AJ120 #06: Allies and Morrison

131 employed architects, 45% female architects, eighth position in 2014

The Fabric of Place, an Allies and Morrison book published by Artifice last year, comprises a collection of short essays by members of the practice, including old hands such as Paul Appleton and Robert Maxwell, and new faces like Alfredo Caraballo. The pieces were selected and edited by Bob Allies and Di Haigh, each of whom also contributed, along with Graham Morrison. Although the examples of masterplanning and urban design shown in the book are by A&M, there are enough references to precedent designs and ideas to make this far more than a practice monograph.

In fact, the book would serve as a good introduction to any architecture student interested in place-making, whether at the scale of an English village, an Olympic Park or King’s Cross (still only 20 per cent built out, by the way). Observations about vistas, density and heritage are amply illustrated in a masterplanning masterclass. Though they do not claim this, the book provides evidence that an advantage of architects making cities, or pieces of them, is because of their ability to think three-dimensionally.

The beauty of a successful masterplan is that its merits cannot be destroyed by bad buildings. Moreover, there are inevitably aspects to a masterplan which have little to do with the formal qualities of an architectural design – for example, the treatment of transport, water and sewerage. These are, however, matters for a general design approach, and this may be where architectural thinking has been underrated.

Allies and Morrison has managed to bridge the worlds of building design, masterplanning and place-making in a hugely impressive way in recent years, an evolution in the life of a practice that is 30 years’ old this year. As if to mark the occasion, the practice won an international competition for the biggest project it has ever been associated with: the new town of Irfan in Oman, a project that would be at least the equivalent in British terms of Derek Walker’s appointment to design Milton Keynes. The comparison ends there, since the Oman project is perhaps the most dramatic the practice has ever designed, exploiting geography and topography in an extraordinary way via a series of bridges over a wadi, linking a vast mixture of uses and communities in a coherent and inspiring way.

Given the lineage of this project in the life of the practice, most obviously the master-plans for the London Olympic Park and the Argent King’s Cross mega-development, it is tempting to ask whether A&M are now masterplanners who do architecture, rather than architects who do masterplans. Especially since, in addition to Oman, the practice is reworking Terry Farrell’s Greenwich Peninsula masterplan behind the Millennium dome, in the process rethinking the idea of the London square.

This sort of pigeon-holing is fun for journalists, but in reality misses the point. A glance at the practice’s current workload, which explains its two-place rise in the upper 10 per cent of the AJ120 table, shows that the appetite for offices, housing and educational/cultural commissions shows no sign of diminishing. The masterplanning ethos derives from the principles of place-making that are implicit in the approach to the design of buildings, which has informed the work of the practice from its formation.

The latest evolution in the practice’s building output involves towers, both offices and residential, which represents an intellectual challenge to the A&M resistance to icons, those ‘look-at-me’ buildings. What is the opposite? All one can say is that the expected craftsman-like quality of their facades may produce buildings which are good-ordinary, setting the scene for the occasional exclamation mark in a well-tempered skyline environment.

The £30 million sale of the headquarters it developed for itself near Tate Modern has been the financial icing on A&M’s design cake this year, but is no signal of a winding-down. This is a practice at the height of its powers, based on ideas, not fashion, and consistency both of design and outcome.