Supporter's Column: Simon Allford

Director of AHMM and RIBA President, writes about the evolution of commercial architecture and role money plays in the future of architectural practice.

Educated Practice and the evolving art of commercial architecture


I recently read the RIBA Presidential address given by Alex Gordon, exactly fifty years ago. When addressing the energy crisis of his day, he coined the famous phrase, ‘Long life, loose fit, low energy’. The world in which he lived was very different – he spoke of the dominance of public works and public practice. Of fixed fees. Of the self-governing profession. But much was the same – he spoke of the importance of total design, of value not cost, of the need for good clients and of the architect’s responsibility both to their client, and to society. He also spoke of the irrelevance of RIBA's petty internal squabbles - which sadly continue to this day.

Even then, in those heady days of fixed fees, he chose the title ‘Architecture for love or money' a brave choice as, too often in architecture, money is too tight and too commercial a subject to mention. That is Architecture's problem, and one we all need to address.

AHMM, the practice which I co-founded with my fellow students Jonathan, Paul and Peter, has grown from four people to five hundred; and is now an Employee Owned Trust, and throughout our long held mantra has been that ‘ We make money to make architecture’. Architecture drives us. But money fuels that drive. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that; whilst good cashflow can but enable creativity, bad cashflow is sure to destroy it.

Stronger finances will allow us to reverse our long retreat into the ever more confined role that has been exploited by so many other professions. Stronger finances will also make our profession more attractive to future generations. Who in turn will help build an ever more dynamic and representative profession. One that is ever more useful to those within it and to wider society.  That is why I look forward to a future where the word ‘commercial’ is no longer derogatory - but is in fact celebratory.

We all know there is no quick fix to the challenges of Architectural Practice. There is much to be done in education. I support the classic Degree and Diploma course within which I studied. I am equally keen on the new disruptor schools, such as the London School of Architecture - where I am a Trustee. I learned much from teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and its offer of a conversion course. I am very excited that Apprenticeships (which must learn from the historical model of the articled assistant) and other 'earn and learn' courses offer a fourth way in. Now there is a landscape of choice the artificial barriers between institute, practice and academe are blurred and may even disappear. 

For the same reasons we must re-engage with the Architectural Diaspora; those who studied architecture but work elsewhere. We all know of the many different path’s friends have taken. But all declare that they are still acting as architect: in that they understand context, define the essential challenge, and then redefine constraint as the driver of invention. We need their insights as they will challenge our own.

Covid knocked the world sideways and now there is an intense focus on the immediate, immense, and long-term planetary challenge. On that Darwin wrote that: ‘The species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt to, and to adjust best to, the changing environment in which it finds itself’. Covid hit us hard economically but it also gave us all time to reflect; time to think (as a WW1 Admiral declared in the very difficult year of 1917  - 'Gentlemen we have no money, so now we have to think'!). When thinking we must however make sure that our focus on climate is not all consuming. For such a focus will be to the detriment of our efforts; just as the obsession with Tabula Rasa was detrimental to the efforts of those committed to building a Brave new World. Obsession rarely offers insight.

For architectural practice to play a useful role in addressing Climate Challenge we also need to have to hand the money that buys us the time to think. It is cashflow that funds the research that supports and extends the current competencies that ensure that our creativity can then be focused on the bigger project of the future; to think critically about Space, Time and Architecture. 

An Environmental Practice is an Educated Practice is a Commercial Practice. Only when this is accepted will all models of practice, regardless of scale, have the breadth of talent as well as the time needed be able to usefully engage in the leadership of the collaborative design project that Buckminster Fuller described in 1969 as the ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’. 


This article was written by Simon Allford, Director at AHMM, as part of the Architecture Foundation's Supporters Column.