Architectural firm Metropolitan Workshop is not about star architects, even though it has been set up by one of the starriest. We found out why from David Prichard and Neil Deely.

Neil Deely and David Prichard
Neil Deely and David Prichard

Once upon a time, the brilliant young star at a signature practice had an ideal career path. They would spend 10 or 20 years establishing their reputation as the protégé of a great architect, before falling out, leaving, and setting up under their own name. Then they would in turn acquire the status and the discontents of a great architect, and the cycle would be repeated with another rising star.

Now it seems that more and more senior partners are choosing a different road. They see the signature firm as a trap: they worry about spending more time managing than designing and they worry about the pomposity and insularity it implies. And they are starting to set up firms that revel in a lack of hierarchy.

The pioneer of this process was Ken Shuttleworth, who quit Foster and Partners to set up Make at the beginning of last year and now spends most of his time walking around with a smile on his face. Hot on his heels, is David Prichard, who used to be the “P” in MJP, otherwise know as MacCormac Jamieson Prichard.

At the end of his time there, Prichard looked like someone in need of a holiday. Now, in the bright Farringdon office of his new practice, Metropolitan Workshop, he is clad in a red T-shirt and hobbling round the office chatting freely with his colleagues. Hobbling, because it turns out he has just broken his ankle. “I wish I could say I broke it skydiving,” he sighs. “Unfortunately, I just tripped over on a country walk.”

Prichard’s temporary disability serves to set him apart all the more from his young and funky colleagues, half of whom aren’t even there: they’ve gone to Glastonbury for the weekend. And with his avuncular, Richard Rogers-style charm, he comes across very much as the father of his new venture.

In fact, he isn’t. He is just one of a series partners. His legal partner is Neil Deely, a colleague from MJP, who at 32 is 24 years Prichard’s junior. The one thing the pair is at pains to stress is that the firm is not all about them. So take a bow Marko Neskovic, Tom Mitchell, Emmet O’Sullivan, Tomas Stokke and managing director Tim Peake …

“It’s very much about the practice, not Prichard and Deely,” says Prichard. “We did go over about 100,000 names in two months but we wanted to avoid our names or acronyms where nobody would know what the letters stood for. ‘Metropolitan’ sums up the kind of work we want to be involved in.”

One difference between Metropolitan and Make is that Shuttleworth’s firm has grown in a conventional way. Prichard and Deely – whose credits include the £400m BBC Broadcasting House refurbishment – want to do things a bit differently. Rather than forming a self-contained whole, they want to make it possible to work with as many innovative outsiders as possible.

“We don’t consider that our employees are the only people to influence our work,” says Deely. “We’ll be inviting external critics in for design reviews and we’ll be working with people outside the architectural bracket. There are a lot of untapped sources.”

It is here that Metropolitan has the chance to mark itself out from other practices. For example, advertisers may be brought in to help define a client’s needs. “We’ve done a few joint pitches with advertisers to talk to clients about how best to use their buildings to advertise themselves,” says Deely. “It’s not strictly architecture – it’s more rounded. Too many times an architect will assume it’s just architecture that a client wants.”

We did go over about 100,000 names in two months but we wanted to avoid our names and acronyms

David Prichard

And this is the reason that Deely and Prichard parted company with MJP. They see the role of the architect as building designer as too narrow. “We want to try and broaden the discussion of architecture,” says Deely. “We feel architecture has changed and is changing and we wanted to do this in a new practice. MJP has always designed great buildings and will continue to do so.”

In other words, working for a huge firm makes it difficult to react to events with the kind of full-spectrum creativity that Deely aspires to. For example, it’s hard to see a big firm devoting resources to working with film-makers to ensure that the architectural backgrounds to CGI shots are accurate.

“It’s a way to keep that openness of mind,” says Prichard. “Anyone who excels should be given the recognition for it. It’s not always the case in larger practices.”

The pair’s diverging interests from MJP have meant that both are on good terms with their former employer – unlike Shuttleworth, who was virtually deleted from history by his. Calls to former colleagues, who remember both as “very driven”, confirm this.

“It’s strange because David was around for so long,” says one. “But he and Neil and the others who have joined them often worked on the same projects, and formed a team. When you’re working in a different team you don’t see other teams much.”

Accordingly, they shy away from being typecast in one sector. The firm has recently picked up several commissions in and around the Dublin area, including a scheme to masterplan 8 ha of Adamstown in the south of the city. It has also recently submitted an outline application for Indescon Court on the Isle of Dogs in east London, featuring a 26-storey residential tower.

But the most eye-catching work thus far is a plan to connect the south and north banks of the Thames. Called the Thames Web, it is a string of gossamer-like cables extending out to a central platform upstream from Blackfriars Bridge. Passengers would be able to board a large bubble car linked to the cables, which would take them out to the centre.

“It’s intended to show off London’s best attractions,” says Deely. “It cements the public spaces across the river and provides a linkage. But the catenary structure is lightweight so it makes a low profile on the cityscape.”

While the audacity of the scheme seems to bear the hallmarks of a late night at Glastonbury, it certainly gives an idea of their ambition – and if it comes off, it will certainly put the firm on the map. Which would be entirely justified. It takes guts to leave the place where you’ve made your name.

But those who do tend to revel in their new-found freedom. Prichard, the wise old bird, and Deely, his young partner, are doing just that.