George Hay talks to Bob Allies and Graham Morrison, the men behind the ‘unfashionable’ architectural practice that’s all the rage with Britain’s biggest clients.
Bob Allies and Graham Morrison are on a roll. After 20 years in business together, they have recently won some of the country’s most prestigious schemes – the BBC headquarters at White City, One Piccadilly Gardens, and the Olympic masterplan. In short, they’re the first name on developers’ wishlists.
You might assume, therefore, that their firm was pretty trendy in an attention-seeking postmodernist kind of way. Certainly the practice has the trappings of architectural success: its self-designed offices in Southwark Street are on the great axis that connects Wren’s cathedral to Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern by way of Foster and Partners’ Millennium Bridge.
Yet Allies and Morrison is a paradoxical organisation. It has become fashionable by rejecting architectural fashion. Its buildings have cool lines and unfussy designs but you couldn’t call them overtly modernist or minimalist. If you were Piers Gough, you’d call them boring (verbatim quote: “Nobody would cross the street to look at an Allies and Morrison building”). This is style stripped of ideology, and its authors have a suitably ideological explanation for why this is so.
Morrison spelled it out at an awards dinner in July, where he delivered a speech written by himself and Allies that attacked “bad icons”.
By that they meant the kind of outlandish, meretricious landmarks that make architecture critics reach for their thesauruses. In Morrison’s splendidly acidic phrase, they were a “marketing strategy presented as cultural flourish”. Will Alsop’s Fourth Grace, RHWL’s Elizabeth House and (cover the ears of any children present) Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim all came in for a damn good thrashing as “ordinary buildings distorted into unnecessarily complicated shapes”. The main purpose of the designs, Morrison went on, was to draw attention to themselves, rather than to co-operate with the contexts they inhabited.
The reaction to this among those architects whose reputations have grown as their designs have distorted was predictable. Alsop was reportedly more than miffed, and we’ve already heard Gough’s views. It’s certainly true that Allies and Morrison buildings don’t knock you out in a Gehry kind of way but remember, that that isn’t what they’re supposed to do: they want to fit in.
A few months on, Morrison is unperturbed by the uproar. “The people who reacted were the people who had most to lose.” He shrugs. “I can only assume that they felt slightly threatened. But I felt compelled to talk because it was getting out of hand.” And what was forgotten in the media frenzy after the speech was that Morrison was not against icons per se: he praised Sydney Opera House and the London Eye.
The real reason the debate made architects sit up was because it was not so much about theory as personality. Where you stand on the issue had a lot to do with whether you see yourself as a driven, impulsive auteur who chain-smokes during interviews, or as a sober, sensible type who chats to journalists over a cup of lapsang-souchong.
And talking of personalities, Morrison and Allies’ personal styles are as polite as their designs. Morrison speaks softly but firmly, and appears to fit with the archetype of the Serious Architect, complete with turtleneck sweater. Allies is different, slightly more blokeish, but no less polite when he wanders in later. But neither is afraid of speaking his mind, although of late, Morrison has taken the lead.
“When we were training in the 1970s,” Allies says, “the dominant style was postmodernism, a kind of witty classicism. We watched these fashions come and go – they’d gain hold of the centre ground and then blow over. Sometimes it would seem like the centre of the world and impossible to get out of. It’s why we think fashion is very dangerous.”
Accordingly, the pair hold up their hands when the cool kids say they’re a bit square.
It is possible to be very passionate and worked up about being rational. If that’s conservative, then I’ll admit to it
“As a firm, we’re not cutting edge,” concedes Morrison, “but I think it is possible to stand up from the middle and be diagnostic. It is possible to be very passionate and worked up about being rational. If that’s conservative, then I’ll admit to it.”
Allies nods in agreement and goes on to explain what it was that turned him on to architecture during his childhood. “I did architecture because it was a social act,” he says. “In post-war Hertfordshire, they were building a new school every month. Architects were the people who allowed it to happen. I never thought about it in terms of status.”
Allies has been unperturbed by status ever since he joined the Covent Garden offices of architect Martin Richardson in the early 1980s. The first project he was put on was a housing project in Milton Keynes. Its team leader was a Cambridge graduate called Graham Morrison. “You were my assistant, actually,” remembers Morrison, with a smirk.
The initial hierarchy is still faintly in evidence today. In terms of profile, Morrison is the bigger hitter, with his long-standing role at CABE and his headlining role in the icons affair. Allies tends to dip in to the conversation, although it is clear that office theory is developed together, even if it is publicly articulated by Morrison. This co-operative structure will increase in three years when six staff who have been at the firm since the 1980s – David Amaresekara, Paul Appleton, Joanna Bacon, Chris Bearman, Robert Maxwell and Josephine Saunders – are made equity partners.
Another factor behind Allies and Morrison’s success is that they are in harmony with current government thinking. Everyone from John Prescott to RIBA president George Ferguson is desperate for architects to stop babbling about aesthetics and develop their planning and placemaking knowledge. Prescott may bang on about his “wow” factor, but his communities plan, earmarking areas for housing growth, is all about delivering buildings that co-operate with their context.
And this is Morrison’s position, too. He likes St Christopher’s Place, just off Oxford Street in London. This has a variety of continental-style restaurants and shops: “If I ask you why it’s such a good place, I guarantee you won’t be able to name a single building. It works because of the layout of the area,” he says.
Allies and Morrison’s low profile may also help them to expand into PFI healthcare. “Hospitals are terribly interesting because we see them partly as buildings, partly as organisations and partly as part of a city.
We would love to unravel the problems of a hospital,” says Morrison, licking his lips.
Morrison and Allies buck the trend of the “difficult” architect, and want people to know it. “We strive to avoid arrogance in our work,” says Morrison, before sheepishly agreeing with Allies that the statement is in itself arrogant. But they don’t need to worry. Even Piers Gough, now that he has calmed down, has a gracious word for them. “I took issue with him on the issue of iconic architecture,” he says, “but Allies and Morrison buildings are well known for being well-crafted and eloquent.”
For those who want to create skyscrapers in the form of bananas, or hospitals in the shape of a blancmange, there are plenty of artist-architects around to sign up, and they are indeed achingly fashionable. For everyone else, there’s Allies and Morrison.