New London Architecture

Five Minutes with... Maccreanor Lavington

Tuesday 24 May 2022

David Taylor  
Thank you for joining me today on Zoom, both of you. It'd be great to have a look back, given your 30th anniversary, over your career, your careers, and as a practice, and ask you firstly, what you've learned about yourselves and about architecture and about the industry, and about the practice of architecture in that time. Secondly, to project into the future about where you're going afterwards. And, along the way, look at some of the key project milestones, and some of the key events in that period. So: shall I start with you Gerard, to look back to all those 30 years ago to the formation and practice and ask you both, actually, what you've chiefly learned about yourselves, architecture and the practice?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Well, the first thing is, it's surprising how quickly 30 years has gone! And that's definitely a shock. Richard and I have known each other from before we set up the practice at university. We are definitely sometimes like the very old married couple who finish each other's sentences. And we have very particular grumbles that only we understand, and surprise people with at times. So that's quite funny to be in partnership with someone for such a long time; and it continues to be interesting. Of course, when we started, we had no expectations as to whether this was going to be short or long, you know? Not really. We never really discussed it. We just started off in business and entered a competition and won it and ended up with a practice. So, it was very much that history made itself; it was not that we particularly set out to do something with a very clear business plan. We just continued to do what we liked to do, and we've ended up with a substantial business. And we’re here, 30 years later!
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) Richard, what have you learned, from your perspective? And what have you learned in that period about your relationship with each other, as well?
 
Richard Lavington  
Over that period, it's been working closely together at times, as at the start, and working more independently at times. Because obviously, Gerard lives in Rotterdam as a result of the first competition we won, and the fact that we moved the whole office to Rotterdam when we first started. Then I moved back to London to pick up the work back in London. So, in a way we've had periods maybe, of a number of years, where we've not worked that closely. But then of finding at the end of that, that actually, we haven't really deviated from interest in the same things and pursuing similar lines of work, and can see interest in what each other were doing. That that's been interesting, and what drives us to why we still work together, I suppose. When we first started out, through our education, we had people like Patrick Hodgkinson teaching us, who obviously was one of the big names in British architecture and housing from the ‘60s and ‘70s. But when we went through our education in the ‘80s, and started practice in the late ‘80s, housing was probably the most unfashionable sector to work in. And I suppose it's because of that education - and I worked for Neave Brown for a while, which was inspiring - but equally, it was on projects that weren't in the UK, at the time. I suppose that's what prompted us to enter this competition, which we eventually won one of the Europan competitions in the Netherlands. That competition win has defined a lot of what's happened since, because it defined us having an office in Holland, which defined the fact that most of our early work was housing. And then, coming back to work in London, actually, our first significant project in London, The Lux, which is one of those milestone projects, along with the first project in Holland, was not housing. But subsequently everything after that tended to be housing because the early part of our career was built on the reputation and the work we were doing.
 
David Taylor  
Have you ever felt a pressure to break out of a ‘pigeonholing’?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
At certain points, certainly, early on in our career, we had the idea that it could be much more... you know, you could look at many more different types of buildings and many more different types of programmes. But you realize that the first projects you complete do set the direction of the practice. And you realize that people will employ you again, to do something of a similar programme and of a similar size. So, it's very easy to pick up projects that continue to be within the housing field. And I suppose we've always enjoyed every commission that's come along. It's not that somehow we're searching for the better commission; we're always in a way making the best of everything coming along. There's always something interesting in every single project, whether it's location, community, it's in the clients, it's with the people that you meet along the way. Later, we substantially branched out into master planning. And we have a particular division within the Maccreanor Lavington called Urban Studio that only concentrates on masterplanning. The masterplanning work started around about 2000 and it's quite a significant part of the practices work now. But in some ways, once you deal with housing, you're dealing with masterplanning as well. You're dealing with making bits of cities, rather than maybe icons within cities. And it was a natural progression into masterplanning. But maybe also schools - which we branched out into, has also come out of the making of neighbourhoods and how important schools are to that. So it's that other programmes or other projects have been additions to that city-making programme, around housing. For years, we did dream of doing a museum or something. But I've long given that up now, because I quite enjoy putting the experience in the field that I'm in. Actually, being a specialist in that. And using those skills as a specialist is also very rewarding.
 
David Taylor  
Has being an architect become easier or harder over that period? And why?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
I discuss this in the office quite a lot. The structure of architectural practices is changing from when we first graduated from a very hierarchical pyramid structure into a much flatter, more flexible, everyone using the same programming, to ally, smaller, inter-reactive self-managing teams. And also, less people doing larger projects. And much more communication. So, it seems like the structure has changed. Whether I'd say it's harder or easier, I think it's very difficult to say, but it's a different environment than when we started. 
 
David Taylor  
What do you think, Richard?
 
Richard Lavington  
I'm not sure it's become particularly easier.  I mean, for the sector we work in, it would have been impossible, for us to get the breaks. And actually, it wouldn't have even been that interesting to work in housing in the UK in the early 90s. Because you were still in that period of the Thatcher deregulation of the whole sector, the closure of all the local authority, architects’ departments, and everything been driven by Housing Associations. Very much driven financially. That would have been a very difficult sector to break into. The opportunities that we had working in Holland, where there were far more architects working on housing... most of our work with housing was quite typical for many practices in Holland at that time. And we've seen a shift of the status of design in housing, actually, and the status of architects and role in the provision of housing. Particularly as density has increased, which is following the urban taskforce and things like that. Actually, in some ways, things have got better. Whether they have generally got better for the whole profession. I don't know. When we started our professional careers, you'd have already said goodbye to Fee Scales and all of that stuff – that probably was a better world, but we are where we are!
 
David Taylor  
So ,before I ask you to conjecture about what the future might bring, the next five or 10 years, both personally and professionally for you guys, can you pinpoint over the previous 30 years some of the real highlights?  The key moments? Your favourite moments as a practice, be they a project win, be they celebrating as a practice, going on a foreign trip, or whatever? What are the things that stand out to you?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Of course, winning our first competition, which we've already mentioned, was quite a substantial project; about 135, 140 houses and apartments is quite substantial. To have that as a starting project in another country; that's quite exciting, as well. And then Richard also mentioned The Lux building, which is the first building we've completed in the UK, so those things happen relatively in short period with each other. So that was a very exciting start to the business. For me, after that, I think it’s completion of some individual projects. I particularly like the building that we've done on Blackfriars Road. More recently, I'm working on another project near there which I really enjoy as well. It's also a tall building that's very exciting. It is some individual projects, but those first two really stand out as the formation of the practice - exciting in their scale and surprising that they came along.
 
Richard Lavington  
Yeah, certainly, obviously, that first competition win in Holland. And then actually probably the second project we did in Holland, because the second one was the one we got, you know, without winning a competition in our own right, negotiating position in a foreign country; that was really quite memorable. And obviously, that led to a growth in the practice in Holland, which was significant in the mid 90s to mid 2000s. And, as Gerard mentioned, the Lux, then for me, personally, Accordia. So anyway, that's the first significant housing project that we did in the UK. And obviously went on, you know, it was a great opportunity, it was working in the right city for the right client, with the right other architects at the right time. But, you know, that was a unique opportunity. And we are greatly appreciative, towards Keith Bradley, of Feilden Clegg Bradley for thinking of us when he was expanding the team, and to the client of that project. I think the reason why we were interesting to that project and to Keith was because of our experience working in Holland, with various housing projects we'd done there. And actually, The Lux was very much influenced by our experience of working in Holland, and the approach - the quite different approach to maybe the one we had through our education. And then more recently, projects like Great Eastern Quays, which is a large-scale neighbourhood, within the docks, or what's known, strictly speaking, now as Royal Albert Wharf, which is at the far end of the Royal Docks. But in a way, it's creating the sort of scale and nature of development that I suppose was quite inspiring when we were first working in the Netherlands. And having a masterplanning role on that. And then I suppose most recently, just the completion of the refectory for Ibstock Place Just being able to look at interiors and more of the craft of building inside rather, just the envelope,
 
David Taylor  
As featured in New London Quarterly, a fine magazine...
 
Richard Lavington  
Absolutely! (laughs) I wanted to end on that one!
 
David Taylor  
In terms of the future, then; how do you see that? And also, I'll raise the subject of succession. Do you have an eye on succession? And how is that as a practice? Do you think architects do that particularly badly? Or well? Or what? What is it for you?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
We are of course, discussing a succession plan. And we are interested in looking at employer ownership trusts, which many other practices have gone down that route. And it seems very well suited to design practices and for design professionals, generally. But I don't think either Richard or I are particularly thinking of retiring...
 
David Taylor  
No, no, I wasn't being rude!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
And so yeah, there's a succession plan. But actually, what's interesting is that you get to a certain age with a certain experience, and a certain gravitas, I suppose. And really, I'm excited about using that experience, and that position. I think that there are still many exciting urban projects and masterplans at a large scale out there that that experience can be brought to bear on. So I think it's just that every project is still interesting. Every project comes with its own story. And it is interesting but it's true that as you gain substance within the size of the practice, and within your own experience, t does maybe tend to some of those larger and more complex projects within the city, which are challenging and interesting.
 
Richard Lavington  
There's a senior team in the office. The office is only what it is because of the people we have working with us.
 
David Taylor  
Well, congratulations. Happy birthday. And here's to another 30 years in practice. When's the party? (laughs)
 
Richard Lavington  
I can't remember the exact date (laughs). But I'm sure I'm sure that's an invitation on its way to you.
 
David Taylor  
Marvellous! Marvellous. Well, congratulations again and I'll see you there, hopefully. 
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Thank you. Bye!
 
David Taylor  
Bye


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