Why stop all the events and awards, just because there’s a crunch on? asks Tarek Merlin. Now is the time to work hard for your dirhams by getting some exposure
In these turbulent times, as our Darling friend Alistair puts it, it’s hard to stay positive. As we sit shivering under a thundercloud, doubting whether any silver will ever show itself on the lining, we are left to wonder why nobody warned us that this Armageddon was coming. But who could have foreseen such a sudden (sharp intake of breath before using the “R” word) recession, when not six months ago there was a veritable boom echoing round the industry?
Well, I know of one man who did. When I interviewed the then RIBA president Jack Pringle for Building in March 2007, I mentioned to him that I was planning to set up my own architectural practice with a friend. He turned to me with unusual seriousness and said: “If you’re going to do it, do it now. There will be a recession in two years”. I could have done with being a little more attentive to his advice, as it all came a little early. But is all really lost?
As I write this, Cityscape Dubai 2008 is in full swing. This is a property fair which, like everything else in Dubai, is on a gargantuan scale. In fact, it is the largest property business event in the world, attracting investors, developers, governmental authorities, architects and consultants from across the globe. Right now, as you sit glumly staring out of the window at that ominous and all too real cloud outside, there are hordes of people guzzling champagne in the sun, ogling each other’s paunched midriffs in an attempt to read the, by now, blurry nametags. Woods Bagot architects I’m sure will be there, having just announced a 1km-tall tower in Dubai, trouncing the Burj Dubai before it is even finished. The Burj stands today at a height of more than 700m but, in light of recent erectile posturing, I’m sure the owners are looking for a way to go that extra distance.
We wonder why nobody warned us that this armageddon was coming
Meanwhile, there may be a chasm dividing the Middle Eastern and Western economies, but we are not to be underestimated. All the glamorous writers, architects and gossipmongers (Wags) have flocked to Barcelona this week for the World Architecture Festival (Wafa) awards, including the “best in show” prize of World Building of the Year 2008. This is yet another global architectural event, held in staunch defiance of the global financial crisis.
The USP of this event is basically that there are more architectural gongs dished out here than at any other awards ceremony known to man. All the great and good will be there flouncing around, judging things and giving keynote addresses. There will be seminars, presentations, student charettes, tours and showcases. We are talking seriously high-end European archi-glamour.
And why not? Negative noises are already being made about going to Mipim next year, as people worry about being seen to be “wasting” money on marketing and exposure. That’s nonsensical to me. If we are to ride out this storm we need to be working harder to keep afloat than ever before because, believe it or not, many clients still want to build things. The question is, who is going to get the work?
Right now there are hordes of people guzzling champagne in the sun, ogling each other’s paunched midriffs
Nobody wants to commit to high-risk large developments at the moment, replete as they are with cumbersome consultant teams – every man and his dog on the payroll. But all clients, developers especially, want to be doing something that shows they are not stalling on their big projects. High impact, low cost are the buzzwords. Big name starchitects tend to eat up fee for breakfast, so it is only the lean, green, well-oiled architectural machine that will rise to the top. Small practices, too, can be well placed to lap up this sort of work. Low overheads and low costs mean they can afford smaller scale work and can be more nimble and swift in response to market (i.e. client) changes.
And by the time you read this, the Young Architecture of the Year (Yaya) awards shortlist will have been announced, thrusting forward a new batch of small practices into the fold. That architectural practice I eventually set up, Feix&Merlin Architects, is on the longlist and although it’s too late now to tell you to print the shortlist, let’s hope by the time you read this there’s still reason to wish us luck in pursuit of the final prize.
There’s always a danger that small practices, so grateful for everything they get, undersell themselves, but in these uncertain times will there perhaps be a surge in small businesses? Will 2009 be the year of the small practice (the Yosp)?
Tarek Merlin is director and co-founder of Feix&Merlin Architects