Architects build an ARK as work dries up

De Rijke Marsh Morgan will seek out work in Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands on the barge, complete with design studio

Robert Booth

When the economic storm came they were hit harder than any other profession, but architects are nothing if not ingenious. One of the UK’s leading practices is building an “ark” to find work in more clement overseas markets as designers brace themselves for a fresh downturn.

De Rijke Marsh Morgan, which tomorrow hopes to scoop the £20,000 Stirling prize for the building of the year at a gala ceremony in London, is planning to send its staff, no doubt two-by-two, on to an industrial barge loaded with a fully-functioning design studio and office across the North Sea to Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands to take on new work. The 60-metre-long reconditioned Rhine barge is being fitted at a total cost of around £400,000 with a cargo-style container with room for 32 desks, a pair of meeting rooms, a model workshop and a covered exhibition space on the terrace.

It promises to fulfill a long-held architectural dream of the ultimate “loose fit” building, one which can move from site to site. But it comes amid the toughest trading period for British architects in a generation which has seen well over 1,000 designers laid off and practices of all sizes and reputations affected. The shortlist for tomorrow’s prize, for the best new European building built or designed in Britain, includes some of the most modest buildings ever to appear in the prize’s history and a pair of favourites that were built in Rome and Berlin.

“It is about being light on our feet and responsive,” said Alex de Rijke, founder of dRMM, who has designed “De Ark”. “The UK is a difficult place to exist as an architect compared with other parts of the world. There are just too many architects all going for the same jobs and it is so hard to produce good architecture here that architects are going further afield because continental culture wants it more. If we have a serious job in a European city then we can take the office there and deliver it. The cities that are worth being in are always connected to water.”

His practice’s shortlisted entry for the Stirling prize, a south London primary school, was built before the latest public spending cuts and his firm has since seen commissions for schools and social housing cancelled following the election of the new government.


Such has been the impact of first the recession and then public spending cuts that the firm is among several on the shortlist that have struggled for work or been forced to make redundancies to survive over the past two years.

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