Stephen Barrett, the partner responsible for France at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), describes establishing a Paris office as "essential" for continuing to work in France and the European Union following the "absolute catastrophe" of Brexit.
Although the studio has been working in France for 50 years with high-profile projects including the Centre Pompidou, European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a terminal at Lyon Airport and an archive for the Louvre, it has never had a permanent office in the country.
The studio, which was founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect and high-tech architecture pioneer Richard Rogers, is now establishing one as "a direct result of the impact of Brexit and to form a gateway to working in Europe."
Working in EU from London "no longer possible"
"For years we've been working happily in France from London," Barrett told Dezeen. "Basically that's no longer possible."
"Suddenly there is a sense that clients are going to be very much more cautious about employing UK-based architects, that meant we needed to formalise a number of things that we didn't need to formalise before," he continued.
Barrett doesn't expect Brexit to have an impact on its current workload, which includes a masterplan for the Montparnasse area of Paris, but expects its Paris office will be needed to win future work in the EU.
"We've still got lots of ongoing work in France that I don't think that will be affected because contracts are in place," he explained. "It's about looking forward. Paris for us is going to be a bridge. It can be our European base."
"It was seamless. But it's not anymore."
Previously the idea of a French office was dismissed by the studio as the city is close to London and doing business in the country was relatively simple.
However, potential issues with the recognition of qualifications and insurance mean that doing work in the EU has become more complex.
"There was a certain hesitation about creating a base elsewhere," said Barrett.
"We've done it in Shanghai, we've done it in Sydney because those are places far enough away, but, you know, Paris is two hours away. It was seamless. But it's not anymore."
More studios to establish EU offices
RSHP is one of several studios planning to establish offices within the EU. Last month Waugh Thistleton founder Andrew Waugh told Dezeen that his studio was planning to establish a studio in either Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Milan or Berlin.
Nina Tolstrup, founder of east London design firm Studiomama, also recently told Dezeen she was considering setting up a studio within the EU.
Barrett expects several other studios will follow suit and open European outposts.
"Anecdotally, we hear a massive push for people trying to register in France and seeking advice," he said.
"I think there will be a number of factors, but many people who may have worked in Europe before will be seeking to establish more formal connections and roots there."
Brexit – a portmanteau of the words Britain and exit – is the name given to the UK's departure from the EU following the June 2016 referendum.
The country officially withdrew from EU on the 31 January 2020 with a transition agreement keeping the UK in the European Single Market until 31 December 2020.
Read the full interview with Barrett below:
Tom Ravenscroft: How is Brexit impacting RSHP?
Stephen Barrett: I think a lot of architects by profession and by outlook probably weren't in favour of Brexit, and I'm one of those who, by birth and by marriage, is very much European and very much saw the border across the channel as being a transparent border. For me, Brexit is an absolute catastrophe, both kind of socially and philosophically, but actually professionally as well.
It's not neutral in its impact. It hasn't manifested itself yet, but I definitely think that there are going to be issues.
The sudden disappearance of mutual professional recognition is something that is going to have an impact on business going forward. It's very striking if you look at the French equivalent of ARB, the Ordre des Architectes, they have a list of countries they recognise qualifications from and obviously the UK is disappeared from that
I think the recognition of qualifications is going to become something that is going to be relevant. And getting things like professional indemnity insurance across Europe is going to become very much more complicated if you don't have an office, and you don't have architects who are registered in a European country.
Tom Ravenscroft: Given that, what are the main reasons you are establishing a French office?
Stephen Barrett: Essentially, in the past 12 years, we've built quite a lot of French business. Some of that's been by design, some of that just been by circumstance.
But suddenly there is a sense that clients are going to be very much more cautious about employing UK-based architects, that meant we needed to formalise a number of things that we didn't need to formalise before.
So quite a lot of time and administration et cetera obviously, maybe not as much as exporting shellfish or whatever. But
just as frustrating given that none of that was required just a few weeks ago.
Tom Ravenscroft: Why are you opening the office now?
Stephen Barrett: I was struck by reading your interviews on Brexit that architects said the impact of Brexit was limited? To us, it doesn't feel limited.
We've still got lots of ongoing work in France that I don't think that will be affected because contracts are in place. It's about looking forward. Paris for us is going to be a bridge. It can be our European base.
I think there was a certain hesitation about creating a base elsewhere. We've done it in Shanghai, we've done it in Sydney because those are places far enough away, but, you know, Paris is two hours away. It was seamless. But it's not anymore.
Tom Ravenscroft: You believe it will be important to winning European work in the future?
Stephen Barrett: It's almost essential. Now, interestingly enough, we also have a number of clients who are beginning to think of transferring some of their focus from London to Paris, and maybe also Frankfurt and Berlin or other cities. Paris has already benefited from an influx of investment from London and seeking opportunities.
We want to be in a place to benefit from that. And I think there are certain aspects of our approach, which historically have been very, you know, very much appreciated in France.
Tom Ravenscroft: So it's fair to say the office wouldn't be opening without Brexit?
Stephen Barrett: That's true. For years we've been working happily in France from London. And basically that's no longer possible. As I, as I say underlying this, we're taking that as a very positive opportunity. But there's a double edge to it.
I think it's going to be interesting to see what the attitude is towards the UK and to architects based in the UK bearing in mind that we had a great reputation and we were sought after. That's gonna be interesting going forward.
Tom Ravenscroft: Do you think that UK architects may have a reduced standing in Europe?
Stephen Barrett: It's interesting, at the same time as being distinctly British, London was also very international. There are historical trends, like the rise of the Scandinavians for instance, that will continue. But whereas people might have thought of setting up a base in London, like Bjarke Ingels did, will that be the same going forward? You know, will London be seen as quite the same kind of accommodating and inclusive hub?
Tom Ravenscroft: Does the opening of a Paris office inevitably mean the UK office shrinks?
Stephen Barrett: Fair question. But no. We have anecdotes of satellite offices opening in Paris and growing incredibly quickly. I don't think it's an either-or. I think it's complementary. I mean, obviously, we seek growth and the success of the Paris office, but we never saw growth for growth's sake.
I think the dynamic between the London studio and Paris will be a very close one. In the past, we kind of thought, well, it's not necessary, because we're so close. Now it's kind of an affirmation of confidence but also, having people on the ground has become even more of a necessity.
Tom Ravenscroft: So the move is also symbolic, to make a statement to French clients or European clients that you're still in Europe?
Stephen Barrett: Absolutely we believe that, we believe in the work, we believe in the continent.
Tom Ravenscroft: Do you think that other studios will follow and open up European offices?
Stephen Barrett: I definitely think so, whether it's Paris or elsewhere. People have talked about links with Spain, we know people in Milan, obviously Chipperfield in Germany. There are a range of bases. The particularity of Paris is its proximity by train to London.
We definitely believe the UK will thrive going forward. There may be a difficult patch ahead, but again, it's not contradictory, it's more complementary.
Tom Ravenscroft: So we will hear about other studios opening offices soon?
Stephen Barrett: Anecdotally, we hear a massive push for people trying to register in France and seeking advice. I think there will be a number of a number of factors, but people who may have worked in Europe before who will be seeking to establish more formal connections and roots there.
Main image is by Yann Caradec.