In conversation: Simon Allford and Eleanor Hill

This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Simon Allford and Eleanor Hill, one of a series of such discussions held to reflect on past and future changes in architectural practice and culture as Architecture Today turns 30

SA How long have you been going?

EH Four years, what about you?

SA Thirty years. Is it getting better, now you’ve established yourselves a bit more?

EH It is getting better and a bit easier. We’re quite lucky because we’ve had a relatively constant stream of projects – well, we haven’t necessarily had projects but we’ve always had stuff to do, because we’ve tried to be quite entrepreneurial about how we go about creating opportunities for ourselves. What about you?

SA I found the first four years difficult. It was pretty desperate in 1989 when we opened. We hit this terrible recession, but that was actually quite good; it made you think quite hard about what you do, and what makes you work together. We always thought it was quite a relief that we didn’t build a big building while we were working things out between the four of us. It’s painful but useful to think, right, what is this business? What kind of architecture are we going to make? How are we going to get jobs? When we get them, how are we going to do them?

EH What kind of projects were you doing?

SA We advertised in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, and we used to get weird little loft extensions, while doing competitions in the evening, and also working for bigger practices who would sub out work to us.

Above: The four founding directors in AHMM – Simon Allford, Jonathan Hall, Paul Monaghan and Peter Morris – photographed in the early days of the practice, and again more recently (ph: Mel Yates).
Top right: Among AHMM’s earliest projects, completed in 1994, was a poolhouse in the grounds of an existing Wiltshire house. Containing an indoor pool and guesthouse, its design made reference to the regional tradition of ‘Dutch barn’ construction, Queen Victoria’s bathing machine and railway carriages.
Top left: Planning consent has been granted for Parti’s scheme for the Lodges Resort hotel on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, in which the accommodation is divided into eight buildings distributed across the site to take advantage of the variety of landscapes and views.

EH Did you win any of the competitions?

SA We set up after we’d won some competitions, and then when we started, we didn’t win anything for at least two years. But doing competitions was itself a useful way of working out ideas. We used to seek to do something we wanted to do, and test an idea which we could use later. And then you had a project you could add to your portfolio, and you can build a story about a practice, for the world and yourself. What were your entrepreneurial models?

EH We were interested in starting an architecture practice because we wanted to design and we wanted to make buildings and we wanted to create opportunities for ourselves, so I think in that, it was similar – it’s kind of a means to an end, and about practicing our interest.

We started our practice straight after graduating from the RCA, so at that time we were surrounded by product designers and film-makers and fashion designers. And we liked how they didn’t necessarily sit around and wait for projects to come to them, but they were quite proactive in creating a collection or creating a product, before going out to sell it. Obviously, architecture is inherently expensive, so we did try that with a few smaller-scale things, but the issue with not having enough capital took us to look at private equity as a model.

My partner Tom is the one that really pushes this part of the practice. In private equity, essentially, there’s a small group of experts who take money from investors, invest it over a five- or ten-year cycle, and then release the value. So, we were thinking, can architects be that small group of experts? Because we believe that architects are central to the success of buildings.

SA Were you investing in the projects? Was someone investing in you?

EH There are two examples in which we took inspiration from that model. One was a project on Kangaroo Island off the coast of Australia, which was an amazing opportunity for us to get. We met a developer and were doing very small odd jobs for him, and then suddenly became quite involved in this project for a hotel on Kangaroo Island.

We arranged to forego some of our fees for equity in the project. We were just curious about how that might work, and I think it afforded us a lot of trust from the developer, and allowed us to do something creative and unconventional, because he felt aligned with us. So, in that sense it was quite successful. In another sense, the project has been on hold for years, so who knows when we could be seeing the return on that!

The second way that we started looking at it was affected by how long that process took, and how little control we had. Essentially we found a site in the Lake District, an old limestone quarry, and saw an opportunity. And again we don’t have the capital to be developers, but we sort of assigned ourselves the role of development manager and found investment, got bank debt, organised an option on the land so we could buy it after planning permission. We’ve got planning and we’re hoping to start on site in January.

In 2018 Parti secured planning consent for it self-initiated project at a disused limestone quarry in the Lake District, a housing scheme comprising dwellings, a courtyard garden, event space and sauna

SA I would imagine you are quite unusual; are you aware that the profession used to have a rule that you had to be distanced from being a client, because they thought it compromised the architect. You had to resign from the RIBA if you developed projects such as the Span housing. So, the world has changed quite dramatically – I think all for the good. Architecture is a great training for identifying problems and offering solutions to those, or identifying opportunities and turning them into projects.

EH You’ve hit the nail on the head. Especially having just graduated from the RCA, where you spend your whole time creating briefs, deciding on the programme, working out operational strategies, almost creating a brand through very persuasive images and really imagining what the building would be. We were interested in all of those things, and that’s one of the reasons we were interested in having a deeper involvement in the creation of buildings. Because architects are good at that stuff, and I think it contributes to their success.

It’s interesting how the thinking has changed, and it was a worry of mine, initially, that design might be compromised because our priorities were somewhere else, but I don’t think it has been.

SA Before the war, architecture was a gentleman’s profession, a hobby for people who generally had wealth. After the war, until 1980 when Thatcher deregulated, a high proportion of the profession was in public sector work. So the idea of a massive private sector in architecture is relatively new, probably the last 35 years.

People used to talk about public sector architects, high-quality private sector architects – who picked up the best schools, the best town halls – and commercial architects, who did the dirty work. There’s a remnant of that still in the way people think about architecture, but you have to be commercial, not only because you have to make a business that pays you and your staff, but also you have to understand the drivers of a project. There is always a financial equation running in the background. If you can understand that, then you can help redesign it to make a better project, rather than just being rather disappointed at the lost opportunity.

EH That’s been part of the reason we’ve wanted to expand the traditional scope of the architect. Being an architect feels increasingly like being just another consultant, whereas historically, architects were the absolute centre of the buildings that they were producing. I guess it’s quite a romantic idea, but we like it.

SA I think we should fight back if we’ve got something to offer; I quite like the fact that architecture is not regulated in this country. My view is, we’re a relatively new profession, you should win your work on your capability, not your professional qualifications. We should be much more at the centre, but we have to earn the right to be there, not say, “Well we should be there because we’re architects.”

Initially it was a worry that design would be compromised because our priorities were somewhere else”

EH Yes, and we should be using our training to be a conductor of all of the different aspects of creating buildings.

SA There’s that famous Cedric Price thing about working with a couple for six months on their house and he says, “You don’t need an extension, you need a divorce.”

The solution can be good advice: “You do not need to build, you need to recalibrate your organisation”. We give very, very good advice for free and then try and make it back in construction; we should be thinking about the value of the advice.

Preparation and experience

SA The four partners in AHMM did our diplomas together, and we set up a project called the Fifth Man, which was four people doing their own work but collaborating on a bigger adventure. Then we went out and were interviewed for jobs as four people, worked for three years as four people, and then we left as four people and set up on our own.

But you didn’t even have that experience – you went straight from the RCA into practice. Was it quite a deep end to dive in?

EH We did land in the deep end. When we started we didn’t realise how much we didn’t know, so we were probably less nervous about it than after we did our Part Threes. But one of the things we learned was that we don’t know everything, and there are plenty of aspects of the job that we’re not that good at, and don’t have a particular interest in doing. It’s become easier because we’ve brought in the skills that we need and we’ve filled the gaps as we’ve expanded the team.

Naivety is a very useful thing, because you don’t come with too much baggage”

SA It’s good not to know what you don’t know. We’ve always joked that we wouldn’t have set up if we’d known what was going to happen in the economy.

Naivety is a very useful thing, because you don’t come with too much baggage; even as you get more experience, you don’t want to become too savvy, because then you just fall back on your experience. Whereas naivety is useful throughout your career because you’re prepared to challenge the orthodoxies that you’ve got into.

We have a huge wealth of technological expertise and research and support here, but it’s always used to back up people to be brave, rather than to reinforce set things. We have tried to standardise communication, but not the architecture. If you code and reference your drawings consistently, then people can move from job to job seamlessly, and learn across those jobs, whereas if you’re running seven different practices within an office, it’s amazing how much information gets lost and you repeat the same mistakes.

EH For internal communication, we’ve incorporated various apps for tracking what you’re doing or ticking off tasks, but the most useful thing is actually a physical board where we all pin up. It’s a 10-minute standing meeting at the beginning of every day and it allows people an opportunity to discuss why something might not be moving forward or how we can help if there are problems. For me, it’s good to be aware of what everyone is doing, and it makes me feel calmer.

SA How big is the office?

EH It’s only five or six at the moment. I’m interested to hear how you juggle creative direction with managing the business.

SA The four of us who founded it are still here; two of us run design studios, one runs legals, contracts, all that stuff, and the other is like the managing director who runs the whole business; there are 80 administrative staff and 420 architects, so a lot of people to run. The latter two lead the design of the office that enables the buildings to happen.

If you don’t design organisations, you end up with chaos. We went through all kinds of models: when we were four people, we’d never be 20; when we were 20 people we’d never be 40. And then we stopped worrying about that. We said, “As long as you’re doing the work you want to do, then it doesn’t matter how big, or indeed if we shrink back.

And in fact it’s easier for me to supply 220 people with work than it was when we were eight people, because it’s a reflection of the opportunities that come to you.

Portrait of the Parti team.

EH I find that one of the most challenging things about what I do. I am notionally the creative director, and Tom looks after the business and the development, but still we both very much do both – running the business, and a small team, managing projects, client relationships, sitting down to draw a stair detail. All of those things have quite set deadlines and feel very urgent, and it’s quite difficult to prioritise being one step ahead of the design of buildings, so I can help forge a clear route for how it’s going to go.

I don’t think we had properly planned out how we were going to juggle that, and it has changed a bit over time. Initially we were really excited about doing everything, but as time has progressed, we’ve realised much more about what we’re good at and what we want to focus our time and energy on, and luckily they’re quite different. So, we’ve been able to establish roles a bit more.

And we’ve been able to employ people and grow our team of designers, to fit in and help with project management. We’re not big enough yet to have a studio manager and a head of marketing, but hopefully we will.

SA It is a huge challenge because you’re five people and you have a million calls on your time, but I think that doesn’t change.

When you moved to Australia for a project, did you keep things going here in some way, or could you shut up the laptop and go?

EH We moved the entire office. There wasn’t that much happening here, which gave us the flexibility. In Australia there was very little infrastructure for building on Kangaroo Island, so the idea was that we would prefabricate everything in Shanghai.

We were interested in having a much closer collaboration with the construction company, and all the engineering that was going to be happening in China. There were maybe eight or nine of us then, and we just got everyone laptops and we moved into the construction company’s office and worked there for about eight months. Completely chaotic, but an interesting experience, and it did enable us to talk to the contractors about how the building was going to be made, which was important for us because we were relatively new to those things.

SA I think working round the world now is relatively easy, and you do it in different ways. When we built in Amsterdam we decided to do it from here, because we didn’t want a local partner. Working in India, we have a local partner. And in America we decided to open an office, because we didn’t want to lose control of delivery.

Technology does allow you to be engaged wherever you are in the world anyway, so I can be in Shanghai and be talking to people in London. It frees you up, but it also constrains you because you don’t ever escape.

We used to worry about all being in one room, and now we’re in different cities. We realise that the assumption that because you are in one room that you’re communicating is completely incorrect. You are communicating because you’re communicating, and you have to continuously work hard at that, irrespective of geography or technology.

Scale and new models of practice

SA There’s a lot of chat about new models of practice, but my view is the danger is they are all cottage industries, which will do one-off houses and interesting art galleries, but all the other stuff – mass housing, hospitals, universities and schools – will be left to big multidisciplinary outfits that have no interest in architecture.

Because of boring things like PI, if you believe that architecture should engage with large-scale social projects and infrastructure, you need large-scale practices. There can be wonderful small practices – as there always were – but if you don’t have the large practices, the danger is that this profession will be marginalised into the decoration of architecture, rather than taking control of it.

EH We are doing a great 30-year masterplan for a school in north London. They’re really excited about it, but realistically for us to actually be able to deliver that, we’d have to go out to public tender and it’s unlikely that alone we would be successful. We would like to do those things, and in other projects we’ve teamed up with larger practices to tap into experience and technical know-how, to actually be able to deliver those things.

SA Networks might allow you to do things that you couldn’t do otherwise, which is great. But culturally, I would suggest, if you’ve gone to Shanghai to embed yourself into a production process, you want to engage with the making of buildings and therefore you will grow because you will have to. Architecture, if you really want to take control of construction, is quite heavy on people.

EH Originally my preference was to stay as a smaller office and have greater personal involvement in the projects. But actually as you say, if you want to do projects of a certain scale, inevitably you’re going to have to have a bigger office, which grows and grows, because then if one project finishes, what are you going to do?

SA With the benefit of hindsight, you realise that actually you don’t want to worry about how many people you are, but worry about the quality of what you’re able to do, and the level of control you wish to have. If you don’t grow, you won’t be able to get the level of control, or you’ll only be able to do certain scales of project.

EH How have you managed growth?

SA When we were about 30 people we realised we needed to have a structure – we’d always thought we didn’t have one. We have a very traditional layered structure; it’s just line management. The main cultural thing is that those people need to be looking for and encouraging talent, because you are only as good as the people who are worrying about that staircase detail.

EH If I was advising someone on setting up, I would say that the team is the most important thing, and making sure that you bring on designers or collaborators that are good at the things that you’re not good at, and learn from them, as well as being open to everyone else’s experiences and ways of doing things, because you don’t know everything.

SA And you never will. The best piece of advice I got was from a president of the RIBA, who said, “When a bad client walks through the door, take them into your office, write them a cheque for £40,000 and tell them to leave you alone, because you will lose much more money working with them.” The danger is to think you can turn someone who doesn’t care about something, into someone who does. You can’t.

The other key lesson is to always seek to win work on your terms, not to mislead people by presenting yourself the way you think they want you to be, because once you engage with them, your true ambitions will unravel and the relationship will fall apart.

EH That’s very good advice.