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Wed 8 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Tartan talent

Jeff Roberts speaks to RMJM's Gordon Affleck about shape-throwing, place-making and the crucial role of Lego in architecture.

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RMJM design principal, Gordon Affleck.
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RMJMs DIFC complex has become an icon for Dubai.
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RMJMs DIFC complex has become an icon for Dubai.
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DIFC by day and by night.
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DIFC by day and by night.
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Gazprom Tower is RMJMs highest profile project at the moment.
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Adnec has been an icon for Abu Dhabi since its completion.
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Inside Adnec.
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Inside Adnec.
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Inside Adnec.
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Phase four of Adnecs development.
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Phase four of Adnecs development.
Tartan talent
Phase four of Adnecs development.

Jeff Roberts speaks to RMJM's Gordon Affleck about shape-throwing, place-making and the crucial role of Lego in architecture.

Architecture is many things to many people. In two or three words, what is it to you?

First, it's a ‘process' and second, I know it's a corny thing to say but, it's ‘people'.

I've seen a few masterplans where you have 25 architects screaming for attention, and all you really get is a mess.

When did you first develop an interest in the field of architecture?

During those sad nights playing with Lego. Drawing on the pavement for the rest of my life didn't seem particularly viable so architecture seemed like the way forward.

As a young architecture student, who or what inspired you?

The ones that really rung my bell as a student was Morphosis; I was a huge fan of those guys. The materiality they worked with was amazing. I also have a real appreciation for guys like Renzo Piano-the kind of engineering architect. There is a bit of a conflict between him and Morphosis but they both had a keen interest in materiality. What inspires you today?

I'm quite interested in landscaping architecture. In the UK, for example, you work on a single building within a defined plot. In contrast, here the projects are much larger and you have to concentrate on the space between buildings. I think that kind of masterplanning approach is the real buzz for me.

It's the difference between making places rather than just a plaza with a pretty building on top. Dubai is moving away from that, which is why I came back. [The Middle East] is starting to really become interested in the place-making scenario.

Everything begins by meeting the people involved. Relationships are built through trust. It's not like buying a car; you're getting into a relationship with these people for the next two, three or even four years…it's like a marriage.

Does your focus on ‘place-making' come from growing up in Europe or, specifically, Scotland?

I think I'm less inclined toward the ‘scream-at-you' kind of iconic buildings. My education was all about social consciousness and design for social engineers. It wasn't just about aesthetic design, but what was behind it; what was its impetus.

I don't necessarily mean just the theory; we were trained to always question whether what we were proposing would provide a positive contribution to the urban context. I think that's why masterplanning has always been a real interest for me.

How do you feel about the region's drive toward the iconic?

I think some of the best buildings always refer back to their immediate context; there's a dialogue there. I've seen a few masterplans where you have 25 architects screaming for attention, and all you really get is a mess.Everybody wants something ‘international' and ‘iconic'. But what makes an icon?

The best icons are timeless, which means they perfectly suit their context. I tend to move away from shape-throwing unless there is a purpose behind it. Architecture needs to be beautiful but form still needs to follow function.

How important is it to build solid working relationships in this business and in this region?

Everything begins by meeting the people involved. Relationships are built through trust. It's not like buying a car; you're getting into a relationship with these people for the next two, three or even four years...it's like a marriage. There will be ups and there will be downs.

From the client's perspective, as well as the architect's, you're always going to be careful with who you climb into bed with for the next four years.

As a major global practice, what's RMJM's formula for success?

We tend to preach a workshop approach to the design process rather than a ‘take your commission and come back in 12 weeks with a pretty picture' approach. We don't take commissions when that is the situation; we only take commissions when we can establish a true working relationship with the project delivery team. A "workshop" approach?

One of the key issues in Dubai is that there are several large offices, but there's a real shortage of skilled personnel in terms of architecture.

Our worldwide network allows us the ability to plug into our external resources if we need assistance. That allows us to avoid hiring thousands of people in each office.

When you've got an office of 1000 people, you start getting into issues of quality and consistent vision. Whereas we have a wide range of skilled people across the world who are familiar with the RMJM process and can be utilised for these projects.

What is the team at RMJM working on at the moment?

A big international project is the Beijing Olympic Convention Centre, which was the home for the fencing, pentathlon and all the media events for the Olympic Games.

Our most prominent one at the moment is the Gazprom Headquarters in St. Petersburg. We're also pushing through a few really interesting buildings in India too; we recently won an international competition for the new Kolkata International Airport and the Kolkata International Convention Centre. We're going through a lot of key masterplans at the moment but I can't talk about them yet. Masterplanner on one project, lead architect on another, design architect on a third. RMJM seems to wear several hats...

We're less inclined to go with individual buildings than with large masterplans. We're looking to work with developers that have a slightly bigger reach and have an interest in creating an urban input rather than just a building input.

That's driven by our design ethos. We really try to design buildings to be climatically responsive, which means controlling the interaction of the building within its surrounding context-particularly in the [Middle Eastern] environment.

Has increased collaboration between architects, engineers and developers resulted in more building harmony within the region?

I think there's been a big shift. From 2003 until now, I've seen a huge shift toward place-making rather than building-making-particularly from some of the developers.

I think there have been lessons learned-not necessarily mistakes made, but lessons learned-by new companies looking to develop. This kind of thing happens when people begin to see building as a partnership where relationships are built and aspirations are met.

In a market that seems to be expanding everyday, how do you determine who is reputable and who is...less trustworthy?

You've got to be careful. We've been here long enough to have developed a little bit of a sixth sense about who we should and shouldn't work with.We are working with a couple new developers who are actually an experienced management team from a larger developer and have since moved away.

We know their aspirations, skills and resources, and they know the challenges they're facing. We're always keen to make new relationships with people like that.

Is there anything particularly challenging about working in the Middle East or the UAE specifically?

Speed. This is an incredibly fast market. Also, I think getting a really well-defined brief here can be quite difficult. The development teams are working just as fast and no one has a crystal ball to gaze into the future.

Anything especially inviting?

There's a lot of flexibility in the design phase, which might not be the case if you were working in North America or Europe. The benefit for architects is that we get to be a little bit more avant-garde with our design. There's the aspiration to do something really unique.

Indiaand China lie to the east. The CIS is to the north. Africa is a burgeoning marketplace in both north and south. In which direction is RMJM expanding?

We've set ourselves up as a global design practice. We try to have a design house in each major region. We have 200 architects in Hong Kong, who serve Asia. We have 350 architects in Dubai, serving the Middle East.We have offices in Warsaw and St. Petersburg at the moment and we have large offices in New York and New Jersey. Those offices cover what we feel are the main regions and the fastest growing markets for architecture.

We'll start looking more closely at South America after we finish our projects in Eastern Europe, India and China. We're starting to put our toes in the water there though. We've been asked to do things in Africa in the past but we're really just looking for the right project.

Quite honestly, we're expanding organically. If we expand too fast, we're no longer providing the service we identify ourselves as unique in doing-that kind of culturally-based design service. There would have to be a reason to move before we'd consider it.

That said, we are working in North Africa at the moment. We're doing four universities in Libya, which are being handled by our Princeton [New Jersey, USA] office.

About 20 years ago, we had an office in Africa but we moved out for political reasons, and now we're back.

If you could have been involved with any project, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, what would it be?

It's really cheesy but I'd have to say the Pyramids in Egypt. I like big simple gestures. I don't think there's a great social consciousness to it but I'd love to do something that's absolutely timeless. How much more timeless can you get than that?

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