Austin-Smith:Lord has been delivering the highest degree of creative and practical thought in architecture since 1949. Our celebrated history has given rise to many buildings of national importance, and over 150 awards and commendations for outstanding architectural and environmental design. We’ve worked on over 5000 projects in that time, during which we have grown into and worked from no less than 22 buildings, calling on some 30 partners. We were founded by two people, Mike and Inette Austin-Smith. Today we number 5 partners and 50+ employees across four locations within the UK.
Inette and Mike Austin-Smith met in 1946 as they resumed architectural studies that had been interrupted by the war. Two years later they were married, and in 1949 JM Austin-Smith and Partner was founded. Later Mike Austin-Smith would cite how teamworking and esprit de corps were an integral part of his war experience with the Royal Horse Artillery (he was awarded the Military Cross), and how he had learned the meaning of professional responsibility the hard way. The ethos of teamwork and professional responsibility became engrained in the practice that bore his name, and have remained ever since.The other key tenet of the Practice from the start was the insistence on the attention given to the client. The couple quickly learned the importance of involving clients closely throughout the process. Learning to access and understand what clients wanted meant they were able to provide it. This generated repeat business. The Practice grew on the back of it. They began in a small space in a woollen warehouse provided by Inette’s father. Later they moved to No. 29 Sackville Street, where they went on to take the whole of the second floor, and over time the three above that. It was their main office until 1962.
In the 1940s and 50s the environment in which architects worked was very different from today. There were fixed RIBA fee scales and advertising was not permitted: work had to be won by reputation and word of mouth. Both Austin-Smiths became involved in architectural politics, establishing themselves at its forefront, with especially close ties to the Architectural Association and the Royal Institute of British Architects. As time went on and their influence and profile grew, they took an influential role in how the profession defined and redefined itself, most notably with the industry-changing survey “The Architect in his Office” in 1962 and the publications which followed it. Mike Austin-Smith was President of the Architectural Association from 1961-62, Vice-President of the RIBA rwice, from 1962-64 and 1972-74 and was awarded a CBE for his services to architecture in 1965.The architectural work of the Practice in these early days was, as a policy, widespread, characterised by schools, factories and warehouses, offices, shopfitting and residential projects as well as surveys and reparations of war damage. From the beginning many projects were “repeat orders” from satisfied clients. In the first eleven years the Practice undertook or followed up enquiries on more than fifty projects for the Moores Group, seventeen for Willtons and eleven for Taylor Bros (all retailers).
NEW PARTNERS, NEW POSSIBILITIES, NEW PLACESThe Partnership grew. Peter Lord and Geoffrey Salmon were made partners in 1956 (the Practice was renamed Austin-Smith/Salmon/Lord in 1963, and when Salmon left in 1969 the name became Austin-Smith:Lord, as it has remained since. Peter Lord was later made President of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (now the Chartered Society of Designers) in 1969, and also rose to the top of the International Congress of Societies of Industrial Designers (ICSID).)
New studios opened in Warrington at the end of the sixties, then in Mold, Wales, and the Practice moved to 40-42 Lexington Street in Soho to house the ever-increasing payroll in London. In the sixties Austin-Smith:Lord continued winning new commissions in housing, offices, factories and warehouses, schools and fitting out. It developed its planning skills. It continued to attract repeat commissions from its clients – including more than 30 public houses for Finchs, 50 housing projects – many for the Air Ministry and the MoPBW at military bases, plus sixteen housing projects for the London Borough of Hillingdon.
Our work in the 70s changed to reflect new markets, notably many space planning and interior design projects, including more than 70 for IBM; we undertook further planning studies, as well as continued work in the fields of residential, education and retail design, including some 20 projects for Burton’s menswear.Even in the 1960s the Practice had closely followed the rise of the computer and later the shrinking of the microchip, and in 1983 were one of the first to invest in a CAD system, at considerable expense, with workstations installed in London and Warrington and connected by a kilostream telephone line. The first major application of the CAD system were the designs for Barclays Bank’s public areas upgrade in 1987: 155 were completed in a year. In order to maximise the use of this expensive kit in London we rationed each user to a two hour session and offered staff a reduced working day if they came in outside the standard working hours (09.00-17.30) to use the machines. How times have changed.
An era ended when Mike and Inette Austin-Smith retired in 1981.The work of the Practice in the 1980s was characterised by the growth of computer-aided design and drafting, consolidation and growth in the Warrington studio and an increased concentration upon space planning and office fit-outs in London. We continued to receive enquiries and win “repeat-order” commissions from existing clients such as IBM (32), Arthur Young McClelland Moores (63) and Heffers (17).
When recession hit in the early 1990s, the space planning and interior design arm of the London studio were naturally effected, but growth around the country continued through the 90s and into the new Millennium, thanks to the opening of new studios and a series of mergers, including Chamberlin Powell Bon and Woods in 1989, North West Water in 1992, a joint venture between Austin-Smith:Lord and former members of the Irvine Development Corporation Technical Department in 1998 at 222 Bath Street, Glasgow. It operated initially as a limited company – Wren Rutherford A-S:L – and went on to become the fully fledged Glasgow studio of the Practice a year later. A Cardiff office opened in 1995 at Talbot Studios, Talbot Road, winning enough work in Wales to make Mold surplus to requirements, leading to its closure three years later. Austin-Smith:Lord merged with TPS Dangerfield in 1999.
SPACE TO THINK, SPACE TO BREATHE, SPACE FOR IDEAS TO MOVE AROUNDThe growing reputation of Liverpool and Manchester as focal points of the design community, including Liverpool’s nomination as European Capital of Culture 2008, was making it increasingly difficult to attract staff to Warrington. A Manchester studio was established in 2003, and the Warrington Office relocated to the Port of Liverpool Building, Pierhead, Liverpool in 2006, after 35 years.
Apart from serving these two great cities for so long from its strategic situation between the two (and next to the M62!), Warrington – specifically the property at Bowood Court – left an important legacy. A huge empty warehouse to begin with, it offered 900m2 of real choice and flexibility in our own accommodation. How, then, did we want to work? The answer was openly, without barriers, in teams. In a space that didn’t separate the partners from the rest, that made them approachable and integrated. All under a double ceiling height. Space to think. Space to breathe. Space for ideas to move around. Such was the positive response that the open plan layouts, integration and double-height ceilings have (wherever possible) been featured in every Austin-Smith:Lord studio since.
Austin-Smith:Lord always strove to be an ego-free practice whose strength lay in its balance of skills, and interaction of personalities, but it would be hard to deny that the early partners were highly respected individuals whose influence over the direction of the Practice and the profession was understandably strong. The retirement of several senior partners between 1993 and 1995 created a natural moment for those remaining to assess the direction the Practice was to take next. The concept of a ‘Creative Collective’ captured people’s imagination, calling on the equilibrium and creative management of diverse talents, and the use of collaboration as its chief sources of creativity and strength. The release in equity facilitated the move to a truly equal partnership, so continuing the evolution in working practice that had already made itself manifest in the studio design.That process reached its natural conclusion in 2005, when the Partnership was restructured and became an LLP. Former Partners became “A” Members; new “B” Members were created from senior staff.