“This is what I want to do,” says Niko Japaridze of Georgian practice Architects of Invention, whipping out his phone to show me. “A building between the earth and the moon – a vertical city.”
For an architect who’s just completed his first new building, Japaridze certainly thinks big. But while the space project – a competition proposal – is surely fantasy, his clutch of new Georgian office buildings, all for the country’s Ministry of Justice, are very much a reality. The first, the Prosecutor’s Office in Tbilisi, was finished in February, followed in April by the House of Justice in Ozurgeti; the House of Justice in Lazika – Georgia’s new city on the Black Sea – is due to be finished in September.
With its massive steel frame and a distinctive composition of suspended and projecting box-like forms, the £5.2 million Tbilisi building is a remarkable debut. Japaridze, who lives in England but works in Georgia, was immersed in architecture from an early age courtesy of his architect father. He studied in Tbilisi and Moscow before working for KPF and EPR in London, then OMA in Rotterdam, a firm he had long admired and which better suited his inquiring approach. “I always try to deny I’m an architect. Only then can I do something interesting,” he explains.
All three justice projects were won in separate design competitions. The 1,500sq m Prosecutor’s Office was designed and built to a punishing ten-month schedule, made harder by the lack of precedents for structurally innovative steel buildings in Georgia. This issue led to the young practice collaborating with UK engineers Engenuiti for the project.
“It was a great challenge for the team. We didn’t have a facade engineer and no one had any experience in steel structures,” says Japaridze.
The brief was to provide office accommodation for 60 justice staff in the building, along with interrogation rooms, an archive, the chancellery, and an office for the chief prosecutor. The site, although located one kilometre from the city centre near the Tbilisi Court, was empty, with no immediate built context, although the building was designed with blank sides in the expectation that the surrounding areas will be developed.
Architects of Invention’s approach was to arrange all the accommodation as staggered components, suspended off a huge black steel frame with no visible supporting columns, a form that creates a public space beneath the suspended offices on one side. The top floor houses the prosecutor’s office – the largest of the boxes – and includes an enclosed roof garden for events plus a canteen, staff veranda and meeting room.
The accessibility of the ground floor was essential to the architects’ concept for the building. “It’s an object itself and an urban body at the same time,” explains Japaridze. “We’ve taken the exterior inside, so that it has an interior that’s also public.”
The main staircase is the focus of the interior, rising the full 22m height of the building in a continuous flight to create a dramatic narrow space, top lit by a ventilating skylight and clad in semi-translucent Pilkington glass. (Architects of Invention has a knack for dramatic staircases: another project, for Georgia’s National Olympic Committee, features one in snaking steel and maple veneer.) This allows those climbing the stairs or crossing the space on the third and fifth level bridges to see glimpses of movement behind the glass.
This has become a busy sociable space for staff, accessed from landings that lead off on either side on each floor. “It’s an internal street,” says Japaridze. “Everyone uses it and they all meet people there. It’s a very transparent, permeable space.” At the same time, the stairs – which ultimately lead to the prosecutor’s office on the top floor – convey a sense of hierarchy to those moving through the building as well as delineating the transitional point between civilians and law-makers.
Externally, while the front is demonstrative, the back – Japaridze’s favourite view – is more closed, with far fewer windows, among them the narrow verticals of the interrogation rooms. Japaridze likes to think of it as a reference to the prosecutor’s capacity to say yes or no – with the front representing “yes”, and the rear, “no”. Continuing the analogy with the building’s function, the starkness of the steel frame can be seen to represent the uncompromising nature of the legal system. Inside, the many reflections created by the mirrored volumes suggest, says the architect, an endless reflection and ordering of the world outside. It also combines privacy and transparency at the same time, conveying the necessary dignity of law and justice, says Japaridze.
The architects had to work hard to convince the client to approve of the exposed steel structure (“they’d have preferred it to be hidden,” says Japaridze) but were unable to get their way with their choice of red carpet, which the client vetoed.
According to Japaridze, there is no critical discourse in contemporary Georgian architecture, which is hampered by the ongoing conflict between Western and Soviet ideologies. The prosecutor’s office, and the two other justice buildings that Architects of Invention has created, should help raise the debate, as well as showing what can be achieved with creative use of steel. At the House of Justice in Ozurgeti, the two functions of public services and wedding hall are housed in distinct square and oval volumes, with a public thoroughfare through the building. At Lazika, accommodation is suspended beneath a striking canopy in a nod to the work of Will Alsop – who Japaridze once worked for in Moscow – and also Viennese architect Wolfgang Tschapeller.
Japaridze would dearly love to work in the UK – if he can find a way of fulfilling the stringent qualification requirements for public work. Until then, he has plenty of other projects on the go in Georgia, many of which are hugely ambitious, such as a soaring tower in Tbilisi that looks like a tornado, plus further plans for the new city of Lazika, albeit rather more likely to be realised than Japaridze’s dream project of a moon-earth link.
Perhaps the fresh-faced twentysomethings who set up tech start-ups need a comforting reminder of their university days to ease their transition from higher education to their working lives. That might explain the choice of Campus as the name for a cavernous, seven-storey, 2,300sq m office building in Tech City – the area surrounding Old Street colloquially known as the Silicon Roundabout owing to its concentration of web-based companies. Then again, the name’s informal, studenty connotations also references the fact that, for this generation of budding entrepreneurs, a conventional, soullessly corporate environment is anathema.
What’s more, there is literally an educational dimension to this enterprise: as well as being a co-working space and a breeding ground for new businesses, it hosts mentoring programmes and workshops.
Formerly a drab office occupied by employees of The Barbican arts centre, the building has been redesigned by Markus Nonn and Shaun Fernandes of London-based architects Jump Studios, whose other clients currently include Selfridges, Nike and ad agency Mother. “We do a lot of workspace design for the creative industries,” says Nonn. “With Campus, we went on site last November and finished in March. An event was planned for then which couldn’t be changed, so the project had to be finished that month. Fortunately, Jump Studios is based nearby so I could get on site quickly.”
In the interest of creating a fashionably industrial, raw, largely open-plan look, the project, which was financed by Google and cost £2.2m, entailed both radically stripping back the interiors and adding new, sharply graphic, often upscale elements. These include banquettes upholstered in pea green or airforce blue Kvadrat fabrics, used as breakout spaces, and furniture and lighting in playing-card shades – scarlet, black and white – by such companies as Hay, Magis and Muuto, all supplied by London furniture shop Viaduct. There is bespoke seating in plywood and fire-engine red, and sea-container-like, multifunctional units housing mini-kitchens, personal lockers, cosy private booths and recycling bins. Enhancing the industrial feel is a new, pillar-box-red roller shutter on the ground floor, which separates a large presentation room and a corridor. Lining one wall of the latter are stacked-up recycled vegetable crates displaying books and quirky objects. “Companies fill these with things they feel communicate their brand’s ethos,” explains Nonn. On this floor, too, are a bike store (formerly a loading bay) and showers – also new additions.
Nonn might summarise Campus’s raw look as “low-tech” but this really does feel like the office of the future. Indeed, there are some achingly self-conscious, futuristic touches: a patio on the lower-ground floor boasts plants attached to sensors that send out a tweet when they need water. This floor also houses a cafe – with a mural by graphic artist Luke Embden – that’s open to residents of the building, visitors from outside and Central Working, a members-only co-workers’ club conducive to networking.
The first and second floors are occupied by Tech Hub, “a community of tech entrepreneurs”, the third by Springboard, “an intensive 13-week, mentor-led accelerator programme for start-ups”, the fourth by Seedcamp, which invests in and mentors start-ups, and the fifth by Google – a very casual space where Google staff mentor residents of the building, sharing their expertise. Each floor accommodates 110 people, but although some occupants have permanent workstations, most are here temporarily, making for a predominantly transient population. “We see Campus as a launchpad for start-ups that stay, on average, for six months,” says Eze Vidra, head of Campus. “As the businesses burgeon they outgrow the space, and move on.”
Just as Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs didn’t see the need to wear a suit to work, many start-ups these days take it for granted that businesses can function perfectly in an unorthodox office space. But while there are sociological reasons for this, Nonn doesn’t intellectualise about his design for Campus: “We wanted to create a space with a buzz – more like a university than a normal office,” he puts it simply. “The building used to have a cellular layout, suspended ceilings, grey carpets… We wanted to open up the space, expose the ceilings, create an industrial, garage-like feel – a nod to the way many young entrepreneurs start businesses in their parents’ garages.”
While cultivating a raw aesthetic, Jump Studios has also modernised and upgraded the space. “The building was rewired and some extra air-conditioning units installed, though most ventilation is provided by opening windows,” says Nonn. “We put in new light fittings, fire alarms, smoke detectors, Wi-Fi ports.”
Moreover, a part of the ceiling in the lower-ground has been opened up to give a glimpse of the ground floor. Some walls are now lined with acoustic panels (these cleverly double as gigantic pinboards), upholstered with elephant-grey fabric, that compensate for the inevitably echoey nature of these excavated spaces.
The lower-ground floor patio, which features moss-covered panels supplied by landscape architects Wayward Plants, is more accessible now, thanks to additional glass doors leading to it. And the top floor now has a huge, new roof terrace with timber decking; looming above it is a white wall onto which films can be projected.
What was the biggest challenge Campus presented for Jump Studios? “We didn’t have much contact with the client, so we had to make some assumptions along the way about what they wanted,” says Nonn. “But Google was happy with the result.”
Despite its futuristic flourishes, Campus’s interiors are also distinctly retro: their palette of black, white and red and such industrial-chic touches as bulkhead lights in some areas recall the high-tech style of design that was hugely hip in the late 70s/early 80s. Even the smattering of primary-coloured Lego (apparently Google’s founders adore it) in the reception nods to this aesthetic. Yet this Lego feels oddly tacked-on, detracting from the otherwise stylish look of the red, white and black furniture distributed on all floors to unifying effect.
It’s unlikely, though, that this troubles the dynamic start-ups here. In fact, with Campus, Jump Studios has surely created the ultimate Nirvana for nerds.
When Hillcrest Housing Association first floated the idea of a new company HQ, its aspirations were by no means run-of-the-mill. Indeed, the brief that they presented to Broughty Ferry-based architects Nicoll Russell Studios, sought the creation of a building “at the forefront of sustainable design”. And in a canny conflation of client ambition and architectural vision, what finally emerged in 2011, in a leafy location on the edge of the city, was a low carbon and BREEAM Excellent-rated timber frame and glass complex that is in essence the city’s greenest building.
“The key for us was to design an environmentally sustainable building that doesn’t necessarily look ‘green’,” says project architect Gerry Farquharson. “I think that people can happily walk past this building without being aware of its environmental credentials. And we’re OK with that. I don’t think that sustainable building should necessarily look green; there’s no turf roof, for example. The building avoids ‘grafted on’ features. It’s more sophisticated than that.”
The “seamless sustainability” of Hillcrest HQ, one of Dundee Technology Park’s newest residents, has been achieved in a number of ways. The building’s air-tight envelope, with a measured air permeability of 3.3m3/(hr/m2) reduces the demand for heating and cooling. The timber-framed building’s form was also developed to minimise unwanted direct glare and solar heat gains while maximising the amount of indirect light from the north sky. Renewable technologies that reduce carbon emissions include a biomass boiler, with supplementary heating of the domestic hot water from solar thermal panels. The building has also been designed to allow future installation of two 15kW wind turbines.
Dynamic energy modelling was carried out to compare the energy consumption for both an air-tight mechanically ventilated solution and a naturally ventilated solution. The mechanically ventilated solution is coupled with an earth tube air conditioning system, in which a series of buried concrete pipes pre-heat or cool depending on the temperature difference between the external air and ground temperature. The building can operate fully in mechanical or natural mode, or a combination of both.
An important advantage of the air-tight ventilation is the fact that windows don’t have to be opened, says Farquharson: “It’s ideal in this context, as there’s a main trunk road nearby that produces a lot of traffic noise, but this noise pollution isn’t discernible inside the building. The design solution is a site-specific response.”
This “sealed building” solution has a palpable influence on the working environment. Hillcrest HQ, which houses around 90 staff, is uncannily tranquil – almost church-like – despite its open-plan arrangement. Publicly accessible areas are located at ground level, with conference, training and meeting rooms arranged around breakout and social spaces in a controlled but visually linked arrangement. Circulation routes lead to an upper floor and mezzanine with a mix of open-plan workspace, cellular offices and formal and informal meeting spaces.
“One of the key elements of the design was the need for flexibility and an increased sense of openness to break down the ‘silo’ system of working,” says Farquharson, “so the building features big open-plan floorplates that can be reconfigured into lots of different arrangements.
“We were also aware that buildings that enhance performance tend to be fresh, bright and airy, with a good relationship to nature. These were fundamental ideas that underpinned the design approach.” The swathe of glazing, which allows the surrounding greenery to penetrate deep into the heart of the building, contributes considerably to the bright and airy ambience, and effect that is beautifully offset internally by the exposed timber post and beam structure. A sense of its grand scale can be appreciated in the cross-laminated spruce panels that span the primary glulam structure to form floor and roof decks, which are nine metres long.
The benefits of the exposed timber aren’t merely aesthetic. Acoustically it provides a softness and it also serves to regulate the moisture content in the internal environment. Furthermore, Farquharson hopes that this type of construction, using locally sourced spruce, will stimulate further industry interest in this type of building technology. “The project demonstrates how a timber structure can be employed successfully (and beautifully) in resolving the structural loading requirements for office environments. And Scotland has lots of spruce. Let’s use it!”
Externally, the structure is wrapped in aluminium curtain walling, topped with a standing-seam aluminium roof. The lightweight glass and aluminium building is anchored to the site via a ground-floor level
of wire gabions, filled with local sandstone from Denfind. “We were keen to settle the building into the landscape and the stone work creates a natural plinth,” says Farquharson. “The stone drum on the corner (which contains circulation space) is a powerful shape that creates a presence and provides context to the building.”
In terms of the experience of working in Dundee’s “greenest” building, Hillcrest project manager Graeme Keillor is unequivocal in his endorsement: “It’s a significant sea change for employees, as we were previously working in cellular offices in the centre of Dundee. Core functions such as development, finance, IT and corporate services are based here and this has brought people together as a team.
“There were people who had joined the organisation two or three years ago who hadn’t even met before we moved here. People now eat together in the social areas, rather than at their desks, and it’s simple things like this that have made a huge difference. There’s an openness here and connection to the landscape. And it’s amazing how quiet it is. It’s a great success.”
The idea of working with your husband or wife may not appeal to everyone, but it suits Francisco Javier Casas Cobo and Beatriz Villanueva Cajide. Joint partners in Brijuni Arquitectos in Madrid, Spain, the pair met while studying architecture at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. ‘We hated each other at first’, admits Villanueva Cajide, laughing. She thought he was arrogant, while he found her rather brusque.
However, it didn’t take long for them to better understand each other, fall in love and found a practice together, with Villanueva Cajide taking the creative lead on projects. (‘She is the creative one and I am the theoretical one’, elucidates Casas Cobo.) Together, they have designed houses in Jaen, Andalucia and undertaken residential renovation projects in Madrid. But one of Brijuni’s most charming creations is the interior of its former office.
A few months ago, Brijuni was happily ensconsed in a striking street level office in downtown Madrid’s creative Malasaña quarter. Brijuni took on the former metalworking shop in January 2011, renovating the 70m2 space over the next two months. At its height last year, the Brijuni office employed five people and housed a further three architects, but unfortunately financial pressures forced the company to leave the studio a couple of months ago.
‘This is a story of the economic crisis – an office that has sadly passed away,’ says Casas Cobo. He believes that the shop is now occupied by a bag designer, but the front windows are papered over, so they cannot determine whether the interior is still intact. During its lifetime, the Brijuni office commanded a lot of attention from curious passers by. ‘People used to knock on the door and ask what we sold. Only very occasionally were they interested in architectural services, so we can safely say that being street-level does not help you to get commissions,’ laughs Casas Cobo.
‘Clients loved the place,’ he continues. ‘It is a big advantage, designing your own office well, because it makes clients trust that you will create something beautiful for them also.’
While clients liked the ground floor, with its acid green paint and bare brickwork, they were even more impressed by the basement meeting room. This featured murals by the artist Jack Babiloni, who is famous in Spain for winning a popular TV cultural quiz show called Saber y Ganar, which translates as ‘knowing and earning’. ‘We admired his work before he became famous, and were so glad when he got in touch with us after we wrote a blog about his work. There are many allegories and metaphors in his paintings: they are about us and even one of employees’ cats that passed away. We used to think that the painting protected us and helped us during meetings.’ The title of the painting is ‘Brijuni is a Mental Landscape’, which aptly reflects the practice’s philosophical take on the world of architecture.
Upstairs, photographic images of trees decorate the storage and kitchen section at the back of the office. These also have a special meaning for Casas Cobo and Villanueva Cajide, who both teach at the Istituo Europeo di Design. ‘We love to speak to our students about Heidegger’s theory of sense of place and Aldo van Eyck’s ideas of place versus space, and the questions of memory and identity in architecture. To try to express these ideas, we took photos of the patio plants from our former studio and printed them up. This way, the old studio came with us,’ says Casas Cobo.
The general aesthetic of the studio is open and pared back, with exposed brickwork, air conditioning ducts and cooling fans that are both striking and sculptural. ‘We didn’t want to hide the ceiling fans in a false ceiling’ says Paco. ‘We also didn’t want any walls or divisions, since you don’t particularly need privacy when you are designing stuff. We gave ourselves a very simple brief, and wanted to express just a few ideas using colour and light because colour has such a big impact, and light equals happiness.’ The intense green colour was painted onto the epoxy resin floor while the office’s occupants continued to work, all squashed onto the staircase void, ‘which was very uncomfortable but fun’.
Casas Cobo is enthusiastic about the experience of being his own client. ‘One advantage is that you have total client satisfaction and no complaints,’ he jokes. He and Villanueva Cajide now divide their time between family life with their two small children and a creative workspace called The Hub, along with various bars and cafes with wifi. ‘We talk about our work at all sorts of times – over dinner, walking down the street, and even when we are in the playground watching our daughter Cloe playing. It is nice’, says Casas Cobo.