Strategy: Go Guerrilla
Notting Hill and Southbank
London, 2009 - 2010
Text taken from Don't Get a Job ... Make a Job - a book by Gem Barton.
Considering your future career as an integral part of your life is tantamount to success. Starting your own practice can be hard work, stressful but ultimately greatly rewarding if done well. Being aware of this in advance and being fully prepared for what lies ahead can help you avoid problems in the long term.
Alma-nac did just this. They carefully considered their options, knowing that leaving a good job in the midst of the recession, with no clients to speak of would be tough. In order to put themselves in front of as many people as possible (potential future clients) they went Guerilla – setting up a stall offering Free Architecture on one of London’s most trafficked streets. As this was a clandestine operation, they took a risk and did not seek the necessary permissions, this could have been dangerous, and getting caught out before you have even begun was not a part of the plan! The public was charmed by Alma-nac’s conversation, knowledge and determination and in turn Alman-nac learnt a lot about the people, their understanding of architecture and their passion for cities. Win, win. They even converted some of the compliments they received into paying jobs all from a table and a few posters.
Big things are possible when you believe in what you are doing, the public respond well to seeing young people working tirelessly to follow and fulfill their dreams, Not everyone will be as lucky as Alma-nac but by learning from their process you too can take the public by storm.
We started the practice in 2009, mid-recession, leaving good jobs but with limited experience and without clients. We carried with us a lot of energy, optimism and a good amount of naivety which can be quite useful in the early stages as it tends to force learning through doing rather than doubting or overly questioning ideas before they begin to grow. We had decided to start our own practice because we desired autonomy wanted to design a practice as a key component of our lives that reflected our values and allowed us to pursue projects that interested us. A key part of this was to be building early on rather than confined to only 'paper architecture.
The lack of clients was obviously a significant problem when starting. We didn't want to focus on competitions because they resemble a lottery, there is no or very limited client contact, no guarantee of the winning design being built and it doesn't generate very much (if any) income. It's worth pointing out that we were in a position where we had to earn money to pay the rent and keep us fed.
Our answer was 'Free Architecture'
Free Architecture was a guerrilla stall (guerrilla in the sense that we didn't seek permission) offering free design consultation to anyone that wanted it. The stall was set-up on number of Saturdays at varying locations including Portobello Road and the Southbank. The idea was to get out of the office and engage with the people that we would be working with and make it easy for them to talk to an Architect. The results well exceeded our expectations. Many people were just intrigued by what were doing but would then, more often than not, congratulate us on the idea. A good proportion wanted to discuss architecture, often passionately and with good deal of knowledge. Some thought it was a free architecture tour and a select few thought we were offering free buildings! All of this (including the more eccentric and lengthy conversations) only helped to strengthen our feeling that the general public very much cared about design and the city, and that by setting up or own practice we had made the right decision. After each day we felt tired but energised buy the discussions and elated by the complements. On top of this we were getting five to ten consultation requests per day. We knew that these wouldn't all turn into projects but it gave us the opportunity gain experience at pitching and understand what clients were looking for.
What happened next
As it turned out our some of the first built projects came from initial discussions at our stall. These projects have led to further commissions and we now have a portfolio of work that continues to win us jobs.
Free architecture put us in contact with hundreds of people, taught us about clients, gave us many thought provoking conversations and won us the projects that started the firm. All of that from a budget of £70 to set up a stall with some posters
“We wanted to get out there and meet people. Not everyone knows what an architect does or how to approach them. We broke down that barrier by going into the street and inviting people for informal conversations.”
Our experience is that we learn most when we act on our ideas rather than question them to death. The act of doing is more satisfying, enjoyable and worthy than the act of thinking about doing. Don't become overly jealous of what others are involved with and try to forge your own path that suits you.