The harsh contraction in demand for new building work has opened a chasm between small and medium-sized architects and so-called signature firms.
While big-name brands, such as Fosters & Partners and Richard Rogers’ Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, are able to cash in on the overseas appetite for high-profile projects, smaller firms are struggling to make ends meet amid the worst downturn in building for 35 years.
Will Alsop, one of the UK’s best-known architects, said the difficulties facing less well-known practices risked harming the country’s position as a centre for quality architecture.
“Reputation is the key to getting anywhere abroad. But how are the next generation going to make a name for themselves if they don’t have the projects at home or the opportunity to go abroad?” Mr Alsop said.
Mr Alsop’s practice, which employs 60 staff, is working on just two projects in the UK, with the bulk of its work now coming from China, the Middle East and Canada.
“If you are really going to take any [overseas market] seriously you have to be there and absorb the culture, have to be eating and drinking the food and doing what locals do,” he said.
“The problem is cost. Doing that isn’t cheap and in some places there is no local talent, so you have the cost of taking your own people there too.”
Both Fosters & Partners and Rogers Stirk Harbour have increased exposure to foreign markets, while simultaneously cutting the number of UK projects.
As well as high-profile firms, specialist architects have taken their operations beyond the domestic market in a bid to sustain sales and utilise workforces.
Populous, the stadium specialist behind projects such as Wembley and the O2 arena, has moved from garnering about 80 per cent of its work in the UK at the start of the recession to just 60 per cent now.
John Barrrow, a senior principal at Populous, believes that half the firm’s work will be won outside the UK within five years.
The Royal Institute of British Architects is encouraging small practices to use UK trade and investment missions to bolster contacts with foreign counterparts.
“The big-name firms have done some of the really high-profile projects overseas, but the next stage is for the smaller practices, particularly those with specialist skills, to enter foreign markets,” said Richard Brindley, director at RIBA.
“In places like China, they now have their own architects to do big, high profile projects, but lack some skills, such as restoration of historic buildings,” Mr Brindley added.