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January 26 2012

Don't call me Sir

From Lucian Freud to Roald Dahl, creative talents have long been rejecting honours from the Queen. But why? Maybe they just don't want to be part of an elite gang of Fred Goodwins

Why are creative people so deeply sceptical of Britain's honours system? Previously top secret details revealed today show that artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry rejected honours from the Queen as well as such writers as Roald Dahl and Graham Greene. What made them so reluctant to be rewarded by the British establishment?

None of these artists were known radicals. They were not on record as being republicans – although Francis Bacon is said to have once booed Princess Margaret when she insisted on singing at a party. Simple politics cannot be the explanation. It must be something harder to pin down, something in the nature of OBEs and knighthoods and the rest.

In a perhaps not unrelated story, the government was wondering today about stripping former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin of his knighthood. And this might be a clue to the artists' snubs of royal honours – not that LS Lowry somehow foresaw the banking crisis when he said no five times. The fact is that public honours in Britain are bound up not just with royalty and snobbery and memories of empire, but also with the bonding of a business elite, a political elite, a judicial elite, and local elites. As we become more self-critical as a nation, it is starting to look like Sir Fred's honour was no exception – that there is something insidiously corrupt about the way the honours system binds the top people.

Why would a serious artist want to be part of that? Why would Freud want what bankers and police chiefs get?

France has the Légion d'honneur, which over a long period has established a reputation for rewarding cultural excellence. It is a known international recognition for writers or film-makers to get it. By contrast, Britain's gongs resemble an establishment club, presided over by royalty, in which no special aura is granted to the creative. They are not cool.

In 1950s to 1980s Britain, when philistinism was an overt part of British upper-middle class life, it would have been particularly unattractive for artists to join that club. These artists – including Lowry – clearly thought of themselves as bohemians and had no taste at all for recognition alongside mayors and newspaper owners.

Perhaps it is time to create a new honour specifically for creative achievement. Or perhaps that would just be a new corruption.

In some deep sense, these unlikely dissidents were not just rejecting the Queen – they were rejecting the tone of British life itself. They saw the corruption that others are only now starting to acknowledge. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 07 2011

Scottish architects RMJM sued by US staff

• Holyrood designer accused of withholding $664,000 in bonuses
• Lawsuit follows merger with US firm Hillier

RMJM, the architecture firm responsible for the Scottish parliament, is being sued by employees in the United States over claims that it owes them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Scottish firm – which gave Sir Fred Goodwin his first job since his departure from RBS – is at the centre of a bruising row with its US staff in which it is also accused of siphoning off cash from an American company it merged with in 2007.

According to a lawsuit lodged last month in New Jersey and detailed in Building Design magazine, RMJM director Sir Fraser Morrison and his chief executive son, Peter, have reneged on the $24m (£15.5m) deal that saw the firm merge with US-based Hillier.

RMJM denied yesterday that it had siphoned off cash from Hillier but said it expected to pay staff the $664,000 they were owed "in the near future".

According to the legal papers – filed on behalf of a number of US-based principals by former Hillier owner and shareholder representative Bob Hillier – the company still owes $664,000 of a $1.5m cash bonus pool promised to staff for 2009 under the terms of the merger agreement.

The lawsuit, which seeks to recover the money plus interest and costs, also accuses RMJM of:

• Asset-stripping and "siphoning off corporate funds" worth up to $8m from Hillier, now known as RMJM Inc.

• Planning to cease "most or all" of its operations in Princeton this month following the closure of its Philadelphia operations in June.

• Trying to disguise the fact that Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison are the "alter egos" of RMJM and should thus be held liable for the cash.

"In the last three years … the plaintiff believes that RMJM Inc has transferred to RMJM Group and/or RMJM Ltd cash in the amount of approximately $8m and yet … has refused to meet their obligations," the lawsuit stated. "Upon information and belief, RMJM Group's principals divested RMJM of assets, transferring these assets to themselves and to other entities owned or controlled by these principals, without regard to the obligations."

The papers added that RMJM had cited "cash-flow difficulties" in its correspondence and noted that Fraser Morrison owns about 10m company shares and lives in New York, while Peter owns 400,000 shares and lives in Connecticut.

According to Building Design's 2011 World Architecture 100 survey, RMJM is the eighth-largest architecture firm in the world, dropping down from fifth in 2010.

Referring to the allegations, a spokesman for RMJM said: "We're surprised and disappointed at this move, as it's well-documented that, like virtually every practice, we've had to manage our cash carefully for the past 18 months. However, we fully expect the final $664k payment of the $24m we paid for Hillier to be made in the near future and for the matter to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

"Separately, the allegations of asset-stripping are both outrageous and completely and utterly untrue. In fact, the direct opposite has been the case, as millions of dollars have been injected into the US business since the beginning of the recession."

The news of the lawsuit came amid fresh rumours about Goodwin's status at the firm. Scottish media have suggested that the disgraced former banker had not been seen at RMJM for weeks.

A spokesman for RMJM said: "Sir Fred remains an adviser to the business and we call on his services as required. This encompasses periods when increased input is helpful and others when we require to call on his services less."

Sources close to Goodwin insisted the relationship had not changed and that he was still an ad hoc adviser to RMJM. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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November 21 2010

RMJM: excess?

With controversial employees and even more controversial schemes, RMJM is now a byword for architectural excess

If you wanted to imagine an architectural practice conceived by Hieronymus Bosch, you might come up with RMJM, the Scottish-based multinational, which, with about 800 employees, is currently ranked the fifth largest in the world. Generally known among architects as "rumjum", it is a caricature of the modern business of architecture and, like all caricatures, it shows things as they are.

Its most eye-catching feature is the appointment last January of Sir Fred Goodwin, Fred the Shred, the man who led the Royal Bank of Scotland to the largest corporate loss in British history and who, with his £700,000-a-year pension, became the very quintessence of bankerly insolence, a walking concentrate of arrogance, greed and failure. Goodwin now pulls down a six-figure salary as a part-time adviser to RMJM.

The practice he joined was already at work on one of the monsters of the age, the 400-metre-high Okhta Centre in St Petersburg, to be built by the Russian state oil company, Gazprom, which endangers the city's status as a world heritage site and has brought thousands to the streets in protest. To be fair to RMJM, some of the world's leading architects, including Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, debased themselves by entering the competition for this project (Norman Foster, to his credit, backed out of the jury). It was just that RMJM won.

RMJM's other work runs from humdrum schools – a bundle of four in Glasgow, three in Midlothian – to a 46-storey tower in Moscow allegedly inspired by Rodin's Kiss. And Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi – a 160-metre tower that apparently is "signature" and "iconic" and "avant-garde"; a boot-shaped splurge of steel and glass, which, thanks to its 18-degree inclination, has attained a previously unthought-of superlative: it has been officially recognised as the furthest-leaning tower in the world.

To this heady cocktail was added the architect Will Alsop, who, in 2006, teamed up with a firm called SMC, which, after some financial adventures, became Archial, which Alsop then announced he would leave in order to pursue his interest in painting. Two months later, he joined RMJM, to run a London office called Will Alsop at RMJM, in order to practise architecture again.

Alsop is famous for the Stirling Prize-winning Peckham library in south London, and for masterplans for northern towns such as Barnsley and Bradford, which promised to make them into Tuscan hill towns or embellish them with lakes. He was brought into RMJM, like a celebrity chef for a big hotel chain, to add a bit of cachet to the brand. "In most countries of the world my name opens a few doors," he told me last summer. "They know who I am."

He has been given licence to set up a bohemian quarter in some old workshops in Battersea, south London, with a painting studio, a "gin and tonic terrace" and Testbed, an arts space "with no agenda".

"Our model is to go and enjoy work," Alsop told me. "Enjoyment is fundamental … the alcohol is the other thing that will keep it ticking over." The new corporate, he added, is "non-corporate".

It's a charming vision, if seemingly remote from the hard-nosed world of Fred the Shred. Does Fred understand what Alsop is about? "It's a difficult question," was Alsop's answer. "He's a very charming man and very focused on making the company run efficiently, and on internal communications. I think he's really clever. He has to be."

Of RMJM as a whole, Alsop said it "wants to grow through reputation and giving a good service".

Now, though, that reputation is taking a knock. A series of articles in the Scotsman and Building Design have reported that, in the Dubai office, monthly salaries were paid weeks late. Dozens of staff have left the company, including some of its most respected and long-serving directors. "Internal communications" (Fred's department, apparently) were said to have "come to a halt, so nobody knows what is going on". An American architect claimed that RMJM had "destroyed" the reputation of a practice called Hillier, which it had taken over. In the year after he arrived, it was also claimed, Alsop had brought no new projects to the company.

RMJM's response to all these claims is that "in restructuring the business to meet what are very challenging times for the industry worldwide", the company had been forced to make "decisions which were regrettable, painful, but necessary".

All this would be a parochial tale of a corporate hiccup if cities and lives weren't shaped by the works of companies like RMJM. Schoolchildren spend their formative years in the sheds they design and the citizens of St Petersburg have to see their historic skyline wrecked by RMJM's inane spike.

The company combines two trends. One is the expansion of architectural practices into multinational businesses hundreds strong, designed to compete aggressively on fees and job-getting.

The other is the reduction of architecture into creative flourishes by signature architects, which as often as not disappear, for cost reasons, before a building is actually built. Alsop, for example, came up with a diverting "concept design" for a pair of twin towers in Chongqing, China. The version that will actually be built, to the designs of other architects, are much more ordinary.

These trends explain RMJM's intriguing pair of signings. Fred does the business, Will does the art. What is lacking is a sense of coherence, an idea that unifies these disparate cultures, as opposed to a string of opportunistic decisions. An ethos, if you like, or a soul. Also some shred of sensitivity to the justified public dislike that both Goodwin and the Okhta Centre inspire. But then such things don't do much to win business. And, as RMJM's chief executive, Peter Morrison, has an MBA but not a degree in architecture, business is what it is all about.

It's the more striking given RMJM's history. It was founded in 1956 by Robert Matthew, who had the team that designed the Royal Festival Hall, that model of principled public building, and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall. Their later works included the Commonwealth Institute, now a listed building, awaiting conversion into the new Design Museum. From then to now, RMJM mirrors the course of history, from the idealism of the welfare state to the cynicism of the market-led present. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 16 2010

Sir Fred Goodwin given job by Scottish parliament architects RMJM

Former RBS chief gets first role since bank taken into government control at height of credit crunch

Sir Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, has swapped banking for architecture to secure his first role since being ousted from the bank during the October 2008 taxpayer bailout.

He has been hired in an advisory capacity by RMJM, the Edinburgh-based firm involved in designing the Scottish parliament which was completed 10 times over budget and three years late.

It is understood that Goodwin, 51, has been working behind the scenes for RMJM for a number of weeks and that his involvement was only revealed when it was announced internally yesterday.

His appointment was immediately met with surprise. Lord Oakeshott, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: "It is a strange business decision. I can't believe it will open doors for any contracts paid for by the British ratepayer or taxpayer."

Under the stewardship of Goodwin RBS became the fifth largest bank in the world, only to collapse into the hands of the taxpayer after the disastrous acquisition of the Dutch bank ABN at the end of 2007 just as the credit crunch started to grip the financial markets.

He was hounded out of his native Scotland to a hideaway in the south of France after the furore over his £16.9m pension pot which was later halved under pressure from the government and the new manage­ment of the bank. Goodwin returned to Scotland six months ago after agreeing to reduce his payout.

The taxpayer is still on the hook for as much as £54bn after bailing out RBS, which was crippled by bad investments in its investment banking arm. The ­government owns 84% of the shares which are currently worth less than it paid for them.

The architects, whose initials stand for Robert Matthew Johnson ­Marshall, said Goodwin had been hired for his international experience.

"We have appointed Sir Fred as an adviser to the business. Working closely with our executive team, Fred will be advising on our ongoing international strategy. He has a huge amount of international business experience. This is a rare [skill] set and one which is valuable and relevant to RMJM," the firm said.

Goodwin is not the first of the bankers involved in the crisis to take steps to rehabilitate themselves. Andy Hornby – his counterpart at HBOS, which had to be rescued by Lloyds – is now chief executive of the pharmacy chain Alliance Boots, which is owned by a private equity firm.

Goodwin's former colleague Johnny Cameron, who ran the RBS investment bank, has not been as fortunate. His attempts to return to the City at the investment bank Greenhill were derailed by the Financial Services Authority while his role at headhunters Odgers Berndtson only lasted a week. He resigned after UK Financial Investments, the body responsible for looking after the taxpayer stake in RBS, pulled a contract from the headhunters.

A spokesman for Goodwin said the former banker did not want to make any comment on his role at RMJM, which is currently involved in building the Commonwealth games athletes' village in Glasgow. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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