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Fred, Frank & Will

7 Oct 2010

A change of the guard in RMJM's management has seen a raft of recent  high profile departures... and arrivals. here RMJM's European Design  director, paul Stallan, gives his insight into the background to the  appointment of fred goodwin, Will Alsop and Frank Gehry.<br/>

A change of the guard in RMJM's management has seen a raft of recent high profile departures... and arrivals. here RMJM's European Design director, paul Stallan, gives his insight into the background to the appointment of fred goodwin, Will Alsop and Frank Gehry.

Paul people would be interested in your take as a designer ... It is a radical appointment!
I'm not sure ...!
Oh go on Paul ... set the scene!
Éwell it only makes sense if people understand the overall practice context.

RMJM International
Sir Fred Goodwin is one of six prominent advisors appointed to help RMJM consolidate our position as the leading international design practiceÉ.plain and simple. Following Sir Fred's appointment it is clear that few people understand how we work as an international architect. Urban Realm asked us to explain our practice.

Let's be very clear RMJM is the only international architectural design practice with a serious infrastructure that is committed to a genuinely' contextual and sustainable approach. No other design led practice that we are competing with internationally operates or is structured like we are. SOM, KPF and Foster for example support their international work from a single major metropolitan centre. RMJM not only works internationally it operates internationally. There are two advantages to this approach: one, we deliver what we say, i.e. a truly global / local approach where our designers understand and respect the cultures and contexts in which we are working, and the second advantage being commercial, i.e. we are more flexible, opportunist and robust.

Commercially many of our competitors have shrunk their international network as a consequence of the global recession simply because their HQ has shrunk. RMJM has done the polar opposite. Our network and reach has increased. Our staff numbers may have dropped overall but operationally we are more connected and more widely located. RMJM operates from four metropolitan centres (New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong) and from these offices we have built a strong network of regional and political relationships. Most importantly our business model fundamentally supports a crystal clear design approach of networked and empowered global design studios.

Hi Peter, you do know it's 9.30pm on a Friday night?  Okay.  You want me in Casablanca for a project briefing on Sunday morning?   We are supporting Frank on a theatre project?   Zaha, REM, Francine Hobine and Porzamparc will be there?   Shit!   Okay I'm right on it! ... Professor Spiro Pollalis from Harvard is involved and is helping to research local practices that we might work with?   Great  speak soon!

Sir Fred is therefore one of six prominent industry figures who are special advisors to RMJM helping us to expand employment opportunities for our Scottish, UK and global team. Professor Sporallis, resident at Harvard Design School and Dr Vladimir Kvint of Moscow are for example another two of our advisory team who we seek direct counsel from.

A Design Led Architectural Business
There has been some speculation that RMJM is run by accountants and that the architectural directors are marginal to the business management... bullshit! RMJM is a design led business. If as architects we are not collaborating and communicating in this way with regards to our core business, if we are not winning and delivering quality projects on sensible fees for trusting clients we won't have a business and certainly would have no need of accountants.

Afghanistan! ... You have to be joking Rodney!  You mean the two projects that you are currently progressing are Glasgow's Custom House Quay and a new City in AfghanistanÉWOW!  You want me to go?  Shit! ... I'll need to ask my better half!  ...Our Dubai office will help your projectÉ.but you want Glasgow to lead!

Our Finance Team is, therefore, fundamentally important and a highly regarded part of our practice operations who we work hand in hand with as a team. Emphasis on team! Including Finance, the progress that we have made with regards to internal professional group support in the areas of H.R., Marketing, Communications, Knowledge Management, I.T. is extraordinary. All of this support is there to help look after our architectural team and allow us to better focus on what we enjoy most, design.

Evolution to Revolution
Rewind 10-15 years and RMJM was a tired legacy company, a hangover of the British Commonwealth expansion. Still doing pioneering work in the field of education but totally old school, old fashioned and completely introvert. A network of international offices existed but the Directors in each of these locations worked against each other. Hate is not a strong enough word, the tension and animosity between offices as a result of political in-fighting, money, power and status was unpleasant; the only thing keeping us together at this time being the Bank and our common facility or lack of.When I joined RMJM Alistair Brand and I were immediately exposed to a form of corporate cannibalism and global disharmony.  Our approach was (and still is) to dig in and show through leadership how to build a strong RMJM brand from the bottom up, again not just in design terms but commercially.  We also saw the opportunity to grow a local studio that could, through our wider network of offices, build an international profile.

Sir Fraser..yes the Scottish Government asked if we might suggest some other examples of a Scottish business that has succeeded in developing good working relationships with the US.  A number of Scottish Ministers and dignitaries are in New York for the Scotland Week celebrationsÉ.Some would like to visit the office and discuss our practice achievements.

From the Darkness to the Light
Pre our Scottish Parliament involvement, my former colleague, Brian Stewart and I discussed making an approach to Sir Fraser Morrison with a view to helping us fundamentally re-structure our company finances and shareholdings. All of or company shares were effectively with old first and second generation practice partners which was not ideal.

Sir Fraser liked our business and our ideas at this time for transforming and building RMJM internationally. Alistair and I had just secured the Falkirk Wheel commission with our team in Glasgow with Sir Fraser's Morrison Construction team and we were working with him internationally on St. Petersburg and on a new Formula 1 concept in Dubai.  Sir Fraser helped us at this critical time affecting no less than a salvage operation.

Overwhelming... Overcoming
The Parliament project around this time was a massive distraction and is well documented. My own role in Parliament was principally at the very beginning of the job when we were still looking at the choice of site, design options and fundamental briefing.
It soon became clear that not all of the Scottish Directors in the practice could be involved however. (Personally... I breathed a huge sigh of relief.) During this time Alistair and I basically looked after every other project in the office, a strategy that eventually paid off and one that effectively saved our Edinburgh Operations at this time and therefore the group.  

Our Edinburgh team was battle weary and suffering, all of which was obviously televised for the world to see! It was a difficult time for the practice; however, it was also at this time that a new direction and impetus was developing. Sir Fraser up until this point had been a light touch on our operations but was being encouraged to become more influential.

It was at this time that Peter Morrison, Sir Fraser's son, joined us. Peter's appointment was catalytic in changing our whole outlook. Our practice was at a turning point.

Hi Peter.   Riyadh with Will? ... Okay!  
Problem is Peter, Riyadh is dry!  
No I meanÉ.you can't get a drink!   
There are no bars ... Don't tell WilBusiness & Design Leadership

Peter is an amazing guy. I have rarely met anyone with Peter's energy and optimism for getting things done. Peter might not have had a creative background but believe me Peter is one of the most creative individuals I have encountered.   
Whilst Alistair and I stabilised our Scottish Studios, Peter went onto radically reposition our RMJM international offer. Scotland acted as a fountainhead through all of this time with a steady stream of interesting commissions of different scale and award winning projects. But significantly it was the people that were incubating at this time who would have the most impact and effect on our international outlook.

Our motto... 'Change, be the first and keep doing it...'
Presently our Scottish Studio is led by Paul Rodgers, Alistair and I. We have talked about branding the Studio ÔThe Stallan Rodgers Brand @ RMJM'.  Peter Morrison always innovating has encouraged us to explore this. Nothing is ruled out. In short our structure presently is three fold. We have the RMJM international ÒsuperbrandÓ that links New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong.  Secondly, we have our Global Sector Studios Ð Education; Health; Sport and Infrastructure. Our specialist Education offices are Princeton, Cambridge and Singapore. Lastly, we have our more ÒpersonalityÓ led studios. We obviously have Will in London, but we also have the likes of the German Design Studio, Lava in Abu Dhabi and Strata our international landscape team. We have also encouraged part of this Studio led approach collaborations with the likes of Frank Gehry and REX, the team formerly known as 'OMA New York'.

Frank you are kidding!  You smoked heroin with William Burroughs.   Fuck!  You must have gone to some crazy parties.  I had read you were a bit of a wild man!  
You're pulling my leg of course?

Architect or Bust
The Ôglobal local' RMJM contradiction is not the only area where some in the design community are confused. A major conundrum some have is that as a designer or architect you are somehow incapable of crossing the road by yourself, that you have a disability that (especially) renders you incapable of running a business or paying yourself a salary!
Just because you draw means you can't read or write or add up. It is incredible the number of architects that foolishly continue to promote this middle class foppishness. Well not me! I for one am passionate about design and I am confident that we are going to make the most of our skills not only to serve our clients and deliver great work but also to ensure that we always try to pay our staff what they deserve given their incredible work ethic and commitment to deliver.

Team the world is in free fall.  We need to continue to think radically about how we are going to make it through this global meltdown.   Yes Sir Fred's appointment will be controversial but he will together with our other advisors, genuinely help us to consolidate our international profile.  If Sir Fred can help us secure Scottish jobs and advise us on strategy then this initiative has my personal support!

The creative and business skills in RMJM are synergistic. Operationally as a practice we can always be more efficient, more economic, more organised but what really floats our boat is being vital. This requires a constant appetite for the unknown; an ability to respond quickly to new opportunities which some might think for a practice the size of RMJM would be difficult.  Well it's not! We are incredibly light on our feet. We have with great care put people into new and difficult markets. We have people in locations like Tripoli, Istanbul, Riyadh and as far away as you could get in Eastern Russia... Vladivostok! Presently we are looking for representation in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro.

Big is bad, small is good
Big is bad, small is good. You cannot be both a commercial practice and a design led practice.  Local is important, international is wrong...

Is it possible that some of our young emergent offices are boring copyists? Is it not possible that some of the most challenging and original work might be being produced by larger offices? I believe that there is the potential for more radical and exciting work to be driven from a larger group where there is a more collaborative potential, greater technical support and intensive peer review. Why not?

It is astonishing some of the sweeping assertions people make without a moment's thought about the business of architecture.  Firstly RMJM is winning! We are beating the recession. We are feeling the pain like everyone else is at the moment but we are securing projects and continuing to detail award winning work without cutting our fees to ridiculous levels. 

When asked to account to the UK industry press and explain our Ôcontradictory or different' international practice the reaction is commonly one of confusion. The sheer laziness or lack of insight by some to accept that you can be a 'big' practice yet have sensitivity and a studio based approach is staggering. 'Surely you must be one or the other?'

Take Henning Larsen Architects for example. I wonder if they as a practice operating out of Copenhagen are being cynically undermined for being a big practice that is working internationally.

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