Following several years of breakneck growth, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the past 12 months has seen Foster + Partners contract in size.
The number of UK architects employed by the AJ100’s number one practice fell from 407 last year to 383 in the 2017 survey – a 6 per cent reduction that still leaves Fosters nearly 100 architects clear of BDP, its nearest rival at the top of the index. Since this year’s survey was carried out, Foster + Partners has made further redundancies but managing partner Matthew Streets says the contraction is now complete.
‘We recruited more than 600 people in the previous three years,’ Streets tells me at the firm’s offices in Battersea, where we are joined by senior executive partner and head of Studio 2, David Summerfield. ‘We had to resize ourselves to match the current workload but that’s done and finished with.’
Workloads have dropped because a number of major projects are now nearing completion, including the much-anticipated Apple HQ building in Cupertino, California, and Bloomberg’s European headquarters at 3 Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.
It’s also fair to say that Fosters is cautious about the economic outlook in view of global factors including Brexit and the collapse in oil prices.
However, a number of recent big wins, including a landmark hotel complex next to the Grand Mosque in Mecca and a £500 million new capital city for the state of Andhra Pradesh in south-eastern India, have bolstered the confidence of Fosters’ leadership team.
‘There is always an economic cycle but I feel quite optimistic, given the jobs that have come through in the past couple of months,’ Streets says.
Fosters has developed a reputation for successfully delivering megaprojects like these but it is also committed to small schemes, such as its forthcoming revamp of the Grade II*-listed Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo, or its Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, nominated for this year’s AJ100 Building of the Year. Projects of this type are often less profitable but benefit the firm in other ways, according to Summerfield.
‘As a practice we really value the smaller projects,’ he says. ‘All the small ones like Maggie’s or London Zoo take as much time and effort as larger jobs, so workloads have to be balanced across the practice.’
Summerfield’s Studio 2 is responsible for delivery of the flagship Apple campus, which is due to be completed this autumn. On the back of further work on retail stores for Apple and other commissions on the US west coast, such as a new mixed-use skyscraper in San Francisco for Chinese developer Oceanwide, Fosters has recently opened a new office in the city for 40-50 staff.
It has reportedly fared less well in the Middle East – previously the firm’s most prosperous region – and Streets does not deny that it has suffered payment issues in Saudi Arabia, where it has several ongoing schemes. ‘Generally speaking we’ve been paid well, albeit slowly, but we are not immune to these problems,’ he says. ‘We expect to be paid for everything we have done over time.’
I ask whether problems like this damage the particular Fosters’ studio responsible for the job but Streets says that a gradual shift over the past three years has created a more supportive workplace culture at Foster HQ. This has resulted in the practice increasingly operating as a single team, which shares the risks as well as the rewards.
‘If you have a problem … it’s a problem for the practice, not just for one studio,’ he says. ‘Effectively we’re now a partnership structure.
‘We have a management board meeting every Tuesday and that is about working together, rather than working against each other. It makes it a bit easier and a more fulfilling place to work.’