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How Tattoos, Eastern Philosophy And A Wandering Childhood Shaped One Of The UK's Most Successful Developers

Buildings don’t just appear out of thin air: They are conceived, designed, funded and built by people. And those people have lives, experiences, backstories and influences, both in their careers and in the world outside real estate, that play a huge part in impacting the buildings or schemes they create. For this series, Bisnow undertook highly personal interviews with a range of developers, famous and less well-known, to dig into those experiences and influences to find out how they shaped the people that shaped our world. Those interviews will be running over the coming weeks and months. 

The first 15 minutes or so of conversation with David Partridge drifts from tattoos and Eastern philosophy to yoga and raving.

But here’s the thing. This isn’t the small talk before we get down to the serious business of talking about property. This is the serious business that created the outlook that spurred Partridge's involvement in developments that are among the most successful in the UK and, perhaps, the world. 

“It's about not being frightened to speak the language,” Partridge, chairman at developer Argent Related, told Bisnow. “Because the truth is, most of us do think about these sorts of things all the time. But we act like we don't think about them at the office. Why?”

Argent's David Partridge cracks out a tree pose in Kerala, India.

King’s Crossl, in particular, is renowned as an exemplar of urban regeneration. Partridge was on the team leading the central London project from its conception in 2000 to a 67-acre mixed-use scheme offering more than 4M SF of offices and 2M SF of residential, plus a university, shops, bars and restaurants. 

Many people know about the scheme’s history and how an area that was a London byword for drugs and prostitution is now the site chosen by Google, Facebook, Havas and Universal Music for their UK headquarters. Fewer people know that an itinerant childhood in outposts of the British Empire helped Partridge learn how to assimilate into different cultures, a skill he took into his role as a developer: Being willing to break down barriers between work and everything else in life helped him and the Argent team snare those huge tenants. An interest in history taught a man trained as an architect to embrace uncertainty in the schemes he was leading, helping them to both flourish and weather financial storms. 

Chatting over video from his home, tattoos come up because Partridge, who is inked across his whole body, has chatted to his regular tattoo artist about setting up a studio at King’s Cross. Yoga arises because he has been leading the Argent teams in video yoga sessions to keep spirits up during lockdowns. Eastern philosophy drops into the conversation because it is something he has read since his 20s, and, he said, influenced him in all aspects of his life. That erasure of the line between Partridge’s job as a developer and his inner life and passions ー  bringing that into the office and being willing to talk about it ー is something he credits as a big part of his success.

Events have played a major part in King's Cross Central's success.

“I remember reading about Buddhist philosophy when I was 20,” he said. “And it was one of those things that you sort of did, but you never would have thought that it would apply to you during the office hours. So you'd go to work, and most of us would live this kind of conventional work life where you did certain tasks. And then you went home and you listened to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. You live this other life, which was what you really want to be, whether you're a born-again hippie or went on a rave, or whatever it was you did.

"And I think I think what's happening in life is that's all getting blended. People are insisting now on doing both, and you shouldn't have this divide between one thing and the other.”

Partridge said bringing an ethos to Argent that staff didn’t leave these creative, intellectual or personal passions at the door had two impacts. It influenced creation of a truly mixed-use scheme at King’s Cross and gave rise to the idea of blurring work and life, allowing people to go to a lecture, do a yoga class, work, shop and eat all in the same place.

It also allowed the company to speak the same language as the tenants, who from the mid-2000s onward have dominated the leasing landscape ー the tech and creative firms that are the main occupiers at King’s Cross. 

“Perhaps I was a little bit more permissive and progressive than if it had been somebody who was thinking much more around a conventional idea of what goes on in a place,” he said.

David Partridge in 2006

“We think of it as mainly the tech types, but music is probably a great example. [Universal Music] are people who live their job. And their job is their life and a kind of passion, and their work blurred as a result. So you can see how talking to people who create space, who have the same ethos, it's going to appeal to them.”

Building mixed-use schemes isn’t just about attracting tenants for Partridge. It’s about financial stability as well. While a lot of property companies talk about building flexibility into schemes, he said, they aren’t willing to embrace the uncertainty that comes with it.  

“We thought, whatever we do here, there's no point in trying to predict it in 2000, because some of these buildings won't be finished till 2020 or 2025 and some of the businesses that will take space didn't exist at the time," he said. "We couldn't say, it will be this or that, we tried to build that flexibility and adaptability in right from the very beginning.”

Being an amateur student of history and grasping the old adage that most of the world’s biggest companies in 1900 didn’t exist 100 years later was something that guided this attitude, Partridge said. So, too, did an analysis of more recent real estate history. 

King’s Cross Central

“Remember back then we were looking at the fact that Canary Wharf had gone bust twice, Paddington was going bust, the original guys behind Kings Cross had gone bust?” he said. “We basically stood there and said, we do not want to go bust building this project, and the only way we're going to do that is by having a flexible approach to what we create rather than hanging the entire proposition on one hook and hoping. That might be the right hook for today. But that hook might be redundant in a few years' time.”

This attitude fused with Partridge's architecture training when it came to the scheme the company ultimately designed and built.

Argent placed a much greater emphasis on the public realm at King’s Cross than the buildings themselves. In cities, buildings come and go, but the pattern of streets and public spaces last far longer, he pointed out. When it comes to Regent Street, for example, it is difficult to cite one individual building as being particularly magnificent. It is the cumulative effect that counts.

“That's why we had this idea about a legacy that was going to be there in 50 years, 500 years time, of the streets and the squares, which will be there forever,” he said. “And the buildings will come and go, and, obviously, the activities will come and go.”

The modern, in-office version of Argent's David Partridge; he's probably thinking about Eastern philosophy.

Argent has won plaudits over the years for the level and quality of engagement it undertakes in the communities where it is building a new scheme, particularly at King’s Cross and the development it is currently embarking upon at Brent Cross in north London.

Partridge said he has always tried to stress that Argent needs to truly understand the people in the areas where it builds, and that the ability to do this comes from his restless background.

“I was born in Sri Lanka, my dad was a tea planter, and my mother is Dutch. Her family first arrived in 1747, or something like that,” said Partridge, who lived in South India for years before stints in Africa and Canada. Through it all, he attended boarding school in the UK, later getting an architecture degree from Cambridge.

“So one of the things that I learned from that was about assimilating into cultures," he said. "I think that that's one of the things that I've really picked up; it's actually a sort of survival technique. Especially when you're being sent to English boarding school at the age of 8, you have to get to know what the rules of the game are in that location, that place, that particular institution, whatever it is.” 

Argent has always sent its team to live in the locations where it is building, be it areas of London, Birmingham or Manchester. That goes for putting offices where it is building, too. If you're not part of an area, getting under the skin of it, how can you optimise it and, more importantly, persuade somebody else to live, work and play there, Partridge asked.

Facebook's new King's Cross HQ

Partly it is about finding the negatives of an area, things that local residents or politicians want to change or make better. It is about celebrating and retaining what keeps an area unique as well. 

“It comes from listening and enjoying so you're finding all the good bits about it. You know, like, 'Wow, that's cool, let’s go and do that poetry reading in that pub, because that's where they all hang out on a Friday night,'" Partridge said. "I remember doing that sort of stuff around King’s Cross, some of the ropier places that we ended up in, in the very early days with some strange events [and] happenings going on. Which were brilliant, because you just sort of got a feel for what was happening around that.

“There are all sorts of things which you could never, ever do if you're just looking at a master plan on a boardroom table somewhere in Berkeley Square or whatever.”

Instead, the ideas for some of the UK’s most successful developments came from all over the world: Tibet, Sri Lanka, English boarding school and Silicon Valley. And from a willingness to not leave ideas at the office door.