‘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 despite losing their initial edge.
PART 3 looks at the newer challenges of 2019 and focuses on the current status of American brand architecture. [A summary of current participants is included HERE.]
Having enhanced design approaches, used the UK as a springboard to other markets or diversified/ specialised over the past two decades, American architects in the UK are now facing new challenges.
Uncertainty and Change
The 1986 Big Bang had a positive effect on the UK economy, and the American firms that followed it were comfortably settled by 1999. Since then, the British economy has cycled hot and cold. The most recent recession – the 2008 ‘Credit Crunch’ – was a sharp jolt to complacency, taking its toll on all UK-based architects and dispersing many to the Middle East or Asia for survival. The large American firms were not immune, and some are reported at the time to have dropped staff by as much as 80%.
Having endured the Credit Crunch, today’s architects are now faced with an anxious global disquiet – economic uncertainty, unsettled political conditions and trade deterioration. In the UK, general disquiet is overshadowed by the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union – or ‘Brexit’.
The potential loss of European staff through immigration controls is of primary concern. All UK-based architectural firms rely on a pool of talented individuals, but what happens when the ‘pool dries up’? In the early 1980s, Stephan Reinke claims ‘anyone who could hold a pencil could get a job’, and until 2006, British citizenship was relatively easy to obtain. Now more countries are putting up barriers and the visa situation has become a serious challenge.
There is more than just concern for the economy and the practical issues of hiring staff. Many US architects worry that the special magic of London today will dissipate and the dynamics will change. ‘London grew and developed’ explains David Walker, ‘because huge financial effort went into making change happen, but it was not inevitable. On the surface it all still looks great and maybe it will be OK, but I am uneasy. Architects are still coming from America and around the world, but it is no longer that loving, inclusive place’.
An ironic twist to the American ‘invasion’ of the British market in the 1980s and 90s, has been the reverse infiltration – invasion is too strong a word – of the American market by British/European architects. Stephan Reinke points out UK architects have been particularly successful in ‘penetrating the US with high end buildings – arts facilities; scientific laboratories; incredible transport hubs; high spec, complex buildings – rather than everyday works’.
More than one participant cites as a prime example the British/European influence on that most iconic of US projects – the redevelopment of New York’s World Trade Center. At one point in the competition’s convoluted history, 4 of the 5 shortlisted buildings were by British/European architects and only the centrepiece has resulted in an American design. Perhaps literally ‘the project from hell’, overwhelmed by national emotion and political hurricanes, the centrepiece was ultimately produced by SOM’s New York office.
In today’s technically advanced age, there remains a question whether there is any need to physically relocate when working in another country, and the various American firms differ in their responses. There is potential work for PLP Architecture in the US, but Lee Polisano insists that all international work would remain concentrated in London to preserve core identity and design strength.
Michael Lischer works on large stadia and arenas scattered across the globe, making a base in London fundamentally convenient. P+W is currently ‘localising’ and has sub offices in Dublin and Paris, each with its special area of expertise. KPF maintains strong ties with its New York headquarters and there is frequent cross pollination of personnel. After sampling the unpredictability of the international circuit, David Walker and Stephan Reinke both prefer working locally in London and the UK.
Although Gensler retains London as a European hub, it has taken a different approach and grown organically to 49 global offices, insisting it works best when its designers are ‘close to the people they designs for’. As President of the AIA UK Chapter in 1999, Steven Steimer, AIA, Gensler did not pursue a British architectural license as he had believed an ARB and NCARB reciprocity agreement was pending. In another ironic twist, Steimer – who has stayed with Gensler but moved back to the US - is now rumoured to be working in London again, spearheading a local project.
British and European firms are making inroads into the US. British firms hire individual US architects based on general qualifications, not American training. US firms in the UK now rely on local UK or non-US staff. Talented US architects have started their own UK companies. Office locations are of lessening relevance. Faced with this litany of changes from 1999, is the distinction ‘American architect’ at all relevant in today’s global market?
The 1999 article alluded to prejudice against Americans. Although this may linger in some quarters, it could be argued that over time concerns about national origin have simply lapsed into indifference. There is a general consensus that the overt, 1990s American influence on British architecture has long passed its peak.
David Walker has now spent half of his life in the UK, with the past 17 years in his own practice. He believes ‘this American thing is no longer relevant. In fact, being American could still be a detriment’. When asked outright if he was an American or British architect, he replied - after serious consideration - he feels more a British architect than an American one, but ‘if you ask my clients and other professionals who I work with, they would probably hesitate and settle on ‘American’’. With a lighter note, he believes ‘some might hope I remain Canadian.’
On the other hand, Stephen Reinke claims to be ‘probably the most quintessential American you could ever meet’; however, he maintains ‘there is no longer a particular American-ness in architecture. Good clients quickly pass on from ‘are you an American?’ and accelerate to ‘do you know your stuff?’’.
Samantha Cooke does not hesitate to describe herself matter-of-factly as ‘an American architect working in the UK’ but adds the qualification, ‘on projects everywhere but in Britain’. Alex Miller says he will ‘always be from Texas.’ When asked what he is doing in the UK, he responds, ‘trying to be the best architect I can; my approach is US, but my experience is UK’.
Whereas David Green felt compelled on arrival in the UK to draw attention to his British ancestry, he now recognises that ‘being an American in London is the perfect combination’. Lee Polisano is unequivocal in his statement: ‘PLP is not hired because it is American – it is an office of individuals’ without any reference to national stereotypes.
Chris Harvey recalls the standing joke that Americans ‘can be heard coming, their cheerleader ‘rah rah’ voices at a volume two to three notches too high’. It might be a slow process, but Americans can acclimatise - ‘they can calm down’. In a journey not atypical of other architects, Harvey started in the US, worked on projects in Europe, moved to the Middle East, relocated to Chicago, returned to the UK for projects in China and is now safely ensconced in KPF. Chris claims he is ‘American, but thinks British’ – or is this what it means to be a ‘citizen of the world’?
Like David Walker, Kevin Flanagan has a Canadian backstory, and his tri-part American, British and European training also exposed him to ‘multiple views’ early in his career. Without actually claiming global citizenship, he simply resists national branding. Steven Steimer, who was unavailable for comment, moved back to the US many years ago, and it can only be assumed that he has profited from his design experiences in the UK.
The range of responses to the question of national identity are perhaps inevitable. It is said - after living in a foreign country - national identity begins to blur as local conditioning seeps into the sub conscience at varying rates. It is also reported that the US diplomates are discouraged from foreign assignments over four years, least they return with non-American thought patterns. Although unscientific, random sampling suggests Americans living in Britain stop hearing British accents after two years and hear American ones instead. However, there is no indication that any of this has a permanent effect on architectural quality.
When asked the direct question ‘is the distinction ‘American architect’ still relevant in today’s global market’, Justin Cratty does not query his Americanism, but - believing the UK title ‘architect’ is often too restrictive – queries whether he remains an architect at all given his deviation from traditional roles.
Perhaps, Alex Miller speaks for all when he confronts the relevance of the question itself. ‘Shouldn’t this’ he asks, ‘be about the challenges in the global market to the architectural profession as a whole? The way I see it, it is simply no longer about being American.’
Yes - but then - that would be an even longer, continuing story …
Written by: Lorraine Dale King, AIA – ‘I was here years before the 1999 article and in the years since have contributed my share to the London skyline as an American woman in the British construction industry. I still retain my American accent - if nothing else - despite 37 years of acclimatisation’.