Building firm foundations

It’s tough starting up as an architect, but as author and architecture editor at Wallpaper* magazine Ellie Stathaki reports, there are ways of getting ahead

5 min read

With the construction industry still in recovery following the economic turmoil of recent years, at least in most of Europe, starting a new architecture firm now is not for the faint hearted. In fact, heading your own business can be a challenge at the best of times, yet it remains a consistent aspiration and a sure sign of coming-of-age for any architect. Arguably, it is also perfectly possible when approached with the right attitude.

If there’s one thing architects are trained to do, it is to think laterally and applying that skill in business can do wonders. While keeping building design as the core of their profession, many young practices are choosing to diversify by engaging in a variety of sister-activities, including academia, product design and design consultancy. These not only help with networking, evolution of the architectural discourse and the accumulation of valuable experience, but also offer handy alternative sources of revenue.

BIG/Bjarke Ingels ARC

BIG/Bjarke Ingels ARC

It is no secret that countless firms combine teaching with practice, offering some much needed financial consistency to the irregularity of income that comes with the territory in new business. LA-based architect and founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture Alvin Huang spent the best part of ten years in big firms, including Zaha Hadid, Future Systems and Amanda Levete Architects. It was the offer of a tenure-track teaching position at the USC [University of Southern California] School of Architecture in 2010 that gave him the opportunity to go it alone.

Many young practices are choosing to diversify by engaging in a variety of sister-activities

A key competition win in 2007, for a pavilion in London, designed with Alan Dempsey, gave him the visibility required, but it was teaching that secured the economic confidence for the final leap. “I am interested in the practice of architecture, but also its discourse and research aspect, and our office is an intersection of those two. The teaching enables that in an intellectual capacity, but also in a financial capacity,” says Huang. “My tenure-track position in fact requires that 40 per cent of my time is dedicated to creative endeavours.”

Picking the right collaborators is also vital. Famous Dutch firm OMA is not only known for its groundbreaking, world-class designs, but also for giving birth to a number of new practices all over the world. A host of OMA alumni are now leading architecture forces in their own right, such as Space Group in Oslo (created by ex-OMA employees Gary Bates, Adam Kurdahl and Gro Bonesmo), and Dane Bjarke Ingels.

Ingels met his former business partner, Julian de Smedt, at OMA, which they both left in 2001 to set up PLOT. Even though they parted ways in 2005, their work was already successful and Ingels established the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in Copenhagen within a year. Several competition-winning designs later, Ingels, a gifted speaker and talented designer, co-founded product design group KiBiSi, together with Jens Martin Skibsted and Lars Larsen. In the same year, 2009, his graphic novel about BIG was published and the firm has been going from strength to strength ever since.

This is quite a feat, considering that BIG was going through some turbulent financial times in 2008. They not only turned it around, but also created a thriving business in just four years, very much thanks to the firm’s business-minded chief executive Sheela Søgaard.

Søgaard has a management, rather than architectural, background. Her initiatives included a business development team and, while her recruitment is a rarity in the architecture world, there is no denying that her role in this success story has been pivotal.

And even though corporate break-ups can set the architectural tongues wagging, it certainly doesn’t always have to be like that. Tarek Merlin and his business partner Julia Feix set up London-based Feix&Merlin while still in the employment of Will Alsop, and with his blessings too. Even after officially setting up F&M, the pair carried on working for Alsop, initially full time and later part time, which allowed a fluid, tailor-made transition.

Shanghai Wuzhou International Plaza

Shanghai Wuzhou International Plaza

“We have taken a different approach to setting up a practice. We didn’t ‘jump’, mainly because financially that just wouldn’t have worked out for either of us,” Merlin recalls. “We never took the teaching approach either. We just carried on working for Will while working on our own projects in our spare time. He was very supportive on that front and helped us out greatly until eventually we flew the nest. It was the best of both worlds.”

Today F&M remain small, but unapologetically entrepreneurial, dipping their fingers into different pies with ease. Plans for a Brazil office are currently in the pipeline, while they are launching their furniture design sub-brand (TM for F&M) in September, showing a capsule collection at the London Design Festival. “I guess ultimately, every architect has a dream of running their own practice,” says Merlin. “It is incredibly rewarding to work in this way and finally we are able to show other people what we’ve been up to.”

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