), but it owes its reputation as a building people want to work in to its highly wired, connected and adaptive working environments and its ability to integrate with emerging technology.  It was agreed by all that innovation - in a world beset by new ideas -requires constant awareness and collaboration with engineers, technology designers and other professionals.

Awareness of Sensibilities:  Lee Polisano links better local understanding to long term commitment.  Whereas some early Americans ‘had a come-and-go and come-and-go again attitude’, he notes, ‘we never left’.  Other US architects also exhibit long term commitment, but those with the longest history – in particular, those with personal ties or independent practices – honour the local ethos most strongly.  

Although cultural sensibilities are impossible to isolate and define, their design importance is acknowledged by all participants.  Alex Miller describes how ‘the architectural sensitivity here is just all together finer grained’.  He chooses as an example a neighbourhood renovation where ‘it was necessary to select the brick not just for the area or the project, but for that side of that end of that particular street’. 

Understanding Local Regulations:  In 1999, Stephan Reinke bemoaned the ‘vagaries’ of the British planning process.   In 2019, he applauds today’s even more involved process, requiring mastery of 30 or so ‘seriously intellectual, scientific and academic applications covering everything from environmental and social issues to precise building components,’ but which gives depth to UK-based projects.  

KPF’s recently completed office building - the Scalpel (Lime Street) - achieves its non-Miesian blade geometry partly in response to planning restraints.  Its form respected the views of St Paul’s Cathedral from every possible angle, reflecting a particularly British obsession now taken on by an American firm for an American corporate client. 

KPF’s Scalpel (52 Lime Street) London: Designing in a non-Miesian world. (Photo credit: Antoine Buchet)

KPF’s Scalpel (52 Lime Street) London: Designing in a non-Miesian world. (Photo credit: Antoine Buchet)

Emphasising Life Quality Issues: In 1999, M J Long, AIA, Long and Kentish, wrote, ‘I came to Britain initially because architects were involved in a social programme’. Karen Cook also came to the UK searching for a professional environment not preoccupied with 1980s style, but focused on social issues – in her case, ‘quality of living’. Her 1980s work in Europe grounded her in environmental sustainability and generated guidelines for workplace design – ‘natural daylight, exposed ceilings, non-toxic materials, underfloor ventilation…’ – a preliminary list being expanded as Cook and others finesse the requirements.

PLP Architecture and Gensler: Karen Cook, AIA, Justin Cratty, AIA. (Photo credit: L King)

PLP Architecture and Gensler: Karen Cook, AIA, Justin Cratty, AIA. (Photo credit: L King)

Aware of people increasingly rebelling against ‘slaving away like battery chickens in factory like offices, Cook believes ‘everyone now wants a better way of living’, and companies, developers and – in particular – architects can no longer ignore the social and environmental issues of the workplace.  Justin Cratty – who supports scientists by creating ‘best possible’ laboratory designs – echoes Cook’s sentiments, but is also concerned his efforts are seen only as a sub consultancy.  Despite indications that workspace design could dominate the coming decade, he sees many mainstream architects continuing to concentrate on the larger scale.  

For 22 Bishopsgate - recently described as London’s ‘smartest’ building (J Morrison, the Times, Mar 2018) - Cook uses layers of technology, to create an environment that people want to work both in and around - as evidenced by two quick examples.  At the workspace scale, workers are able to control how much light and heat they receive in their immediate surroundings. At the building scale, its ‘modest’ but highly engineered shape prevents wind gusts disrupting the pedestrian levels. Add to this cyclist showers, a food market, a climbing wall, medical and dental facilities and you have a building with ‘a social agenda’.

Cook’s commitment to a quality environment has earned accolades from Sir Stuart Lipton, now with developers Lipton Rogers.  In a comment pointedly less scathing on American design than that previously quoted from 1999, he praises 22 Bishopsgate as being ‘designed to enhance the quality of life of its occupants by adding amenities which make the work experience more enjoyable and effective’ (PLP Website).

Location, Location 

Eugene Kohn wrote in the 1999 article, ‘before the late 1980s, there were only a handful of Americans working abroad’.  Many of those firms setting up offices in the UK in the 1980s and 90s developed a taste for international work and continue to use London as a ‘springboard’ to Europe and beyond.  

In 1988, when David Walker arrived, London could best be described as ‘parochial’.  He remembers the charm, but laughs when he recalls that ‘it could take 3 months just to install a phone line’.  But London has changed.  If London in 1999 could be considered ‘an international city’, today it has gone global and the Americans have also benefited from the change. 

London has a lucky combination of location, time zone, travel links and language that gives it international prominence and allows firms located here to reach out in all directions.  Today’s architects variously describe it as ‘a place for all times’, ‘a confluence of architectural energy’, ‘a melting pot of all cultures’ and ‘a working nirvana’.  Less laudatory, but more practically, ‘it is a place where things can happen’.

KPF’s London Office: Design Director, Chris Harvey, AIA / Associate Principle Alex Miller AIA / Senior Associate Principle, Samantha Cooke, AIA. (Photo credit: L King / C. Fiallos)

KPF’s London Office: Design Director, Chris Harvey, AIA / Associate Principle Alex Miller AIA / Senior Associate Principle, Samantha Cooke, AIA. (Photo credit: L King / C. Fiallos)

Technological advances over the 20 years since the article appeared have profoundly changed both US and UK practices. These include not only the Internet, but also 3-D modelling, BIM and other techniques that require less reliance on co-locating with projects.  As Justine M Kingham, AIA, now returned to Washington DC with her own practice, acknowledges, ‘the very development of CAD streamlined the architectural process, and allowed firms to bounce work across different time zones from UK to Hong Kong’.  

 KPF’s London office today illustrates the importance of London as the ‘springboard’.  Maintaining its global identity since 1989, the practice has at least one-half the office working on international projects.  The workplace demographics adapt to changing project requirements and - at times - a majority might be non-American and perhaps only a small percentage of these would be British.

Although KPF’s Asian and Middle Eastern clients value its American expertise and reputation for big towers and master plans, they also aspire to architecture with a ‘slightly more European sensibility’ and the special character of the London office widens their choice.   Whereas the British might only hear KPF’s American accent, Samantha Cooke, AIA, KPF, believes that ‘our international clients perceive us as subtly European’.   According to their logic, a practice based in a converted building in fashionable Covent Garden - combined with all the  technical expertise and innovation on hand in London - offers the best of all worlds. 

KPF’s Floral Court, Covent Garden: An assemblage of historic and new buildings around a newly-created courtyard and pedestrian route in the Covent Garden Conservation Area. (Photo credit: Tim Soar)

KPF’s Floral Court, Covent Garden: An assemblage of historic and new buildings around a newly-created courtyard and pedestrian route in the Covent Garden Conservation Area. (Photo credit: Tim Soar)

Michael Lischer, FAIA, Sport Concepts (HOK in 1999), puts it succinctly, ‘I could live and work anywhere and still do what I do, but - buried back in mid-west USA - it would just not be the same’.   ‘London’, adds David Walker, ‘is a city of subliminal influences that manifests themselves in our way of creating, and you cannot underestimate the importance of that synergy’.  

While there has been equal access to London and its success is not an American achievement, Americans based in the UK can partake of and increase London advantages - if they live up to more intensive global competition. Looking into the future, Lee Polisano speaks of up and coming, talented Asian firms, while Samantha Cooke sees a future where Chinese language skills could be valued more than English. 

 Specialise or Diversify?

Specialise: A smaller group of American firms have developed or retained specialist expertise to survive.  Michael Lischer has long concentrated on the design of sports facilities – a sector centred on American expertise then and still identified with it.  However, today, he faces more and more competition and has branched out into upstream consulting work – ‘specialising within a speciality’

P+W: David Green, AIA.

P+W: David Green, AIA.

Following a different approach from American firms arriving in the1980s that brought their own staffs, P+W simply acquired a traditional UK practice in 2013 and imported only key US personnel.  

David Green, AIA, P+W, explains that the firm maintains its core interior and commercial work, but grew the UK office by specialising in science and health care facilities. As with UK financial services that required new facilities following the ‘Big Bang’, new funding relationships between laboratories and universities have opened up opportunities for American expertise.

Currently, P+W has a technological edge, but the question remains in the back of Green’s mind, ‘when will this advantage end’

Diversify: In the 1999 article, the architectural critic, Kenneth Powell, wrote, ‘there has been a long standing preconception that these American practices do only commercial work.  But we are beginning to see them break free from this stereotype’. In the past two decades, the trend towards diversity has accelerated.   

Not only have individual American architects experimented with different forms within the corporate sector, they have thrown a broad net over all building types, sizes, shapes and colours to create an impressive array of American led design solutions.


ROW 1: KPF’s Floral Street, Office + Retail (Credit: Tim Soar) / SRA’s Clerkenwell Road, Offices / PLP Architecture’s Chiltern Place, Residential (Credit: PLP Architecture). 

ROW 2: PLP Architecture’s Francis Crick Institute, Laboratory (Credit: Anthony Weller, Archimage) / KPF’s Huanglong Vanke Centre, Retail Complex (Credit: Shiromio Studios). 

ROW 3: Sport Concepts’ Liverpool Arena / DWA’s  Tenter House (Credit: Tim Soar). 

ROW 4: KPF’s The Scalpel, Commercial  (Credit: Hufton + Crow) / Gensler’s Microsoft Ireland (Credit: Gareth Gardner) / Gensler’s Steven Lawrence Centre (Credit: Gareth Gardner). 

ROW 5: DWA’s Riverbank House, Commercial (Credit: Tim Soar) / Gensler’s Adobe London (Credit: Mark Cocksedge) / PLP Architecture’s Farrington East, Crossrail Station (Credit: PLP Architecture). 

ROW 6: Perkins + Will’s Milton Park, Offices + Technology Complex (Credit: Tim Soar) / PLP Architecture’s Sky Central, Offices + Broadcasting  (Credit: PLP Architecture). 

ROW 7: Gensler’s Microsoft Ireland (Credit: Gareth Gardner) / KPF’s Which Headquarters, Offices  (Credit: Hufton + Crow).

Written by: Lorraine Dale King, AIA

TO BE CONTINUED – Look out for PART 3 to come.

Keep in touch with all parts via the AIA Website Blog

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