The rise and fall of Scottish architects RMJM

The Falkirk Wheel. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The Falkirk Wheel. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT WAS A contract architecture practice would have been proud to win, and when Scottish secretary Donald Dewar announced that Spanish design guru Enric Miralles had been chosen from five contenders to design the new Scottish Parliament building, it was the Edinburgh headquarters of Scottish design firm RMJM where champagne corks were popped.

The architecture practice, which was almost 40 years old, had been recruited as the partner team for Miralles to work on what was potentially the most prestigious Scottish project in recent history. Tasked with working up the Miralles design concept into the plans necessary to make the Parliament a reality, RMJM was propelled further into the public eye.

Peter Morrison. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Peter Morrison. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Already behind the £35 million development of the Scottish Office at Leith’s Victoria Quay, the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Edinburgh airport, and the campuses at York and Stirling universities, the company had thrived under the leadership of founder and renowned architect Robert Matthew until his death in 1975, followed by his protégé John Richards.

At the time the Scottish Parliament construction began, the company was basking in the glory of its Falkirk Wheel design, which was well under way.

“It was an exciting time,” says a source close to the company. “The economy was good, we had landed a huge project and there was such an exciting buzz about the place. There was a site office at the Parliament and it was felt that we were really in the middle of something big.”

But the project, despite its spiralling costs and delays – not to mention the ill health and eventual death of Miralles himself – caught the eye of construction tycoon Sir Fraser Morrison. The attention, and Sir Fraser’s subsequent acquisition of the company, would change RMJM for good.

Sir Fraser’s timing was ideal. A number of the old-guard partners of the business had left and were on the lookout for a way to sell their stakes in the company to fund their retirement.

Just four years after RMJM began work on the Scottish Parliament, Sir Fraser made an offer for 46 per cent of the company. Senior staff immediately became jumpy.

“The managing director at the time was approached by Sir Fraser and all of the directors immediately started questioning why he’d want to invest in the company,” recalls the source. “It was felt that essentially what he was doing was buying a toy for his son.”

Within four years, Sir Fraser had installed his son, Peter, a former captain in the British Army, as chief executive.

RMJM immediately began to expand, becoming the fifth largest architecture practice in the world and boasting 17 global bases at its peak. It now has 12, although some are believed to employ just a handful of staff.

An office in Dubai was opened, which grew to employ more than 250 workers and orchestrated the design of the 160-metre Capital Gate tower in Abu Dhabi.

The Hong Kong office also rocketed in size, buoyed by major contract wins in the tiger economy of China, and in 2007 the firm broke into America by buying Hillier, a respected New Jersey architectural practice. But things were not always as rosy as they seemed.

“When one office was doing well, another was not doing as well,” says the source. “But we always managed it so that there was the see-saw effect – one office would be profitable and another would be in the doldrums. But we managed to keep the group afloat.”

“What people are worried about now is that the people who ran the company down are still the ones in charge.”

Neil Baxter, spokesman for the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), says the company will always be remembered for its glories – but that the Scottish Parliament building was perhaps the zenith for RMJM.

“I think during the period up to and including the Scottish Parliament building, RMJM was constantly rising,” Baxter says. “It probably peaked around that period in terms of its reputation as an influential practice.”

With the advent of the global credit crunch, things began to change for RMJM. A total of 60 staff were laid off in 2009, and other workers were asked to take a 10 per cent pay reduction to help stave off the effects of the financial downturn.

But in early 2010, a bizarre media storm broke as disgraced former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin was named as the architecture firm’s latest hire, as a consultant charged with drumming up new business overseas.

A further two consultants with no architectural backgrounds – former St Andrews University principal Dr Brian Lang and Russian economist Dr Vladimir Kvint – were hired at around the same time to act as “door openers” for potential clients. Both have since left, with Lang citing a “lack of business” as his reason to depart.

Just seven months after Goodwin’s appointment, further financial cracks began to show. Accounts filed six months late in August 2010 showed that pre-tax profits in the year to the end of April 2009 fell to £5.7m from £7.9m the previous year.

And within a month, reports began to emerge of a “mass exodus” of top executives across its global offices amid claims of behind-the-scenes disagreements over the way the troubled company was run.

The months to follow unearthed a string of reports of unpaid wages across many of its offices and walkouts by key architects.

In an attempt to prop up RMJM in March 2011, the Morrison family announced it was to plough £8 million of its own money into the company, followed just a few months later by news of the departure of “star architect” Will Alsop.

Further financial problems ensued, finally resulting in an announcement that the company would slide into receivership in October last year.

Now, the firm that was rescued from receivership by a new Morrison-owned company called RMJM Architecture some months ago is being swallowed up by Duthus Investments.

But the Scottish architecture world is confident that RMJM could once again, phoenix-like, rise from the ashes – if the right business sense prevails.

“I think a point to be made is that RMJM is one of the great names of world architecture and great brand names have a certain currency,” says Baxter. “Undoubtedly, in what survives of RMJM architecture, there will be something of some real value.”

Others disagree, saying that the company’s only chance of survival is to focus on the overseas market, where the company may be viewed in terms of its portfolio, rather than financial, success.

“There has not been a major Scottish, or UK, project for some time,” says the company source. “I think in the UK, things will be difficult. If the company is to get better, the management need to stand back. Former UK clients have changed their view of us and find it difficult to give us work. They would tend to write us off because of the receivership and so on – a lot of people just aren’t prepared to work with us.”