Shareholders may be better informed after today’s announcement, but others may still be confused

What does SMC stand for? For many of the firm’s clients, architectural onlookers and journalists, the answer has been the same. Very little.

Nominally, the firm was so-called after the initials of former chairman Stewart McColl, the fiery Scot who seemingly viewed ARB’s membership as a shopping list, so many and diverse were his acquisitions.

But hubris did for McColl back in 2007, and since his departure from the company SMC has been an empty acronym, a rudderless vessel slowly sinking in the choppy seas of the alternative investment market.

Today’s announcement that they are rebranding is an attempt by managing director Chris Littlemore to steer the practice into less troubled waters. After a year in which they have updated the stock market only a handful of times (and seen their share price sink ever lower as a result), they have cut staff numbers, consolidated operations, and come up with a new name – Archial – that hopes to "organise the philosophy" behind the practice.

And lo! The 14 SMC companies will become five. The firm’s UK operations will be packaged up into one, its international operations into another, and Alsop will be given a division all of his own.

What to make of all this? First, the name. Archial. As a writer, I don’t trust names that are not already words. Archial may sound like a word, but it isn’t in the dictionary. It does sound vaguely architectural, which has to be a positive. It also sounds like a medical term. Doctor, I have an archial growth. My archial cavities are blocked. Scalpel please, nurse. I need to make the archial incision.

Second, the Alsop Exclusion. A definite plus. SMC has finally realised that where there’s a Will, there’s a way, and that their chief asset is worth “unbranding”. Will Alsop is the square peg of architecture even outside of the context of SMC. Credit to them for letting him out of his round hole – at least as far as branding is concerned. Whether or not he has been let off the leash in other respects remains a mystery. Not a difficult one to solve, I suspect.

Thirdly, the consolidation. A good idea. I wonder how many of SMC’s shareholders can name all 14 of its subsidiary firms. I wonder how many of its directors can name them all. By sweeping them all into one dustpan, the firm has at least put a structure in place whereby someone who wants a shopping centre can be assured that it is Archial that is designing it, not SMC Smith or SMC Jones.

But whither Archial? Alas, you cannot just create a brand by stamping a name on the product and hoping its philosophy will organise itself. I have not yet been convinced that this “distillation of SMC’s approach” is anything other than the creation of another anonymous, corporate firm with no more identity than it had before.

It was stunning how little of today’s press briefing was about architecture. Not a single building was mentioned. Of a coherent design ethos there was no sign. Granted, many of SMC’s shareholders will be more interested in capital investment than what the firm actually stands for. Today’s announcement may have sent out a strong signal to the market that SMC is taking its obligations to its share owners seriously. But in terms of spelling out what it stands for architecturally, Archial is no closer to definition than SMC is. It only sounds like a word.