Alex Lifschutz jokes that Paul Sandilands, his voluble co-director at architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, barely lets him get a word in edgeways. True to form, when Sandilands joins us at a meeting in their west London offices, he obligingly mocks Lifshutz’s new iPad.
Yet it’s clear that the two principals thrive on their lively office banter. The practice has grown to 110 staff, and work is about to begin on one of its most prominent projects to date, 120 Moorgate in the City of London, which sits next to Lutyens’ Grade II*-listed Britannic House.
Some architects promote a signature style but Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands is proud to be hard to pigeonhole, both in terms of building style and building type.
Its portfolio encompasses infrastructure, health, housing, offices and leisure, ranging from the crisp rigour of the award-winning Charlotte Building in London’s West End to the sensitive facade retention of the Davidson Building in Covent Garden, claimed to be the first low-energy speculative commercial office building in the UK.
The practice’s many projects on the capital’s South Bank include the creative reuse of the brick-clad Oxo Tower Wharf and the Hungerford pedestrian bridge spanning the Thames.
“We’re very curious. We don’t have a style or brand that’s imposed but a process that takes a building need and comes up with a solution,” explains Lifschutz, who founded the practice 25 years ago with the late Ian Davidson after they met while working at what was then Foster Associates.
“We design by consensus. It’s impossible to put a finger on who did what,” adds Sandilands, who became a director of the practice in 1992. Yet, he says, the trick is to make this look seamless and effortless, as if designed by the same person.
Both directors are engaged by the evolving nature of the office as it responds to changes in working culture and technology.
Nowadays, they say, office design is all about creating the right backdrop for social communication – in other words, since technology has made remote working viable, the whole point of working in an office is communing with others.
“People are looking for different values – much more interesting values than they ever were before,” says Lifschutz. “For architects, it’s no longer about creating the biggest trading floor, like in the 1980s, but about how congenial, creative and exciting we can make the environment. It’s about social communication and intellectual exchange.”
This means using the workplace environment to create and manage social encounters within the office, whether through a ground floor cafe, for example, or by consideration of where to place the kitchen, as well of course as providing an appropriate variety of core working environments.
Within this more city-like environment, facilitating human interaction is far more important than creating innovative design styling that can quickly become monotonous, says Lifschutz. With the increasing overlapping of work, leisure facilities and the public realm, firms like Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands that work across multiple sectors hope to be well placed to pick up workplace projects that interact more with the public realm.
The elegant 120 Moorgate, for example, will provide ground-floor retail as well as eight floors of Grade A offices for developers Redevco, while the ongoing Hanover Square project will incorporate the Bond Street Crossrail ticket hall. This 30,000sq m project, for Great Portland Estates, houses new offices with flexible floorplates behind new and retained facades.
Building longevity and loose fit is also a priority for the practice.
“In a way, the building has become the client,” says Lifschutz. "You have to create buildings that are capable of change. When we convert a building, one of things that interests us is that it isn’t the last conversion. We’ve created offices out of residential and vice versa. There’s a greater possibility of flexibility of use than ever, partly because of technology. You don’t need huge server rooms – you could have a hedge fund working in a former domestic building.”
The practice’s offices are in its own conversion of the former Island Studios headquarters in Hammersmith, which were themselves once a laundry.
Having worked extensively in the borough of Westminster for clients such as Derwent London and Great Portland Estates, Lifschutz and Sandilands are intimate with the nuances of different West End locations from Mayfair to Soho, and the very particular offices that suit those environments; 120 Moorgate will be their first foray into the City of London. Lately, they’ve noticed an overall trend for densification, routinely designing for 8sq m per person compared with a previous norm of 14sq m.
In 2006, they completed the ten-storey, circular Asticus Building for IVG Developments on a site that had been vacant for a generation. And the Charlotte Building, designed for Derwent London in the capital’s “Noho” district, has been one of the practice’s most successful recent projects, winning BCO Best Commercial Workplace in London 2010.
Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands created a dainty, L-shaped building with glazing deliberately kept to just 40% of the facade to reduce solar gain. The vocabulary of materials is clear – black for the windows, gold aluminium casing to express the offset structure, and glazed shadow box spandrels, with a dotted pattern that creates shadows and depth. Inside, the space is simply finished with exposed concrete soffits and floors and openable windows.
Having grown into a very sizeable firm, the practice is not particularly interested in getting any bigger and is instead mindful of nurturing its client relationships, many of which are long and fruitful (120 Moorgate is another Redevco collaboraton, for example).
“We’re a good size. It’s important that we know people and provide excellent service for clients in an old-fashioned way,” says Sandilands. Nowadays, he adds, clients want to enjoy the journey of creating a building. Gratifyingly for Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, many indeed do so – and come back for more.
Every European country has its design royalty. You know the types – people who can pull in a decent crowd at a press conference. In Sweden, it’s a trio of friends called Claesson, Koivisto and Rune. Since forming their multi-disciplinary design studio 17 years ago, they have collaborated with most of the major brands going, making them permanent fixtures on the international scene. Although, however global their client base becomes (around 50 companies at the last count), there is a persistently Scandinavian design DNA in the chairs, lights, bowls, shelves, tables, poufs, candleholders and jewellery in their portfolio, which is as remarkable as it is prolific. You name it, they’ve probably taken a stab at it.
On a blustery day in February we meet at the Nobis Hotel in central Stockholm, with interiors and furniture both designed by CKR, to discuss a new work chair they are launching with luxury Italian brand Tacchini during the city’s annual design fair.
The burly, bespectacled Eero Koivisto, the group’s unofficial spokesman, is giving a charismatic presentation in Swedish to a room of design buffs.
The chair, called Isola, is sitting off to the side – generously sized, big enough for someone to curl up inside it, but different from other lounge chairs in that the frame integrates a marble work-surface that pops up through the upholstery. It’s not strictly for work – presumably the little table could be just as useful for a glass of wine. But Isola’s flexibility is part of the reason why it is so well timed for the iPad, smart-worker generation. Its form is the new alcove sofa; a version will undoubtedly crop up in the collection of every manufacturer that doesn’t want to be left out of the club.
The funny thing is, furniture design was never part of the plan for CKR; it happened by accident.
Mårten Claesson met Eero Koivisto and Ola Rune in the early 1990s while they were studying architecture in Stockholm. The three became fast friends, bonding over their desire to design buildings.
“During our training there were lots of parties and we were always the last ones standing in a huddle … discussing architecture,” says Koivisto. “The hosts would say ‘please leave so we can go home!’”
The recession of 1993-1995 set back CKR’s newly formed architecture studio considerably, he explains. With no architecture work about, “we did, like, 140 interiors because you have to earn money.”
For one of those interiors projects, the right chair couldn’t be sourced. The trio decided to design it themselves and contact a small producer, David Carlsson of Swedish company David Design, to see if he would make it. He agreed and loved the birch lounge chair, Bowie (conceived as something Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen might scribble on a napkin over a glass of wine), so much that he asked if he could keep it in his collection.
“And we thought sure, why not,” Koivisto chuckles. “But then we went to our first furniture fair with him and a funny thing happened. Everybody published it. It was an instant hit. And we were like, wow, this is fun.”
After that, other Swedish companies like Offecct, Swedese and Skandiform came knocking. Eventually they got the call from Giulio Cappellini.
Koivisto recalls: “We had a tiny studio because it was cheap. One day the phone rang and this guy says, ‘Hi, I’m Giulio Cappellini,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah and I’m Mickey Mouse’. I thought it was a joke. But he said, ‘No, no I really am Giulio Cappellini. I’m in Stockholm; can I come see you in half an hour?’ So I put the phone down and said to Ola and Mårten, ‘Hey guys, we better clean this place.’”
Here Koivisto breaks into peals of laughter, and stops only when Rune walks into the room. “Hi Ola!” he says warmly.
Together they go on to explain how Cappellini eventually showed up at the freshly tidied studio 30 minutes late, “because he’s Italian”, with Piero Lissoni in tow, and how the three of them thought they had it made.
“But we showed him probably 80 things over the next few years and he was always like, ‘no’,” Koivisto says, amused. “And we thought, OK, maybe this is not for us. But finally he made one little fruit basket and we were so happy, it was like, weee! We made a fruit basket for Cappellini!”
They both laugh at the silliness of it. Since then CKR has gone on to make eight pieces for the brand, as well as developing other long-standing partnerships with top Italian companies like Living Divani and Tacchini.
“We’ve worked with Tacchini for so long now,” says Koivisto. “At the start we’d get a brief and they’d say ‘make a sofa’ or ‘make a chair’. But in the last years it’s more been us going to them and saying, ‘We have this idea, can we do it?’”
Apparently the idea for the Isola chair was born from Koivisto’s annoyance that he couldn’t work comfortably on a laptop while sitting on his couch.
“The way you sit and work isn’t as rigid as it used to be,” he says. The design is a progression from Hockney, a sofa with wide, flat armrests the trio did for David Design about ten years ago. “My girlfriend at the time was a researcher and she had lots of books and wrote a lot,” says Koivisto. “She said, ‘Can’t you do a sofa where I can put my pile of books?’ So we made a sofa that had wide armrests and hard upholstery. Isola is new, but we’ve worked with these ideas before.”
When he says the word “we”, one wonders what the group dynamic actually is between the three of them. Do they work separately or together? Do they have different strengths that they play off of?
“We try to work as closely together as possible,” he explains. “We are three different kinds of people, which is better, just like with life partners. When you are young you think the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend is someone just like you, and then you get older and you realise the best partner is somebody who is totally different. So of course we are different as people but we’ve worked together for a long time and we are still really, really good friends … I think it’s a chemistry thing, it just works.”
All projects start with an idea, they explain, like Koivisto’s experience working on the sofa, or maybe Rune and Claesson will be struck by something when they are travelling to a conference by aeroplane. The next step is to give the idea shape.
“But that’s not the main part of it,” Koivisto points out. “There is so much design out there that apparently doesn’t have any more of an idea to it than ‘it’s a chair’. And maybe this is one of the reasons why many of the classic Italian companies – not Tacchini – have a bit of difficulty surviving right now because you look at a B&B Italia sofa, or a Minotti sofa, or whatever, and they all look alike. They are all big square sofas.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Claesson Koivisto Rune have abandoned architecture altogether, judging from their massive design output. It’s what they’re known for. But since forming, there have been a number of architecture projects that go a way to prove CKR is a multi-disciplinary practice rather than a one-trick pony; the otherworldly Sfera culture centre and offices in Kyoto, for example, or the Örsta art gallery in Kumla, Sweden. Now they have a healthy mix of buildings, industrial design, furniture and interiors with more than 50 projects in the works, and the skill is to juggle them all at once.
“One minute we are discussing a housing development with 150 flats and the next minute we are looking at details on the air cleaner we are designing,” says Rune. “But I love the job. I like the complexity and I like the change. It’s always different, it’s always something new.”
Still, whatever the task at hand, there is simplicity and a coherence to everything that CKR produces – and in large part it’s down to their Nordic roots. Admittedly, there are certain pieces that they might do differently, or refine, if given a second chance. But others, like the Brasilia table for Swedese, they feel stand the test of time.
“We’re architects and designers but we’re really Scandinavian architects and designers,” Koivisto muses. “Interiors and furniture from up here are quite simple and the simplicity is maybe because this part of the world was really poor 50, 60 or 70 years ago. It comes from a tradition of poverty, and it also comes from a culture where you have to deal with weather. So things have to have warmth and they have to work. Today this is known as Scandinavian classic modernism, but what you call modernism where you come from, we call functionalism up here.”
As time has gone on, CKR has become more comfortable with its design heritage and has stopped trying to fight it.
“When we started working together, we sought foreign producers. We didn’t want to be Swedish designers, and definitely not modernist designers. Oh no,” says Koivisto, self-mockingly, with a laugh. “We wanted to be international.”
By email later, Claesson sums up CKR’s history in a different way: “We found out after a few years that we are not the perfect group. We are very different as individuals and we fight a lot. But we can’t do it any other way. We have become brothers.”
Mayfair has always held a certain allure. Compared to the City’s flashy young upstarts or the East End creatives, the area cuts an air of a dignified old gentleman ensconced in private members’ clubs and fine tailoring, at least in the popular imagination. For outsiders wanting a piece of wealthy Old London, it is the only place to be. But how do you enter into a world steeped in exclusivity? Well, providing you have the readies, you can always recreate it, which is what architecture firm Squire and Partners was called on to do for a client that must remain anonymous for the duration of this feature (they’re a Middle Eastern property development firm).
The company hunted for a headquarters to house the multiple branches of its business, eventually settling for a neo-Gothic building on Stratton Street near Green Park tube. Despite a by-the-book modern extension, all was in good order on the outside. The interior, however, had suffered a similar fate as many other historic buildings of the area, namely blandification via a Cat A fitout. Strip lights and suspended ceilings ensured any character conveyed by the exterior had vanished by the time you had crossed the threshold. “It was painful,” says Squire and Partners project leader (and partner in the firm) Tim Gledstone. Thankfully, his team’s makeover could not be more different, drawing on peculiarly British idioms of drawing rooms, country gardens and gentlemen’s clubs.
Squire and Partners worked with Urban Velvet, the client’s architecture and design arm, which acted as design-adviser-cum go-between for the company chairman, an intensely private individual whose ideas were to dictate the fitout. “It was prescriptive in terms of taste. They wanted contemporary, very much anchored in classic high quality,” says Gledstone of the brief. “They also didn’t want anything that was second hand or old.” So battered leather armchairs from eBay were out, replaced by classically styled new furniture from the likes of The Odd Chair Company and Davidson London.
Meticulous in preparation, Gledstone compiled a design code that drew on a quatrefoil motif discovered on the facade, which continued inside on the floor tiles, mouldings and ironmongery (“We were finding it everywhere”). The motif was either carefully restored or incorporated into the new additions to sculpt a consistent design lingo throughout.
You first notice it stamped over and over into the bronze-coloured MDF wall panels of the entrance hall. This short corridor abruptly cuts 90 degrees to frame the Portoro Macchia marble reception desk. The stone appears to have strands of gold spun into its pitch and is set off against a backdrop of impossibly rich rosewood panelling. From here you move into the new extension, and a luxury-hotel-style lounge illuminated by two massive circular chandeliers. This is the heart of building, an intense cocktail of quality materials and beautifully finished dark wood furniture. “International business is very much about hospitality,” Gledstone says. “Doing business over a cup of tea is becoming more common even away from creative industries. Shoreditch House and Soho House represent that quite well.”
Gledstone calls this the library, though there aren’t any books on display. It’s more a reference to the sophisticated rosewood cabinetry by super-yacht specialists Metrica, which also conceals kitchens, toilets and copy areas on each floor. In this room, though, one can imagine easing back into an armchair and sinking some scotch or nibbling cucumber sarnies in the garden courtyards flanking the room. Originally, the courtyards were merely light wells, inaccessible unless you abseiled in from above. Unlocking the untapped potential, Gledstone replaced the windows with glazed doors. Landscape designer Kim Wilkie was drafted in to select appropriate foliage and craft a layout that connects the garden and interior with a raised patio. The sunlight these gardens draw in provides a perfect counterbalance to the dark palette of materials on display. Today, the library is empty, but Melanie David De Sauzea, Urban Velvet’s head of interiors, explains that it’s normally more buzzy.
More formal is the large wood-panelled meeting room in the original building. Ornate window mouldings and a fireplace surround were carefully nursed back to health. The architects also managed to stain the cheap pine panelling to match the solid oak window shutters. “When we stripped it back we found it was pine underneath and the colour contrast was quite nasty,” Gledstone says. “We had about four goes at getting it right.”
Up a listed staircase, again carefully restored, the first floor is a game of two halves. Resting imperiously in the old part of the building is a suite of rooms for the chairman: a waiting area, a drawing-room-style main office and smaller annexed private office. In the newer building are more familiar workspaces designed to nurture a sit down, plug-in culture; a reception area bridges the gap between the two. Of all the work Gledstone’s team carried out, the resurrection of the chairman’s main office from bleached white cadaver to hale and hearty London gent is the most impressive. Gilded mouldings and green hand-painted silk wallpaper complement the palette of rosewood, marble and bronze. Noticeably absent is the intimidating chairman’s desk,
de rigueur for many a company head. Instead, behind the leather sofa is a more conciliatory circular dining table. Overhead are two Venini chandeliers, in a design that went out of production sometime in the 1970s and was specially recommissioned for this project. Surrounded by all the finery, it seems appropriate to whisper, and indeed, hushed tones are helpful given all the hard surfaces (“Rugs are on the way,” says David De Sauzea).
On the upper floors are the company’s various branches, including Urban Velvet. Each office follows a similar blueprint, with an outdoor terrace, breakout space and meeting rooms. These areas are more generic, the idea being each company will forge its identity once it becomes more at home. So far there’s little sign of this save for Urban Velvet’s samples library, but David De Sauzea says that employees are often away on business.
Squire and Partners would not be the automatic choice to create this old-world sensibility. After all, the practice is perhaps better known for the assured modernism of the Unison headquarters or its part in the Chelsea Barracks saga. It all begins to make sense, however, upon examining its work for Urban Golf or
The Rockwell Hotel. With these personality-driven projects, success boiled down to the architects’ skill in reflecting a disposition or brand. With Stratton Street, the architects, under the guidance of Urban Velvet, have well and truly pulled it off. “It was very complementary,
a great collaboration,” confirms David De Sauzea.
Google’s beach-hut-filled London office charmed the design community and beyond with its playfulness and primary-coloured kook when it opened for business in 2010 (onoffice 50). But despite the success of the Scott Brownrigg-designed space, the firm opted for a different approach for Google Engineering’s headquarters on London’s Buckingham Palace Road, commissioning architects Penson to drop the kindergarten palette and develop something a little more grown up.
“A lot of people have distinct ideas about what the Google ‘look’ is but they’re trying slowly to change the way they’re doing things with design,” explains Penson lead designer Anna Pizzey. “Before, Google leaned towards the very whimsical, very fun, and it played on those primary colours of the logo, but when they came to us they said they wanted to move away from all of that.”
Given just three days to come up with initial ideas just before Christmas 2010, Penson decided to engage with the geek-chic aesthetic of the internet behemoth’s software engineers, developing a more mature space – but one that is anything but dull. Entering Google Engineering’s HQ feels akin to strolling into NASA. Futuristic workstation bays sit next to informal “flight pod” meeting rooms, which, with their bespoke tiered sofas and slouchy bean bags, somewhat resemble astronauts’ rec rooms.
Penson’s floorplan tackled the awkward symmetry of the fourth-floor space and attempted to remove potentially disturbing foot traffic away from the central desk area by congregating meeting rooms around two wings. “The flight pods act as the visual and acoustic barrier between the circulation areas and the desking areas,” explains Pizzey. “They are completely open and not bookable. The idea is that people have to negotiate among themselves when and why they need them.”
The thinking behind this decision was to combat the often solitary and quiet programming landscape and encourage more communication and integration among the engineers. This idea of open, informal communication has been mirrored by the design of the pods, both in their docked corners to integrate them into the wider workspace, and in the choice of curtains rather than doors, alongside whiteboard walls and intimate lighting.
The task of naming the pods fell to the engineers themselves, who opted to honour iconic programming languages such as Cobol, Haskell and Basic. Penson wanted these rooms to be highly customisable, and sure enough, after a few months of use, foosball tables, rugs, plants and cushions sit beside the video conferencing technology and Kvadrat PVC-finish walls. “The idea was that we gave them a framework that they can add to, rather than telling them how to use the space,” says Pizzey.
There are two bookable meeting rooms at the entrance to the floor, with more formal retro white vinyl chairs rather than sofas, and geometrically etched glass walls. “A lot of people say this area looks like a spaceship, but the inspiration came a lot from looking at geometric forms and origami,” says Pizzey. “The tiles are based on a computer software sequence that uses these triangles, and we’ve developed the theme throughout the floor.”
A black carpet reduces noise around the well-trodden path to the flight pods and meeting rooms, but Bolon is used elsewhere, giving the floor a perceptible space-age sparkle. Pizzey explains: “We felt that with the super-slick finishes on this level, with the angles and geometry, and the architectural way it’s cut and carved, that using carpet throughout would be the wrong finish.”
Environmental graphics were important for maintaining the space-station atmosphere of the floor, whether it be the playful numbering of the workstation bays or the reoccurring L4 (for level four) motif, which has been fashioned out of punched powder-coated steel and back-lit. Around the edges of the leafy atrium – the only existing element from the floor’s previous incarnation – the black PVC has been embossed with intersecting lines and emblazoned with pixel-like silver buttons spelling Google. “It’s our take on a hedgerow,” smiles Pizzey.
The pixel motif appears again in the headquarter’s “circulation nodes” – dramatic dark blue corridors that connect intersections in the four corners of the building. These harbour backlit signage punched into the joinery panels, which alongside floor and ceiling LED strips, guide employees onwards.
The four video conferencing rooms also feature dramatic strip lighting, alongside white Panton chairs by Vitra; a bespoke table system suspended from the ceiling seems to nod to the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise. Pizzey explains: “We just wanted the video conferencing to feel really different. The whole purpose of these rooms is to talk to someone, so we wanted to reorientate the room to really focus on the experience.”
But this would not be a Google office if the entire floor was dedicated to work. The left wing of the building features a lushly decorated cinema, which can be used both for conferences by day and film screenings out of hours. Penson created a fun cinema foyer, with wall graphics featuring popcorn and moveable lettering mimicking the grid system of old movie listings.
Penson also created not the average canteen, but a futuristic “coffee lab” featuring all the latest java-related products for the engineers to get their caffeine fix. Pizzey says: “This office basically comes online at about six in the evening because America is online; there are people here almost 24-7. So for these guys, coffee is almost like gold.”
Here Penson translated the triangular coding motif into floor tiling, and combined it with geometric industrial lighting by Zumtobel to prevent the futuristic aesthetic being lost to a barrista-chic vibe. But even in this room, trademark Google geekery and passion for the unexpected prevails. The imposing-looking large black table, which was made bespoke for the room, features a top surface made from compressed recycled coffee grains. Pizzey adds: “This was a really nice project for researching new materials – materials that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with an office space.”
It’s first thing on Monday morning and the team behind start-up superstudio Hub Westminster have got the coffee on, but it doesn’t feel like they really need the caffeine hit. If Ken Livingstone was said to think in soundbites, these guys have them hardwired into their brains. And that’s not a diss. “We’re like a 21st-century members’ club,” begins Alice Fung, co-founder of this Hub, the latest incarnation in what has become a 28-strong global network of places for small businesses to come, grow and flourish. “It’s not a static environment, it’s a catalyst for diverse use,” adds Joni Steiner, a designer with 00:/, the strategy and design practice that worked on the fitout.
Steiner continues: “The first Hub in London, in Angel, had more of a hippy vibe and the second in King’s Cross was more accessible for businesspeople, with more high quality finishes. This place is faster-paced and experimental, though there are still a lot of the same principles that tie all the Hubs together.”
The official Hub blurb talks in highfalutin terms of “helping entrepreneurs and changemakers drive the impact economy,” but put simply, if you’re a small company looking to meet equally driven, equally creative people; if you’re not averse to the whole rough-and-ready aesthetic; and if you prefer Pall Mall to Old Street – then this is your kinda place.
Hub Westminster covers 1,115sq m on the first floor of New Zealand House on Haymarket. It used to be the place where you’d go to appeal about parking tickets, and was previously a warren-like set of cellular offices. “We wanted to change that bad vibe,” says Steiner. “Once we got rid of the partitions, we found we had this amazing big open space to play with.” His colleague at 00:/, architect Lynton Pepper, continues: “It had a low ceiling and brown carpet so the project was a lot about taking things away and simplifying the space.”
The services were spray-painted white and 00:/ set about creating a series of different work settings, from smaller soft spaces to a large conference room. The cafe, where my tour begins, is intended for use for two to three hours at a time. “Writable surfaces and things on wheels are really important,” says Fung, while Steiner ably demonstrates how users keep the noise down by enclosing a meeting table with whiteboards. It’s hard not to be drawn in to their enthusiasm, and they’ve barely even started.
Next, we’re whizzing past the beanbags, the greenhouse meeting space and some high chairs and desks. Even the more regular-looking workstations are not quite what they seem. “The tables have been built at an angle to give a little nudge to collaboration,” says Fung. The tables consist of leaves that can be extended for more space or folded away as required.
Steiner then wheels up a mobile storage unit “pet”, designed by Umut Yamaç of design studio Rus in Urbe, that doubles up as an extra meeting seat. Needless to say, this young design practice has had a lot of fun in the workspace: for example, relay cords can be pulled down from the ceiling to provide extra power points. You really believe them when 00:/ talk of one day creating a hydroponic area in the ceiling for growing mint for a high-level hit of freshness.
Then it’s up and into the Wiki, a wooden raised meeting area that 00:/ designed themselves and offered up to open sourcing – they worked with programmers, so the design can be replicated and evolved through people using it online. Also on the theme of reuse, East London Furniture has made shelving from upcycled repurposed elements including timber studwork and ceiling tiles, while 00:/ has used offcuts from meeting-table legs to make a screen.
It’s not all emerging design talent though. 00:/ is working with furniture giant Haworth on exploring future workplace set-ups and Muraspec has supplied a wall of whiteboard paint in a workshop room. Much of the lighting comes courtesy of Spectral, part of the RIDI portfolio, which supplied more than a hundred Iris pendants, specified with their circuitry exposed to match the other exposed services.
Scaffolding poles really come into their own in this office too. They make up a freestanding bar in the cafe, as well as bleacher-style seating, plus they frame off the adjacent self-service kitchen. The kitchen is named Escoffier’s, in honour of the chef who worked at the hotel owned by the Ritz group that was once located on the site. A nice touch. Plants wind their way around the scaffolding here and Fung points out that they have a “growing club” for the green-fingered Hub members. There’s a poster advertising yoga too. It’s probably the closest that the 21st-century twentysomething office worker will get to the 1970s ideal of communal living. But with more social media and no rota to clean the compost toilet. Oh, and some serious business talk to back everything up too.
“There are three parts to the business,” explains Fung. “It’s a place to work, a place to learn and a place to get investment. All three help to drive new members.” Hub Westminster, which is 40% owned by the local council, is based on a pay-by-time membership model, where tariffs range from an unbelievably small £20 through to £350 per month.
Members can switch between tariffs on a month-by-month basis, with off-peak tariffs for students and others who want to make use of the space outside of regular working hours. “We have an ideal quota from each membership type, and we want enough churn so the community doesn’t feel static. We also want to members to take ownership of the space,” says Fung.
As if to ably demonstrate this, we see a couple pushing a table half-way around the doughnut-shaped space. We then also come across some old first-class airline seats – bought and installed by another member. “We want to allow members to imprint on the space,” says Fung finally. “It’s 50% designed by the 00:/ team and 50% by the members themselves. We really wanted to allow things to happen.”
Graz is Austria’s second largest city and one of two distinct halves. The river Mur, which flows through its centre on its way down to neighbouring Croatia, divides the medieval old town from newer developments on the east bank. Uhrturm, the venerable old clock tower that sits solemnly atop Grazer Schloßberg, overlooks the city’s melting pot of Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque architecture, a historical stew that scooped Graz World Heritage Site status in 1999.
One might assume that the city’s elders hold a dim view of modern architecture, which is partly true. Apart from a blobby modern art museum by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, built in 2003 for Graz’s European City of Culture celebrations, it remains the exception rather than the rule. Consequently the most recent construction has occurred east of the river. Over the last century, the area was subject to steady development and today there is little space free from some structure or another. Offices, apartments, hotels and municipal buildings rub shoulders in an urban environment adhering to no formal plan; the seemingly haphazard streets follow what used to be offshoots from the Mur rather than a bureaucrat’s blueprint.
One of the last spots colonised was Nikolaiplatz, a rectangular patch of land a chip shot from the riverbank. Formerly home to a decrepit storage shed, a simple elegant modern office by local practices Atelier Thomas Pucher and Bramberger now stands in its place. “It is really a perfect piece of city, a beautiful mix,” says Thomas Pucher of his canvas.
Into this “perfect piece of city” the practice has inserted a narrow rectangular building with a gleaming gold and glass checkerboard facade. It was designed for Bauwerk Projekt, a local developer with a keen appreciation of rectilinear modernism, which now shares the space with tenants NIK, a media agency. Atelier Thomas Pucher’s effort slots smoothly into the growing portfolio. The building appears to be the definition of simplicity, as if the blocks were methodically placed next to one another until the required dimensions were reached. In reality, the site’s prominence hid great challenges. Largest of these was an underground car park directly underneath the old storage shed. The client owned the site, but not the car park, and so Pucher was obliged to build on top of it. This immediately ruled out heavy masonry or brick as a construction material: “We calculated you could do a two-storey brick building there, but no more,” says Pucher. “We had the idea to do a simple building with a very light steel construction. With the same weight we found we could do five floors.” Underpinning the building is an intricate piece of structural engineering designed to safely distribute the weight. The practice carefully weaved steel girders into the garage supports below. “It was really complex, like a spider’s web,” says Pucher, “but it’s not visible anymore.”
Gently placed onto this web is a stack of gold cubes that takes up every inch of the site without dominating either the street or the (pretty miserable) green space on the riverside. “We found this shape solved all the urban conditions. It creates a small plaza on the side of the existing buildings, which everyone likes. The park is still ugly, but at least you have an object that you look at instead of the park.”
Keen to encourage a healthy and bright working environment, the practice incorporated large amounts of glass into the facade. However, in a heavily built up area such as this, privacy was an obvious problem. Too much transparency and workers’ daily routine would be subject to scrutiny from the neighbours and passersby. Countering the potential goldfish bowl effect, Pucher and his team arranged the aluminium panels opposite the glass counterparts on the opposing walls. “You get extremely high transparency but you have a clear intimacy as well.” At the top of each gold square are tiny slots, almost unnoticeable, that ventilate the building. To prevent staff from photosynthesising, automated blinds shut out the sunlight when the heat becomes too much.
On the inside, the gold panelled areas are covered in handy shelving, drawing inevitable office clutter away from the windows. The internal layout displays similarly efficient logic. Working with a narrow floorplate, the architects placed the services, toilets and main stairwell to the building’s southern end. At the centre is an unfussy spiral staircase connecting a gallery sandwiched by two offices. NIK employed its own interior designers for the fitout. “Nope, we did not do the interior design,” says Pucher. “The funny thing is we did the concept. The media agency had a different architect, but they followed our guidelines.” Bauwerk Project snagged the penthouse office and roof terrace for themselves, although NIK reportedly has its eye on occupying the whole building.
The roof terrace is strategically oriented towards the clock tower, a structure that seems to rule over Graz’s planning department like a conservative grandfather, chiding anyone that fails to show the required deference. “Whatever you do in the city has to be related to the clock tower,” explains Pucher. “It is the symbol of the city.” The relationship is similar to London’s enduring love affair with St Paul’s, albeit on a much smaller scale, and one wonders what shape our cities might have taken without these monuments to act as anchors.
In a rather fitting twist, Pucher’s building has met with such popular acclaim that it is now one of the stops on the tourist bus. “Graz is really a small city, so they need some attractions,” he laughs. One suspects he is being a little too modest.
It’s quite a stretch to imagine that the soaring shimmering form of Marischal College, a 120m-long and 24m-tall silver granite landmark building that currently dominates Aberdeen’s skyline, was until recently a dark and dirty – and pigeon infested – city centre “development opportunity”. It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune, and one that arrived in the unlikely form of a huge leap of faith from a cash-strapped Aberdeen City Council, who opted to invest £40m to transform one the largest granite buildings in the world – second in size only to the El Escorial Palace outside Madrid – into their new office HQ.
A laudable decision, admits architect and project partner Douglas Jack of Holmes Miller, the architecture firm responsible for the redevelopment. “It would have been much cheaper to build a new out-of-town office building, but instead the council saw this problem listed building in the city centre and rescued it.”
This noble, and some might say foolhardy, rescue effort has already yielded palpable results. For not only has the arrival of 1,400 local government staff and associated visitors injected more life and buzz back into this part of the city centre, but in creating a contemporary light-filled, open-plan office complex out of the muddled mix of butchered interior interventions that lay behind the grimy granite, the project has shown that heritage preservation and modern working needs, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact they can, and in this case do, co-exist very happily.
Marischal College, a former seat of the University of Aberdeen, first emerged in 1841 as a Tudor Gothic-style building arranged around a three-sided quadrangle. This was later augmented by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie’s “perpendicular Gothic” design, completed in 1906 and believed to have been influenced by Charles Barry’s designs for the Houses of Parliament.
However when Holmes Architects – now Holmes Miller since the firm’s recent merger with the Miller Partnership – was appointed to redevelop the building in November 2007, it was a far cry from its heyday as “the pride of the silver city by the sea.”
“The Grade A listing makes this a precious building. It’s much loved in Aberdeen,” explains Douglas Jack.
“In terms of our overall intention for the project, this was to restore and clean the stonework facade and to create grand internal civic spaces that would be representative of the building. However, what lay behind the building facade was a nightmare – a series of messed-around interior spaces where the rain was coming in, and it was also infested with pigeons. It wasn’t feasible to create an open-plan office by keeping all the existing structure, so we scooped out the inside of the building, retaining the facades by means of temporary steelwork.”
The only retained part of the original interior is the Senate Room, an oak-panelled space to the right of the main entrance, which has been meticulously restored and where the city registrar now carries out wedding ceremonies. The remaining internal structure has been reconfigured and now includes two extra floors, which was achieved by excavating down into the existing floor levels and installing new roof-level accommodation. Clad in natural zinc, and designed to blend with the granite masonry, the new roof structure has been carefully worked out to minimise its visual impact above the original masonry parapets. However, a bolder contemporary intervention had originally been planned.
“We started off with a design solution of a pure glass box on the top of the extension – a bit like at the top of the Tate Modern in London,” continues Jack. “We felt that it was a suitable response. But this had to be modified so that the leading roof edge would be below the original granite structure. There was a risk that the original solution may have been loud and shouty in relation to the original building. But on balance we’re happy with the solution that we have now, as the internal spaces have worked out so well.”
Among the features of the new rooftop extension are a third-floor external terrace that staff can use in the summer months, and a rooflit conference suite on the fourth floor. The “glass box” circulation lifts have been designed to take advantage of views across the city as staff and visitors move up through the building.
Another key aspect of the redevelopment, and a device that overcomes the separation between the north and south wings, is the creation of a main entrance in the original pend – the arched passageway previously used for vehicle access. The frameless glazing system creates a grand internal foyer (and crucially, a wind-resistant one) while maintaining the views through
to the central collegiate-style quadrangle.
The reception and customer services areas at the main entrance are dramatic, double height and opulent. “We were keen to create an Aberdeen theme to the front-of-house areas,” says Jack. “The granite floors and details are cut from local Kemnay granite blocks (the same granite cut for the Scottish Parliament building). We wanted the desks to reflect the driftwood from the beach. Not a lot of people associate Aberdeen with beaches, but there is an amazing sandy beach to the north of the city. The black resin tiled gateway is emblematic of the oil economy of the city, and this also adds a lot of drama to the space and contrasts well with the granite. Black granite would have to be imported so we used a resin bound tile with crushed rock.”
The photographic wallpaper at key locations shows images taken of the Aberdeenshire area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including archive photos from well-known Victorian photographer (and Aberdeen native) George Washington Wilson.
In contrast to the drama of the public reception and waiting areas, meeting spaces for private consultations are positioned under acoustic ceilings with additional acoustic panels between the desks in order to create a more intimate scale. A few glass-walled meeting rooms have also been designed for more sensitive discussions. Although internal office areas have been designed to clearly respond to the historical facade, clever spatial solutions create a contemporary light and airy feel. Towards the north wing of the building, where the floorplate becomes too deep for sufficient light penetration, roof lights and a full-height void have been inserted to allow a shaft of light deep into the heart of the building. This atrium space accommodates two rebuilt windows taken from the original building.
“We’ve tried to expose as much of the building’s details and intricacies to modern use,” concludes Jack. “Even the little turrets above the entrance pend can be used; they can only accommodate around three people, but they can still be used. I’m pleased with the way that we’ve made a feature of the existing building.”