Moscow’s in a hell of a hurry, New York is a devil for speed; while Geneva and Montana take the slow lane. On a whistle-stop tour around the world, Jack Pringle relishes the comparisons
I’ve been travelling a lot since my last column and I have been enjoying life carried out at different speeds. The comparisons are fascinating.
My architect wife and I are trying to build a new house - every architect’s dream - in the south of France. The locals are charming, but you have to do it their way, or suffer. That means doing it by the book; there is a rule for everything. The French take some satisfaction in their bureaucracy and, like their best meals, they savour it slowly. To buy the land and build a modest house will take two years. It will cost twice as much as we thought but with luck, we’ll enjoy it twice as much too.
Next, to Montana on a family visit. My late father-in-law, Tom Porter, the teacher, writer and colour expert, loved Montana. So we all went to drink to him with the school of architecture, in the Frontier Bar in Virginia City, to shoot pool, listen to live blues and to horse-ride the wilderness wearing Stetsons. We had dinner with Tom’s old friend in the house he built by hand on a hillside with a view to die for over the snow-topped mountain ranges. The site cost him under $20,000 and the timber construction was both fabulous and cheap as (bison!) burgers. He built his architect’s dream house, in the slow, friendly lane.
New York, famous for its speed and aggression, is bouncing back but a little uncertainly. US property prices are still going down and their massive debt overhang seems to dampen their ardour. But New York can still teach London a thing or two about property. They know when to do ordinary and when to do special. Goldman Sachs showed me around their 2 million ft2 new headquarters. It’s special, really special. Half a dozen architect firms worked on making it a no compromise banking paragon. But most offices in NYC are pretty ordinary. No raised floors or mineral fibre ceilings. That makes them affordable. Unlike London where everything new is built to top-class standards, despite the fact that rents have halved in 20 years and construction costs have relentlessly risen. It doesn’t add up.
Moscow is a muscular town. I rather like it. It’s big, with big avenues, squares and buildings. It’s a big capital for a big country. The Russian economy is definitely coming back. Russia is twice the size of the US, with a third of its population. With those resources, in a developing world, Russia can’t help being rich and Russians are in a hurry to get their share. I like fast projects but even I find myself rehearsing arguments over why we need a little time to do a design.
Manchester is no Moscow, but it is another straightforward town. John Drew, my new partner, and I pitched a 1 million ft2 masterplan and office design job there. Unlike other places, the developer had a city town planner on the interview committee and the final decision was jointly made between Manchester city and the developer. That’s a town where there is real co-operation between local government and business. They have no time for disagreements. Look and learn.
Dubai, much against expectation, is recovering in style. Perhaps it’s because it’s too big to fail - in a good way this time. It has a critical mass of housing, restaurants and hotels - unlike Abu Dhabi - and people like living there; billions of dollars have reputedly flown in via private jets. Anyway, it’s a town full of empty new buildings and my core business is filling buildings, so it looks good to me. Businesses are moving from the old offices that were thrown up in the first wave of development to the new grade-A buildings they can afford now rents have dropped. Then we can refurbish the old buildings.
This month I went to Geneva, or rather London-on-the-lake, for the British Council for Offices conference. Geneva is having its first building boom for ages as hedge funds, oil brokers and others rediscover the benefits of a politically and morally neutral state with a very favourable taxation regime. The Swiss are good at numbers and patience. They have a lot to teach us about property.
Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon