GaWC Project 30

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Architecture and Globalization

A pilot project funded by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Virginia Tech (2002-2003)

Researcher: Paul Knox

Research Assistant: Erin Milfeit


Even before the Charter of Athens and the advent of the International Style, architecture had a cosmopolitan outlook. But until recently most practices have been organized around a local, regional, or national framework. Globalization has changed all that. Enabled by digital and telecommunications technologies, by advanced international business services, and by the emergence of clients with transnational operations and a cosmopolitan sensibility, the scope of work of architecture firms is now truly international. The largest firms in the World Architecture 300 survey, like Nikken Sekkei, HOK and Gensler, have dozens of overseas projects scattered across every continent except Antarctica. Even firms at the bottom of the World Architecture 300 league table, like Theofanis Bobotis and Associates, Arthur C S Kwok and Associates, Dominique Perrault, and Architektenbureau Cepezed, each with just 18 fee-earning architects on staff, have international projects on their books.

But the economic logic of globalization dictates that an international outlook and an international clientele must eventually evolve into an international market presence, with global office networks serving an increasingly complex market. In the 1980s, as the globalization of manufacturing spread and the information economy began to grow, the leading firms in advanced business services—accountancy, advertising, banking, and law—established global networks of their own.

Architecture firms were slower to go global, but the sustained economic boom of the 1990s has seen many of the world’s larger firms extend their operations through office networks that are international in scope. Forty-four of the 100 largest firms in the 2001 World Architecture 300 survey have branch offices in another country, their networks covering much of the globe (Figure 1). London is the most popular location for branch offices of firms with an international office network: 18 of them are located there. Other popular locations include Washington, D.C. (14), New York (13), and Los Angeles (12), while Atlanta, Berlin, Chicago, Dallas, Kuala Lumpur, Madrid, Miami, San Francisco, Singapore, and Tokyo all have at least five branch offices of the 44 largest firms with an international office network.

Most of these 44 firms—27 of them, in fact—are headquartered in the United States (and concentrated in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco), with London and Tokyo also standing out as popular corporate headquarter locations. But how global are the international strategies of these firms? Fully one-third of the 44 largest firms with international office networks are restricted to just one of the three principal global sub-markets—the Americas, Europe/Middle East, or East Asia/Oceania. Almost half have office networks that include only one or two international branch offices. URS, with 42 overseas branch offices (9 in the Americas, 15 in Europe, and 18 in Asia/Oceania), stands out both for the size of its office network and its global reach. Aside from URS, only nine firms have a network that extends to all three global sub-markets. Most of these (HOK, Gensler, RTKL, NBBJ, Ellerbe Becket, Leo Daly, and SOM) are U.S.-based. As Gensler President Ed Friedrichs observes, they have been drawn into a global scope of operations more than anything by the U.S.-based transnational corporations who are often their major clients.

The same client-based pull factors have influenced the locational strategy of the largest firms in accounting, advertising, banking, law, and other advanced business services. Although each profession has a different clientele and different market imperatives, the aggregate result is that certain cities have become key nodes for the networks of business that drive and shape globalization. Geographers at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom have shown how just a few of these ‘world cities’ have come to dominate the nodes and flows of today’s global economy, which is organised into three main circuits—the Americas, Europe/Middle East, and Asia/Oceania (Figure 2). The logic of world city development for architecture firms, as they develop and extend their global office networks, suggests that they will have to consider carefully where they might most effectively ‘plug in’ to the flows of global business. For access to South-East Asia, it seems to be Singapore rather than Sydney that offers the most extensive web of business connections. For North-East Asia, it is Hong Kong rather than Tokyo; for Latin America, it is Miami. Don’t bother setting up offices in Paris unless it is to gain access to markets in France or Francophone Africa. Meanwhile, both London and New York offer settings with webs of business connections whose reach is truly global.

This long preamble sets the scene for small pilot study that empirically evaluates how the production of the built environment in world cities is being influenced by processes of globalization. As well as leading architectural firms, major civil engineering firms and international land realtor firms are to be considered. The idea is to investigate the wider commercial/project context within which architecture is globalizing.

The research project will use research methods previously employed in GaWC projects 10 and 24.

Figure 1: The international branch offices of the 100 largest firms in the World Architecture 300 survey.

Figure 1

Figure 2: World cities and their regional market areas.

Figure 2

For results of this project, see GaWC Research Bulletin 128.

For data created in this project, see GaWC Data Sets 15 and 16.