12 June 2011

Review: 61/11 Continuous Collective

Building Design Partnership (BDP) turns 50 this year (1961-2011) and as part of the celebrations they have organised a series of events, including an exhibition, a film and a book entitled ‘61/11 Continuous Collective’ – which will be the focus of this review. Written by RIBA Journal editor Hugh Pearman the book traces the history of the practice from its origins as a pioneering design firm in Preston into the UK’s largest interdisciplinary practice, with offices across the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, India, China and Abu Dhabi. The main focus of the book is on the design ethos of the practice, particularly the notion of collective authorship and continuation of the left-leaning aspirations of George Grenfell Baines, the practices founder. In addition, key “catalyst” projects, that are said to have significantly advanced the work of BDP, are highlighted, with complementary essays provided by Lee Mallett and Owen Hatherley, “Flexing with Time – Economic ups and downs” and “The Collective Idea” respectively.

BDP. Continuous Colelctive (BDP, 2011)

BDP began life in a former biscuit factory in Preston – a burolandschaft conversion – at a time when signature architecture was emerging in the UK, with architects such as Denys Lasdun and James Stirling “striking out in very individual directions” (2011: 4). George Grenfell Baines, despite already having a successful practice (Grenfell Baines & Hargreaves), “chose to go in the opposite direction” (2011: 4). He was inspired by the “Cathedral of Socialism” – the Bauhaus – where he saw what was being done by Walter Gropius and thought “Why not do this with the building industry and the professions? Group practices of all the disciplines!” (2011: 30) Whilst Gropius had artists with him, Grenfell Baines went further, integrating architects with engineers and planners. Gropius would later comment on Grenfell Baines’ achievements by saying “You have done what I would have liked to have done at Dessau” (2011: 33).

This model of practice was looked on less than favourably by the recognised establishment, particularly the RIBA, but “while the institute fretted about that, BDP just got on with it. At a time when “architects had tended to be architects, engineers engineers, and so on” BDP proved that far from creating conflicts of interest, the disciplines could work side by side to create “better service” (2011: 6). Hugh Pearman adds that “what BDP tried first, later become institutionally acceptable: the practice came to be a kind of professional testbed for new ways of working, which are nowadays, of course, utterly proven.”

Professor Sir George Grenfell Baines was
affectionately known as 'GG' (Image: BDP)

Not only did BDP join up the different disciplines, it was also collectively owned, with a deliberately loose structure that reflected the social aspirations of Grenfell Baines. The office landscape, reflected in the burolandschaft set up, allowed for “an environment where ideas can take root” or, as former chairman Richard Saxon describes it, practice-within the orbit” with “individuals running their parts within the whole” (2011: 8-9). This set up still exists today, with the individual offices allowed to operate with a degree of autonomy. Another benefit to this working method and office structure is that there is no overall style that can be attributed to BDP as a practice. Whilst Grenfell Baines might be described as a “romantic functionalist”, BDP has flirted with numerous styles in it’s 50 years of existence, the individual designers and design teams have been allowed freedom as long as they work in a rigorous manner and believe in what they are doing. Although, it is possible to discern particular trends in BDP buildings at particular periods in time; for instance through the choice of materials and their treatment.

The lack of discernible styles reinforces BDP’s work in raising the base standard of the “total built environment.” To Pearman the 'good ordinary' is a “noble aspiration in building” because it “implies the greatest good for the greatest number” (2011: 8). BDP has completed a great deal of work over the years, both background and foreground, and that little of it has been demolished over time is held up as testament to the quality of that work. There seems to be a growing appetite for the ‘good ordinary’ now, in the wake of copious spending on iconic projects, and it is good to see a book highlighting successful examples of this when, even now, so much print is still expended on the lavish. As Grenfell Baines put it in 1987: “Handsome buildings that perform poorly are no more good to society than are good looking unreliable husbands or beautiful wayward wives to home and family. Ask the children” (2011: 12).

In his essay Owen Hatherley comments that architecture is “an art form dictated by capital and collaborative working” (2011: 28) and that BDP is a practice that acknowledges this collective authorship. However, in later sections of the book, as projects are described in more detail certain individuals are picked out for their role. This trend begins with Keith Ingham who was specifically credited for his role in leading the design of Preston Bus Station and the book touches briefly upon the “consternation” that his caused before using it to illustrate the creative freedom allowed. There is a degree of tension with the book talking openly about the ‘collective’ and then signalling out individuals, not whole design teams. No matter how ‘flat’ the structure of an organisation there will undoubtedly be key figures who take on guiding roles within the design and construction process but how do you balance this within the ‘collective spirit’? It is a question that the book doesn't fully answer and it obviously would have been impractical to name every individual involved with every project featured.

Halifax was a "game-changer" for BDP
(Image: BDP Placebook)

There are three sections focusing on ‘catalyst projects’ with the first entitled “They came from the North” (2011: 54-95) and begins with three of BDP’s most recognisable projects: Bradford University (1965-71), Preston Bus Station (1968-69) and Halifax Building Society Headquarters (1974).  As part of their 50th anniversary celebrations BDP have launched an online poll (Placebook) to find the ‘most loved’ BDP project and Preston (at the time of writing) leads the list by a considerable margin, some what ironic given that BDP has drawn up plans that would see it demolished. Halifax also makes the top five and Pearman describes the project as a “game-changer”, showing that the firm could “compete at the highest level on an interdisciplinary basis, on innovatory buildings” (2011: 70). From these projects BDP would “flourish” from its working class roots in the North West, with a branch-office in London, into a practice that “could handle projects at all scales and level of ambition, nationally and internationally” (2011: 73). Buildings like the un-built, competition-winning United Nations Building in Vienna from 1969, show how quickly the practice developed. The next 25 years are compressed into two trends of work, ‘icons’ like the Glasgow Science Centre and conservation or heritage work like Durham’s Millburngate or the Royal Albert Hall.

Hampden Gurney Primary School
(Image: BDP Placebook)

The second set of catalytic projects, “The Learning Curve”, focuses on BDP’s work in education projects at the turn of the 21st century. Hampden Gurney, a vertical primary school in Marleyborne, London (2001), shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, is showcased along with University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s Campus to show how BDP “rediscovered its modernist design mojo” following “years of aesthetic uncertainty in the 1980s” (2011: 99). Pearman talks about ‘radical shifts’ in the practice as it returned to “humanist-inspired Scandinavian modernism” whilst the role of new chairman Tony McGuirk is frequently referenced. This period also reflects a change in emphasis for the practice away from commercial work towards public sector projects, highlighted by the number of schools and health care projects.

Channel Tunnel UK Terminal (Image: BDP)

Projects highlighted in the third catalyst section, “The Bigger Picture”, deal with the large scale urban planning and master planning projects. The Chanel Tunnel UK Terminal (1994), All England Lawn Tennis Club (1997) and Liverpool One (2008) are all said to build upon BDP’s experience planning campuses like the ICI Headquarters, Wilton, Teesside (1974). These experiences are now being are now being put to use across a range of projects dealing with transport, sport and urbanism. Pearman notes that “the practice’s experience of large-scale urban design is now increasingly in demand around the world” (2011: 172). The book concludes by looking at how BDP’s work is becoming increasingly international. This growing portfolio of planned work reflects the diverse range of typologies the practice has experience in but focuses on large-scale urban planning, particularly the Seaton New Town on the eastern edge of Toronto.

It was always going to be difficult to distil 50 years of practice into 190 pages and at times the projects aren’t given the attention to detail you feel they deserve. The book could easily have been twice as long though the decision to combine a narrative with essays is far more interesting than a standard monograph - that so often feel like glorified corporate brochures. Some projects, particularly those ‘iconic’ structures from the 1970s receive more pages than others and as a reader you feel you understand these better as a result. Interviews and first hand experiences complement the drawings and add another level of commentary. More recent projects, from the last 15-20 years, dominate the later half of the book but the shear number of them, compressed into such a short space, means that they are read off, at times, like a list. Perhaps it would have been better to be more selective, as with the projects from the early years. There is also a big leap between projects from the 1970s to late 1990s, almost as if the “wobble in the market-driven 1980s” (2011: 6) never happened. These slight criticisms aside readers are still likely to find projects they weren't aware of and enough information to spark an interest to find out more.

In summary 61/11 Continuous Collective provides an interesting insight into the development of a practice that has played a major role in the development of the built environment across the UK. Central to this development has been this idea of ‘collective’ working as the method to integrate design and social idealism. BDP’s large size has allowed it to ‘specialise’ but still handle a variety of typologies with a focus on user-centred design. It is also refreshing to see a book that talks openly about the ‘good ordinary’ and it is perhaps an approach, when all design disciplines are coming under increasing pressure to prove their worth, which other practices could look to emulate.


Pearman, H. (2011), BDP. Continuous Collective, 1st Edition, London: BDP