Great architecture comes from collaboration—Brexit would be bad for our buildings

The free movement of labour has enriched my discipline

May 09, 2016
The Reichstag in Germany, which houses the Bundestag—the modern German parliament ©Sophia Kembowski/DPA/PA Images
The Reichstag in Germany, which houses the Bundestag—the modern German parliament ©Sophia Kembowski/DPA/PA Images

Britain is a part of Europe—whether we’re in or out of the European Union. We’re shaped so much by our common histories. But Europe is also the product of its diversity. During my time as an architect I’ve seen how open borders—the free movement of labour—has enriched the discipline. Architecture feeds off diversity: the diversity of skills and perceptions. And it is only through staying in the EU that we can continue to create a collaborative environment to allow architecture to flourish.

At AL_A, the studio I founded, we employ architects from 11 European countries, and over half of our staff are non-British EU citizens. They each have differing perspectives and approaches, different architectural and cultural references. This makeup is replicated in countless studios across Britain who work internationally—where talent has been attracted by our fostering of creativity as well as unlimited access to European markets.

In the 20th century, Britain went from the position of being the “workshop of the world,” when we sent finished goods across the globe, to now importing innovative minds and exporting ideas. It’s no accident that our creative sector has grown as our borders have become more open. Britain’s creative industries are regarded as world-leaders. As architects, we are not only creators, but entrepreneurs—thousands of people are employed in the sector and it generates millions of pounds in revenue. But this is about much more than just economics.

At AL_A, we’ve found that combining British and European architects makes for a powerful mix. On the continent, architectural training is more technical and encourages different ways of seeing and explaining buildings. For example, Spanish universities don’t allow students to present their work in person to their tutors—everything has to be in the drawing. When European-educated architects work alongside British-educated ones, who often have a stronger focus on conceptual design and narrative, we are better equipped to produce exceptional buildings.

While many British architectural practices have a Germanic or Swiss dominance, our office feels more Latin, due to a strong Italian and Spanish contingent. It has made for a more fluid and less hierarchical structure, where everyone is empowered to resist the status quo. This has helped to shape the culture of our studio, which nonetheless has a strong British sensibility.

And of course, British architectural studios produce work across the continent. Our projects stretch from Lisbon, where we’re designing a Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology, to a new scheme across 39 sites in Moscow, as well as a metro station in Naples. We have just been entrusted with the remodelling of the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann department store in Paris, an icon of the city that receives 37m visitors each year—more than the Louvre (9m) and the Eiffel Tower (7m). This project is about l’art de vivre à la Française as much as it is about a department store, so in effect we’re looking at what it means to be French.

In Berlin, the two most important civic projects since the reunification of Germany are the products of British architects: the Reichstag was transformed by Foster + Partners and the Neues Museum was redeveloped by David Chipperfield Architects. These two projects go to the very heart of German identity and the sometimes painful reconciliation of the past century with the Berlin of today. And yet these were entrusted to sympathetic British architects, who have created two extraordinary buildings.

The European relationship is deep and reciprocal. London's tallest tower, the Shard, was designed by Renzo Piano, an Italian with a studio in Paris. The capital's most popular new museum, Tate Modern, is by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. These buildings are integral parts of the city's skyline and its identity—they just happen to have been designed by Europeans.

This is nothing new—we are part of a European tradition and continental influences are reflected in our architecture. From our great medieval cathedrals to Palladian country houses to Brutalist cultural centres, our cities are defined by being a part of Europe. But all of these were only made possible by English stone masons or British engineers.

Europe’s craftsmen and artisans from many different centres of excellence contribute to making our buildings a reality. AL_A is developing a new entrance, courtyard, and underground gallery for the Victoria & Albert Museum with the help of two Dutch manufacturers. Tichelaar, founded in 1572 and the oldest company in The Netherlands, is creating the world’s first porcelain courtyard. Octatube, specialists in glass and steel, are making a 20 metre-long seamless stainless steel balustrade whose form echoes the TGV. Meanwhile, the perforated aluminium gates that will close the V&A’s courtyard at night are being made by the best of British manufacturing, Midland Alloy in Telford.

Being part of the EU allows us to use these connections. This is in contrast to our work in Moscow, where quality is hard to come by and importing is expensive and difficult. The raw materials for steelwork must be shipped abroad to be made and reimported before it can reach the building site. As a consequence, architecture in Russia is more generic right now.

As architects, we design the very physical manifestations of a nation’s identity in the form of its buildings and cities. So we’re naturally receptive to the idea of a Union that is social and cultural as well as economic.

Architecture is the product of collaboration in both the designing and the making—and the promotion of the possibilities of collaboration is what makes the EU such a powerful tool for people in my field.