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November 11 2011

Eco-home developer BioRegional Quintain to shut

Property developer behind environmentally sustainable schemes will halt work after Middlehaven first phase

The UK's highest-profile sustainable developer, BioRegional Quintain, is to be wound up after its parent company, the property developer Quintain, decided to focus on the London market.

BioRegional Quintain, originally set up as a joint venture by the influential environmental charity behind "One Planet Living" and Quintain in 2005, will finish the 80-home first phase of the Middlehaven scheme in Middlesbrough, and then wind itself up.

BioRegional Quintain's chief executive, Pete Halsall, told this week's Building magazine: "It is extremely sad but it is part of a wider decision of Quintain's board to focus on its core business. My understanding is that Quintain wants to be able to express sustainability in its developments in a different way."

Halsall confirmed that the venture would shut, with the loss of five jobs. It leaves the Homes and Communities Agency's (HCA) £200m, 750-home Middlehaven scheme without a residential developer for its later phases, raising fears for the project's green credentials.

BioRegional Quintain will also withdraw from the London Development Agency's prestigious One Gallions project in east London, where it was selected in 2007 with Crest Nicholson and Southern Housing Group to build a model 260-home environmentally sustainable development.

At its peak before the downturn, BioRegional had a £350m development pipeline on six sites. Its most successful scheme was the award-winning One Brighton joint venture with Crest Nicholson, which completed last year and included allotment spaces for residents to grow their own food on the roof of the development.

The joint venture was dedicated to the 10 principles espoused by BioRegional Quintain's "One Planet Living" philosophy, including the need for developments to be zero carbon and zero waste, to use local food, and promote residents' "health and happiness".

Wembley developer Quintain bought BioRegional's share in the joint venture last year. Halsall, who will leave the business, said the move did not mean that the kind of development promoted by BioRegional Quintain was a thing of the past, and that he would shortly be announcing a new venture dedicated to "deep green" developments. "There is still tremendous potential. Quintain has to focus on its primary portfolio right now but this kind of development is absolutely still the future."

The firm's demise was lamented by two Stirling prize-winning architects, both of whom have worked with the developer. Peckham Library architect Will Alsop, who was the master planner on Middlehaven, said: "It is very sad news. This was a company very committed to doing things in a more responsible way."

Peter Clegg, of Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, which designed One Brighton, called the development a "great shame".

"It was a joint venture between some of the most conscientious sustainability thinkers of the past 10 years and one of the more significant developers, which had significant resources," he said.

David Curtis, HCA executive director, said: "While this is disappointing news, we remain firmly committed to Middlehaven. We are in discussions with BioRegional's parent company, Quintain Estates, to find the best way forward for their work at Middlehaven."


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August 12 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

A first glimpse of the soaring new concourse at King's Cross, Norman Foster defects to China, and architects wonder if they are to blame for the UK riots

In a week dominated by images of buildings burning to the ground, there have been at least a few people out there still building the things. The press was granted a preview of King's Cross station's new concourse, ahead of its opening in time for the Olympics next year. Designed by architect John McAslan, it is a majestically conceived space which stands alongside the Grade 1-listed sheds and replaces the cramped and grotty 1960s extension that currently serves as the station's entrance. We will have to wait until after the Games to see it demolished, at which point the ground it occupies is set to be given over to a new public square.

Its steel diagrid roof design owes more than a small debt to the one with which Norman Foster enclosed the British Museum's Great Court a decade ago. Since then, Foster's practice has grown at an extraordinary rate. That growth has been fuelled by its pursuit of work in emerging economies, particularly China. It established a team in Beijing in 2003, having won the competition for the city's new airport. This week, Foster revealed that he is planning to consolidate his presence there by building his own office on a site neighbouring the Ai Weiwei-designed Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Talking to Building Design magazine, Foster explained: "It will in part be public, in the sense that it will have galleries, it will have a cafe. It will host exhibitions by young artists and architects in China. It will have an apartment for an artist in residence. It will also be a centre for ourselves. It will have all the facilities for designers. We'll have workshops and model shops."

Another British architect who has been pursuing work in China is Will Alsop, architect of the Stirling prize-winning Peckham library, and rather less happily of West Bromwich's widely reviled digital arts centre, the Public. Alsop was in China this week when news broke that he had escaped the clutches of his employers for the past two years – the Edinburgh-based mega-practice RMJM – and set up a new partnership. This, it has to be said, came as no surprise. Thirty years ago, Alsop set up a practice called Alsop & Lyall before jumping ship to Alsop & Stormer, which became Alsop Architects, before financial calamity prompted a string of relationships with dead-eyed multinationals – SMC Alsop Architects, Alsop Sparch and finally Will Alsop at RMJM. An exuberant painter, Alsop presents himself as the artist/architect par excellence. But as his peripatetic history suggests, business management skills aren't necessarily part of the package.

Rather inevitably, discussion among the architectural community this week has focused on the UK riots and the question of whether the cities we have been building have contributed to social breakdown. The past two decades have seen an extraordinary revival of urban centres, after years of post-industrial decline. In the early 1990s, Manchester city centre was home to a mere 90 people. Today, that figure stands in excess of 25,000 – a story echoed in scarcely less dramatic form in urban centres across the country. The events of the past week have made painfully clear that the fruits of this urban renaissance haven't been extended to all. The fear is that many cities' efforts at regeneration may have exacerbated social divisions.

So what now? A particularly incisive commentary on the relationship between social unrest and urban transformation was provided this week by the Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, who is currently researching a book on the subject. His description of the wholly misguided response by the French government to the 2005 riots in the banlieues should be essential reading for UK politicians. He writes: "It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities."


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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.


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