RIBA Client of the Year: What do the best clients look for in an architect?
The Architect’s Journal

RIBA Client of the Year: What do the best clients look for in an architect?


Kathrin Hersel

Almacantar development director Kathrin Hersel explains how leading developers select the right practice for the job in hand.

Selecting the right architect for a project is like picking the perfect partner. Each project has a unique set of requirements determined by location, use and scale. However, the unifying skill set for delivering great architecture – for both architect and developer – is a strong vision, a desire to push the boundaries and the ability and willingness to come on a journey, which often spans many years.

I have been involved in many different types of projects – master plans, refurbishments, new-build low-rise and towers and public spaces. I have worked across office, residential and retail uses and the public realm. The latter is particularly important, as it grounds a project, brings it to a human scale and has the potential to make it a destination. There are no easy or straightforward projects and smaller buildings require just as much careful thinking as skyscrapers.

A holistic approach is essential: designing outside-in and inside-out and thinking in terms of volume, as well as area. Architecture needs to contribute to the skyline or local view, offer a point of interest for passers-by, while also being highly functional for the end user. Buildings also need to offer the observer something to enjoy and explore, such as shape, material, adjacency to other buildings: even details such as windows or door handles.

Buildings do not succeed when designed in isolation; they need to integrate into the context and contribute to the area. Architects need to have a thorough understanding of local history, social and environmental impact, material, resources, technology, build-ability and commercial reality. They need to understand viability and find innovative solutions to practical issues like costs and budgets, always drawing from experience while pushing to create something new. Diversity in age, gender and cultural background within practice provides the key to a thorough understanding of these aspects.

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London is a world stage for architecture, with an ever-evolving skyline, which fuels the demand for this global city. Working in cities like London offers a particular challenge with regards to context. But understanding the location and history is just the beginning. In order to design the future we always need to look back to the past, often many decades or hundreds of years, to understand what was there before, why previous buildings on this site have failed, how the area has evolved and how use and user requirements have changed. Exploring all of this and taking inspiration from it for a new, innovative design makes great architecture. Good design stands the test of time and anticipates how uses might evolve. Do not get carried away by overcomplicated design; simple is often best.

On our Marble Arch Place project, the cinema has been there for hundred years. However, it was designed as a big square box above ground with a dead frontage, offering no point of interest at this important location opposite Hyde Park. Rafael Viñoly designed a contextual scheme, which relocates the cinema into the basement, giving back the area above ground to other uses. How we go about our lives and use space has changed hugely and will continue to do so. An increasing population, ever changing technology, accessibility to transport and, more recently for example, the popularity of cycling, all have a huge impact on design. It impacts on every aspect of design: how we use public spaces, the pedestrian movements in the area and also the facilities we provide within our buildings. Good design understands users and addresses problems they didn’t even think they had.

Centre Point, now a listed building, was designed as an office building at a time when traffic predominated over pedestrians. As a result it was also isolated and inaccessible, due to the gyratory system around it. Today we are moving transport underground, reclaiming the area for pedestrians and encouraging people to walk, cycle or use public transport. Rick Mather’s design offers retail and active shop frontages centred on a new public square, inviting visitors to stay in the area and not just pass through. The office floor plates were too small, and Conran & Partners is converting the tower from an office into residential units. Working with both architects on this project was a natural choice. Terence Conran, a child of the 60s, remembered the area and the building when it was constructed almost 50 years ago. His understanding of this listed landmark and respectful design approach was crucial in giving the tower a new lease of life. But it is just one component of a much larger project. Rick Mather Architects is well known for sensitive architecture and the practice mastered the challenge of designing a brand new building adjacent to Centre Point House, integrating it with the new public square.

Getting approval wasn’t easy. From first sketch to completion will take about six years, which is not unusual. In London most projects take between five and 10 years. Architects need to be patient and to relish a long journey. They need to be observers and enjoy engaging with people from all backgrounds: the users, the community and neighbours, the large professional team, the planners and of course the client. The ability to listen to all stakeholders and to channel different requirements into the bigger idea is crucial.

So what am I looking for in an architect? An optimist with passion and patience; a desire to explore and learn; lots of imagination to resolve problems; and someone who is brave enough to stand by their design principles in a world riddled with external pressures.

— Karthrin Hersel