Launch Slideshow

The House of Morrison

Scottish businessmen Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison, who just acquired Hillier, have turned the languishing firm rmjm into a global powerhouse.

The House of Morrison

Scottish businessmen Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison, who just acquired Hillier, have turned the languishing firm rmjm into a global powerhouse.

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    Art Streiber

    Sir Fraser Morrison (left) and Peter Morrison

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    Hugh Mullan Managing director RMJM Europe

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    Steven Gifford Managing director RMJM Hillier

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    Peter Schubert Design director RMJM Hillier

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    Tony Kettle Group design director RMJM

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    Paul Stallan Design director RMJM Europe

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    David Pringle CEO RMJM Middle East and RMJM Asia

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    PROJECT: Falkirk Wheel LOCATION: Falkirk, Scotland DATE: 2002 DETAILS: Inspired in part by Legos, Tony Kettle’s design for the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift that links two canals, has also been compared to a Celtic two-headed axe. The Wheel has become one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions.

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    PROJECT: University Town Library, Shenzhen LOCATION: Shenzhen, China DATE: 2007 DETAILS: The winning design in an invited competition, RMJM’s Shenzhen library serves the graduate schools of four Chinese universities. Its long, gently sloping form echoes the surrounding hills.

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    PROJECT: Okhta Center (Gazprom tower) LOCATION: St. Petersburg, Russia DATE: Expected 2016 DETAILS: This twisting, 1,300-foot-tall tower with a star-shaped floor plan will house the headquarters of Gazprom, the third-largest company in the world—if it survives fierce opposition to the project from inside Russia and abroad.

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    PROJECT: Scottish Parliament LOCATION: Edinburgh, Scotland DATE: 2004 DETAILS: Designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles with RMJM acting as executive architect, the irregular volumes of the Scottish Parliament sit beside Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace in the city’s Old Town. Miralles, who died in 2000, hoped the complex would look as if it were “almost surging out of the rock.” The project won the Stirling Prize in 2005.

What about the poor human-rights record of the Russian government, which has a controlling stake in Gazprom? And what about China, where RMJM is building the Olympic Green Convention Center for the Beijing Olympics—at the same time that China's treatment of Tibet is sparking demonstrations around the globe?

“We do a lot of due diligence on the people we work for,” says Peter Morrison. “If we believed there was something morally deficient or something we didn't believe in, we wouldn't work for these particular clients. What we're not going to do is say we're not going to work for Russia or China because of a history of problems in those countries.”

But political repression and human-rights abuses aren't just a problem of the past—aren't they a problem in the here and now?

“We're not in politics. We're about delivering fantastic buildings for people who are going to use that building and for our client. That's what our focus is on. We don't think it's a good enough reason to not build buildings for our clients and the people in these countries because the government in the past or at some stage has been involved in …,” he tapers off. In a follow-up e-mail, Morrison calls the Olympics protests “misguided,” asserts that RMJM has embraced Chinese culture, and adds, “I very much look forward to being at the opening ceremony.”

VALUE-ADDED

The thing about both Gazprom and RMJM's City Palace tower in Moscow, which takes the abstracted form of a lovers' embrace, is that they finesse, rather than jettison, the template of the “conventional corporate tower … that can be found in abundance in Dubai, Singapore and Beijing,” as the Times' Ouroussoff scoffs of Gazprom. And surely that's the point: Many clients, as U.S. managing director Steve Gifford told me in the New York office, are looking for “simple, big ideas.” Architectural subtlety does not always fall under that umbrella.

At lunch the day after Peter Morrison's speech at the GSD, Tony Kettle, who has elfin features under a shock of brown hair and seems unfazed by UNESCO's threats, sketches in the air with his index finger to explain RMJM's client communication. Another firm, he says, even if the client is the focal point of its activity, might circle around that point endlessly without ever touching it; RMJM—he draws the petals of a flower—continually loops back to the client for an exchange of ideas.

Sitting at the table with us are Peter Morrison and Matthew Edgar, who was a commercial real estate broker for 20 years before joining RMJM in January. Edgar is the managing director of Futureplace, which he calls an “incubator” within the firm. If sponsoring a program at the GSD is the macro remedy for what frustrates the Morrisons about the construction process today—that the architect is seen as just another service provider, that he enters the conversation too late and departs with too little—Futureplace is their micro answer to the problem.

“We would like to work ourselves into the scheme earlier, and the key player is the landowner: If we have a relationship with the landowner rather than the developer, it gives us a greater degree of control,” explains Edgar. The idea, in short, is for RMJM to approach landowners —universities, financial institutions, and other bodies with more land than development expertise—and propose design and development options that would increase the value of the land. A few years down the line, when the site has been developed and money has been made, RMJM will then take a cut of the profits.

Although he and the Morrisons are still trying to figure out the precise role that RMJM will play relative to the developer and landowner, Edgar has secured two projects under the Futureplace model, with another 10 or so under consideration. Futureplace is expected to generate “a significant proportion” of the firm's profits within five years, Edgar says. And the margins on this type of work should be “quite a bit higher” than typical project fees, more in line with the 15 to 20 percent that developers make. Still, RMJM's initiative is not unique, Edgar adds: “We are not the only ones doing this.”

The Futureplace model isn't applicable to the lion's share of the firm's work, of course, but the same entrepreneurial impulse drives RMJM's overall growth strategy. The firm is eager to establish a presence in Western Europe and on the West Coast and may keep its current project office in San Francisco long-term. Peter Morrison does not rule out more acquisitions, either, although he maintains that RMJM will be “very selective” about which firms it courts. Over the next five years, RMJM will set its sights on major-league clients who are active around the globe, such as U.S. universities opening satellite campuses in Asia and the Middle East (and academic medical centers doing the same). It will leverage its global portfolio: “We're starting to work for developers in one part of the world,” says Peter Morrison, “who could easily be developing in other parts of the world.” Projects are getting bigger, as the rising cost of land and materials creates an economy of scale for developers; Peter Morrison estimates that only five or six firms around the world, including RMJM, can currently deliver megaprojects. And even if the next decade sees an explosion of “super firms” within the industry—as he predicts— RMJM will be ahead of the curve. Especially if RMJM succeeds in becoming an indispensable, trusted adviser to its clients, as he hopes it will.