When we set up our architecture office in 1981, it was a different world. Drawing boards, angle-poises, tracing paper, masking tape and dyeline prints were the tools of our trade. Outside the office, community architecture had become mainstream adapting to the new agenda of saving the backcloth of our cites rather than renewing and rebuilding them from scratch.
It was an exciting time reconciling lessons of modernity with this new understanding of context and continuity. Practice had changed, of course there were the old large scale practices carrying on the mega hospital and university infrastructure projects like Robert Mathew Johnson Marshall, but for the most part, it was about new ways of working, evening meetings with communities, measuring up flats to be renovated and low key ambitions of the hope of new build housing amidst the worthy restorations.
For many, how we practiced had to adapt, the architect had become less aloof, started to listen and accept the criticisms of the previous generation's production. Looking back, society's angst at the time focussed on the apparent failings of the architecture profession, it was an easy fall guy, self inflicted for the most part by riding the politically and economically driven bandwagon of post war mass building. Compared to now, architects rather than bankers took the wrath of a society struggling with unfulfilled promises and disappointment with the outcome of the heroic building programmes.
So two things came together that perhaps shaped the nature of our profession – the first was that demand for humility from our generation, the second the blasting apart of professionalism, by cutting away the bedrock of practice. The idea of lineage of endeavour, gentle evolution of tutelege, practice and partnership embedded in the cycle of evolving practices, so the city could have an architect like James Salmon, who then partnered Gillespie, became Gillespie Kidd then Gillespie Kidd and Coia. That gentle evolution lasted 100 years before it was broken on the back of this new world.
Professional practice fragmented, it took perhaps 30 years but where before an all round solidity prevailed now new more specific skills were valued – project management, interior design, space planning, theatre design, construction management. In the broader context of building budgets, these were for the most part not funded by increases in the fees but in thin slicing off from the budgets of the coordinating designers. Technological progress helped ease the situation with increased efficiency but in general architects were asked to do more for less.
We were left with the big question, how to argue for cohesion and unity in a world of fragmentation. Our answer was two fold - first, join the fragmenters, break up our practice into smaller bits, of job types and methods allowing us to increase our expertise in these areas but crucially in parallel create strategies to recohere these fragments into a unified whole we call architecture. The result being individual pockets of in depth knowledge but bound together with a common ambition of unified expression.
At the scale of the individual, the sense of responsibility changed. The individual was responsible for the development and articulation of a piece of the jigsaw for which there was no additional payment. Expecting that responsibility to be accepted without reward became untenable. How do we ask our architects and support to do more for less? It took us a long time but the conclusion was one taken by Arups more than fifty years ago, Assist Architects in Glasgow and more recently Collective Architecture, that the reward has to be ownership of the output and a sharing of any benefit.
And so the Employee Owned Business emerged as our aspirational model.