Historically, architects over here have made little impression on architecture over there. Now Hopkins, Hadid, Chipperfield, Adjaye, Foster and another dozen top designers have taken America by storm. We find out why they’ve become so popular so suddenly

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the late 1980s.

We’re in Bonfire of the Vanities territory: Big Bang has exploded in the City. Gents with furled umbrellas and bowler hats have given way to Masters of the Universe with seven-figure bonuses and Porsche 911s that are as red as their braces. Britain is in the grip of a massive boom and others – particularly the Americans finance houses – are quick to realise it. It’s not just their banks that come over; so do their architects: Gensler, HOK, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill … one by one, they all opened offices in London.

More than a decade on, the Big Bang is a distant glow, but the Americans are an established part of the UK architectural scene. The eight big names are Gensler, SOM, HOK, Kohn Pedersen Fox, RTKL, Swanke Hayden Connell and two joint ventures, RyderHKS and Anshen Dyer. Together they carve out a decent slice of the UK’s corporate, commercial and – increasingly – its sports work. They use London as a springboard for Europe. They are part of the RIBA-award-winning establishment.

Despite the much-vaunted “special relationship” between Britain and the USA, America has been largely a closed market to British architects for most of the 20th century. The famous influx of wartime European émigrés – Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and so on – didn’t include any Brits, and few have followed since. Trade restrictions and a disinclination to look beyond national borders mean few have even tried.

But not any more. Hardly a week goes by without an announcement of yet another job won by a British firm in the States. Foster and Partners, Richard Rogers Partnership, Grimshaw, Hopkins Architects, David Chipperfield Architects, Wilkinson Eyre, Rick Mather, John McAslan + Partners, Zaha Hadid, David Adjaye, Munkenbeck + Marshall, Níall McLaughlin … the list of British firms winning high-profile jobs in the States goes on and on.

The appeal – for the Brits – is obvious. The US construction market is the biggest national market in the world, worth about £470bn. Last year it grew 9%, its strongest showing since 2001, and according to Davis Langdon & Seah International only the Chinese market is growing more quickly. DLSI predicts that demand will slow slightly during 2005 to about 5% a year, and continue at that kind of level until at least 2008. “The scale of the market means there are huge opportunities out here,” says Andrew Whalley, director of Grimshaw’s New York office. David Adjaye agrees: 40% of Adjaye/Associates’ work is now in the USA and it is looking to set up a permanent New York base. “Having two economic continents to work in just makes sense,” he says.

The British invasion has not happened in response to a structural change comparable to Big Bang; America has always been a huge market and there have been sustained periods of growth in the past. So why the sudden interest in British architecture?

There are a lot of competent US architects, but today the high-profile ones – with the exception of Gehry and Meier – tend to be Europeans

Jim Baker, The American Institute of Architects

Jim Baker, the president of the American Institute of Architects’ UK Chapter, says you need to go back a few years to answer that. “In the post-war years, the highest profile architects on the world scene were American – Mies and Gropius and Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames … You didn’t need to look elsewhere,” he says. “Those days are gone. There are a lot of competent US architects, but today the high-profile ones – with the exception of Frank Gehry and possibly Richard Meier – tend to be Europeans.”

It’s a view shared by David Burney, commissioner for New York’s influential Department of Design and Construction: “Post-Robert Venturi [that is, from the rise of postmodernism in the 1980s] you can count the good new buildings in New York on one hand. In Britain you had the whole high-tech experience. In Japan and much of Europe interesting things were being done. Not here. With Renzo Piano, Christian de Portzamparc and Norman Foster now building here, the city has woken up.”

Commissioner Burney describes what’s happening in New York as a “renaissance of architecture in the city”. Industry experts forecast that £19bn will be spent on construction in the city over the next 10 years, in addition to the normal annual spend of £8.3bn. The changes began before 9/11. In the private sector, increasing property prices have focused developers’ minds on quality. In the public sector, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration is the first to consistently champion good design in 30 years. Over the past five years, City Hall has spent £520m a year on some 400 public projects.

“The public outcry against the first designs for the World Trade Centre site would not have happened 10 years ago,” says Burney. “Today, people are interested in design. That very healthy.”

The events of 9/11 obviously had a huge effect. Foster and Partners lost out to Studio Libeskind in the competition to redesign Ground Zero, but other practices have picked up associated work. Grimshaw is designing the Fulton Street transport interchange, which connects commuter trains and ferries at the former World Trade Centre site and Níall McLaughlin is working on entrance structures for the Battery Park subway.

But interestingly, it’s not just happening in the liberal coastal states. British practices are getting work across the US. British firms are working in, among other places: Alaska (Chipperfield), Arizona (Hopkins), Dallas (Foster), Denver (Adjaye), Iowa (Chipperfield), Michigan (Munkenbeck + Marshall), Missouri (Grimshaw), Oklahoma (Hadid), Virginia (Mather) and Washington DC (Foster, Rogers, Wilkinson Eyre).

There are lots of things we can learn from British experience. I’m talking about borrowing the British QSs system

David Burney, New York design commissioner

What’s striking is that the work is predominantly made up of cultural and education buildings. Both types of institution benefit from generous patrons, motivated by a desire to leave their mark. “Working in the States is very rewarding,” says Spencer de Grey of Foster and Partners. “When you are working with an individual who is giving a large amount of money directly – as Bill Winspear is at the Dallas Opera House – it creates a real bond.”

The recent experience of lottery-funded cultural projects places British architects in a good position to pick up museum and gallery work. What’s more surprising is that British architects’ environmental expertise is also in demand. Green architecture may not be widespread yet but it’s starting to be a selling point with some clients. “There’s a huge interest in sustainability,’ says de Grey, “In some ways attitudes are more sophisticated than in the UK.”

Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York will be the first skyscraper to achieve a gold LEED rating (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the US equivalent of our BREEAM system). Hopkins is currently on site with an applied research and development building for Northern Arizona University, one of only six US buildings to achieve a platinum LEED rating, the toughest ranking of all. And Grimshaw is one of only eight firms to have a framework agreement with New York’s DDC for projects of £2.6m and more – all of which have to be LEED rated.

Environmental design is a classic example of collaborative working; a discipline where the boundaries between architect and engineer blur. Again and again, British architects say that one of their selling points is their collaborative approach. In a litigious culture like that of the States, where architects often only produce outline drawings, the British tradition is appealingly different. “They like the kind of integrated service we offer where architecture and engineering meet,” says Wilkinson Eyre’s Jim Eyre, who is working at the National Building Museum in Washington and elsewhere.

British consultants have been critical to the success of British architects in the States. Arup, Buro Happold, Davis Langdon and others have helped pioneer the way, opening up offices across America. Complex licensing rules mean that British architects generally have to team up with local, state-registered practices to build, but many chose to work with British consultants.

The experience is starting to rub off in unexpected ways. “There are lots of things we can learn from British experience,” says New York’s commissioner Burney. “I’m talking about borrowing some ideas like the British QS system, which does not really exist here.” He says he would also like to get Fosters and Rogers involved in projects in the city. The transatlantic traffic looks set to grow.

The big three: Citizen Kane’s Tower

The Hearst Tower is unusual in being a commercial project by a British firm in the USA.

It is also Foster’s first Manhattan scheme. The 42-storey tower tops publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst six-storey block in New York’s Columbus Circle, built in 1928 and always intended to be extended. When finished it will provide almost 1 million ft2 of space.

The building’s triangulated structure is already visible. Made from recycled stainless steel, the frame is part of a package of environmental measures that mean the tower will achieve a gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating – the only American skyscraper to do so.

Foster’s skyscraper appears to float above the old base. Lifts will whisk those using the tower up through an elliptical void to a huge communal space, with cafes, restaurants, exhibition and landscaped meeting areas.

The big three: Desert oasis

Commissions come in unexpected ways. At an international association of university estates directors, Hopkins’ client from Nottingham University met the director of estates at North Arizona University. He was interested in environmental design and was looking for someone to build a state-of-the-art 60,000 ft2 research facility. He liked what he heard about Hopkins’ award-winning work in Nottingham.

“Contrary to popular opinion, there is a lot of environmental progress being made in the States, it’s a strong undercurrent,” says Hopkins’ Bill Taylor.

Hopkins won the project in competition. “What they wanted was an approach, not a scheme at that point,” Taylor says. “The process was very rigorous – much more so than Official Journal submissions here. It was quite a learning curve.” One of the key criteria was that the building should meet the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating – the highest green rating in the States. “That’s quite difficult,” Taylor says. “The criteria are very stringent. There is much more emphasis on renewable energy and sourcing local materials than there is here. Everything has to come from within a 500-mile radius – which isn’t so easy when you are in the middle of the desert.” The building is currently on site and due to finish in 2007.

The big three: Mile-high museum

The triumph of “daring over experience” was how Denver Post announced the decision, in April last year, to appoint Adjaye/Associates to design a £2.6m home for Denver’s hitherto itinerant Museum of Contemporary Art.

Adjaye’s practice was one of 80 chosen to submit expressions of interests. Adjaye was chosen from an international shortlist that included TEN Arquitectos of Mexico, Snøhetta of Norway, Rick Joy Architects of Arizona, Predock_Frane of New Mexico and Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York.

Starting on site this August, Adjaye/Associates’ 30,000 ft2 building provides the museum with spaces for galleries, education, lectures and movies and an outdoor sculpture centre.

Museum director Cydney Payton said one key reason why Adjaye was selected was his strong sense of the museum’s mission. Of all the architects, she said, he showed the “clearest understanding of contemporary art theory, practice and presentation”.