Century 21, better known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, promised a glimpse into a utopian future. Sadly, it was a vision that was all too fleeting. After the fair moved on, the district it transformed fell into decline, leaving a legacy – the UFO-inspired Space Needle and a monorail – that verged on sci-fi kitsch. In recent years, efforts have been made to breathe life into the area, starting in 2004 with Frank Gehry’s Musical Experience Project. Its latest architectural shot in the arm is the new headquarters for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which completed last year. Designed by architects NBBJ, it is a hugely significant project for the city and the foundation itself.
The foundation’s aims are to improve health and education across the world, and it has some weighty goals, including the global eradication of polio and the search for an AIDS vaccine. It grew from a philanthropic idea hatched at the Gates’s dining table into the world’s wealthiest charity, with $34bn in the coffers and 950 staff. Though a strong testament to righteousness of the cause, the swelling ranks were isolated in five separate offices across the city. In 2004, it decided to build a more formal headquarters – one that encouraged collaboration rather than stifled it.
Although the foundation has projects in 100 countries, a profound loyalty to Seattle underpins its worldwide outlook. To realise this double-edged brief Melinda Gates, the prime mover behind the project, turned to NBBJ – an architectural practice with a global reach that mirrored the foundation’s own, but crucially also had roots in the city.
“At first it confused me. I mean, how many people does it take to give away money?” says Christian Carlson, NBBJ principal. “But I realised they were taking a very rigorous approach to researching what they wanted to invest in.” Following early design meetings with Melinda Gates, Carlson soon realised that the onus was on a building that would herald their arrival on the world stage. “It was subtle, but they seemed to be saying, ‘let’s not just build an office where we can be in the same place, let’s build something that comes to represent us,’” he says.
In response, Carlson and his team conjured three gigantic boomerang-shaped buildings swooping round a central plaza. Conceptually, these represented arms reaching out to the world, while in practice they created the look and feel of an institutional campus. The sheer size of the sprawling five-hectare site allowed NBBJ to draft in landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which crafted beautifully landscaped plazas featuring ponds, wooden walkways and greenery. “There is a sense of community that single office building does not always provide,” says Carlson. “With a campus, there are places where you might bump into someone you might not ordinarily bump into. Also, you have to go outside to move from one place to the other so you are engaged with the atmosphere of the central plaza.”
The largest boomerang, prosaically named Office Wing A, is propped on a plinth-like conference centre running parallel to 5th Avenue North. This low-lying structure forms a connection to the wider city grid while the voluminous office it supports tracks the street north, before horseshoeing energetically back into the heart of the complex and terminating in a vast glass atrium.
A’s stubbier cousin, the equally snappy Office Wing B, possesses a similar symmetry and nestles alongside the top floor of a five-storey green-roofed car park, the first four floors of which are concealed underground. The third wing currently only exists as a ghostly white render, but has full planning permission. “We are just waiting for them to pull the trigger,” Carlson reveals.
To boost the buildings’ credentials as a cultural institution, NBBJ dressed all the street-facing facades in limestone, playing on the material’s association with civic architecture. Like a shirt that is too big for the wearer, the stone sleeve extends past the offices themselves to form cantilevers at one tip of each wing. “It was about the reaching towards the furthest distances of the world, where their work is,” Carlson explains. The architects adorned the inside of the stone sleeves and reception pavilion in unpretentious copper cladding: “It will age subtly, turning dark or green like a penny. We were trying to convey a naturalism, that there was nothing fake about this.” The inside curve of each office is covered floor-to-ceiling in glass, increasing daylight and fostering a connection with the building opposite.
At first glance, site appears porous. The main (and only) entrance sits almost in the middle of the campus and the landscaping does a fine job of meshing the premises into the city at large. This is an illusion. For security reasons, the campus is virtually impenetrable, an understandable move given the importance of visiting dignitaries, Nelson Mandela for example, but a slightly disappointing sign of our guarded times.
The reception provides information about the foundation’s work as well as the building’s environmental credentials. “All lives have equal value” goes the charity’s motto, and so, despite the lengthy purse strings, it was imperative to strike a note of humility with the interiors. The reception sets the tone, with an embroidered front desk and soft felt seating, both made by local artisans; as if in tribute, the team then added a small felt tower, which looks like an improbably high stack of colourful towels.
“Felt is used in cultures across the world. It is a very practical material, but it is also about the craft. People feel the hand of other people, not the machinery,” explains Rysia Suchecka, NBBJ interior design partner. “It pulls the whole thing together.” Continuing in this vein, the walls, floors, ceilings, cabinetry and furniture are made from locally sourced, fast-growing alder (regarded by Pacific Northwest craftsmen as a weed), referencing Seattle’s origins as a booming timber town.
NBBJ worked with workplace consultants Alexi Marmot Associates to create a versatile office. In its short history, the foundation had developed a heads-down work ethic that was felt to be too intense, so space that encouraged staff to share ideas-in-progress topped the wish list. The architects plumped for an uneven 60/40 split in favour of open-plan workspace and configured 20-25 person “neighbourhoods” to break down otherwise intimidating, elongated floor plates. Built with Teknion demountable partitions, the offices will shrink and expand with the ebb and flow of staff. Because the foundation is young, it had few entrenched ideas about ways of working, leaving NBBJ with a relatively free hand: “It was unusual and refreshing because you help form the culture,” says Suchecka. “You leave the space for interpretation as they grow.”
Clusters of formal meeting rooms, the foundation’s bread and butter, define the tip of both the buildings’ wings. Complementing these is a myriad of casual space, touchdown areas and small conference rooms, arranged in an orderly way around each neighbourhood. The building is intentionally narrow (20 metres wide) so that staff are always near a window.
At the apex of each boomerang are the main social hubs, connected by curved staircases. Here staff can grab a coffee, pick up mail and photocopies or sink into B&B Italia wingback sofas and have a chinwag. “If one group is focused on dealing with malaria and another is concentrating on water development in a different part of the world, this campus is an opportunity for those people to connect,” says Kelly Griffin, a NBBJ senior associate. Threading all these beads together are long corridors that curve uninterrupted along each boomerang’s inside perimeter – “the breezeways”. These draw people towards the social hub and ensure that researchers in the reading rooms opposite are left in peace. The view of the Space Needle from the cantilevered end of the breezeway is inspiring, but the crown jewel is the four-storey atrium, a multi-tasking mega-space with automated blackout and solar shades that works as dining room, conference centre and, when Bono drops in, a music venue. In the advent of summer (the city has famously inclement weather), huge doors open onto the central plaza where staff can work ad hoc on the benches and tables. In place of corporate branding, artworks and photos from the countries in which the foundation is active are displayed. “The work is the branding,” explains Sucheka.
The building won a LEED Platinum rating last October (see right) but surprisingly, the foundation was initially indifferent to proposed environmental measures. “The sentiment appeared to be, ‘we focus on our core business and we don’t screw around with a little of this or that,’” says Carlson. Thankfully, it reconsidered its position. A building that turned out to be an energy-guzzling, rainforest-wrecking monster would be like the head of Greenpeace cruising around in a Hummer.
So, how has the campus been received? Pretty well, as it turns out. Criticism that the foundation has built a crystal palace to itself does not hold water given this is private, not public money. Architecturally, it is understated and serious rather than conceited, and makes a concerted effort to fit in with city around it, particularly when compared to the silly cacophony of Gehry’s nearby Musical Experience Project. Though appearing a little austere, the workplace design is purely 21st century and certainly contains enough joyful moments to inspire and delight the foundation’s impassioned workforce.
Spanish designer Tomás Alonso needs his space. Part of the Okay Studio collective, he shares a huge building in north London that affords him a sizable workshop area, a space that is integral to
his design approach, since it enables him to test and tinker with every stage of the design process. “It is very important to be able to make things with my hands to understand,” says Alonso. “A lot of the things I work on are based on quite simple structures and mechanisms, but to arrive there you need to be able to test them. They look simple, but it takes a while to arrive at that simplicity.”
Alonso’s products are indeed all deceptively simple, formed by a desire to distil design down to the essential. The same aesthetic runs through much of the work Alonso admires most, particularly by mid-century maestros such as Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Jean Prouvé, Eileen Gray and George Nelson, or the less-well-known Spanish architect José Antonio Coderch. “I guess I don’t
like superfluous things,” says Alonso. “It’s about an honesty that something does what it’s supposed to do and does it well, and that’s what makes it beautiful.”
His Offset table for Italian furniture company Maxdesign encapsulates this approach well. Presented at this year’s Milan furniture fair, and set to go into production in September, it was borne from a fairly loose brief. It is a flexible system, constructed from ash, steel and aluminium, which responds to the increasingly blurred boundaries between workplace and home. Different components allow the user to adapt the desk to their unique needs, adding accessories such as extra storage space or lighting.
The Offset table evolved from research into people’s behaviour and the changes in working and living habits. At the core of the system lies the simplicity of its construction; a gap defines the working area by separating the top into two surfaces while serving as the connecting element for both the structure and accessories. “The final design is of course based on aesthetics, but it is also based on looking at the behaviour of people using the table and on structure, and putting all of those elements together, while trying to keep it simple,” says Alonso. “That’s more or less how I approach most projects.”
Flexibility is another characteristic of Offset, although for Alonso this isn’t so much about the idea that users can change the table occasionally but rather about making it work to their needs. “That’s much more important than trying to sell something that you can take apart or combine in different ways,” he says. “It’s more about something that adjusts to what you need in your space or your circumstances.”
Many of Alonso’s projects are based on observation of how people use objects and furniture in everyday life. His A Frame side tables for Karimoku New Standard, for example, rest on a simple trestle-type set of legs that allows them to be easily folded flat, to accommodate contemporary city living. “We need furniture that works with the way we live now and not try to model ourselves around the furniture we have,” he says.
Experimentation and research also run through Alonso’s approach to materials, as was the case in a recent project for Hong Kong-based manufacturer Praxis, which challenged different designers to create an accessory out of natural rubber. Challenging the often negative connotations of cheapness and environmental harm associated with rubber, Alonso designed a series of geometric desk trays called Euclid, combined the rubber with natural ash. Once the decision was made about this combination of materials, their inherent properties informed the eventual design, with the flexibility of the rubber sides neatly holding the wood bottom in place.
Challenging the perceived properties of materials similarly informed the table and benches he designed for One Part Chef, Four Parts Designer, a 2010 project for the V&A that combined food and design. His work played on the theme of contrast and balance between the materials – steel tube and solid wood – and the structural research into how the two could be combined.
The positive responses that the V&A project received led to many requests for projects with a similar design direction, but he sees those as a mixed blessing, as he prefers not to be pigeon-holed. “I don’t want to be conceived as the designer who works with metal tubes and wood,” he explains. “It’s about the overall approach. Each project you do should be a completely different experience.”
Alonso’s background is certainly varied. The 38-year-old designer spent a decade studying and working in the USA, Australia and Italy, before graduating from the Royal College of Art’s Design Products masters degree in 2006. His work ranges from retail interiors for shoe brand Camper – most recently in Thessaloniki – to gallery commissions that allow him a more playful and experimental approach.
During his time in the United States, Alonso worked as the design director for OZ Racing, which makes alloy wheels – an experience that still informs his work today. “That experience taught me a lot,” he says. “There were many technical sides to the job, and my brain is still a little bit technical sometimes. I’m always driven to see how something works and in that job there was a lot of that.”
He is also driven by variety and constant challenge – by discovering the new possibilities every project entails. He would like to bring more of his design thinking to the office world, for example, now that he has started investigating it – maybe even tackling what he calls a “hardcore office system”. He is already exploring some shelving and possibly a chair with Maxdesign using the Offset principles.
But whatever comes next, however simple on the face of it, it needs to challenge the expected shape, way or behaviour of things – of space, furniture, objects and people. As Alsonso says, he is constantly striving “to try and find something new but still keep it simple and functional”.
In the sprawling corporate environs of the Regent’s Place development near Great Portland Street sit the green – literally and figuratively – offices of property group Lend Lease. With the help of architect Woods Bagot, its award-winning interior – which apparently features eight plants for every worker – has achieved a measure of distinction among the strip-lit identikit offices surrounding it.
Gazing up from the building’s ground-floor atrium to the company’s three storeys, the visitor first notices the stiff green fingers of 4,000 sansevieria plants fringing every window. These plants signal the environment- and people-friendly credentials of this project, which has won a BREEAM Excellent rating for design and fit out as well as a LABC Building Excellence award for best sustainability design. Along with the black ceilings and striking Moroso armchairs viewable from the atrium, the plants create a characterful facade to Lend Lease that contrasts strongly with Gazprom’s and Ricoh’s anonymous offices above. “The higher up the building you go, the fewer smiles you see,” observes Duncan Young, Lend Lease’s sustainability manager.
“Let’s start out here in this very stark atrium and walk through into Lend Lease to get a sense of the difference in feel between the two spaces,” suggests Jonathan Clarke, Woods Bagot’s director of interiors Europe. Crossing the threshold into the ground-floor reception is almost disconcertingly like entering a hotel lounge: it has low lighting, and comfy domestic-feeling sofas and coffee tables placed in intimate groups on carpet set into French oak floorboards. There is also a TV, one of many large flatscreens dotted around the office’s 62 hi-tech meeting rooms, some of which are used for video-conferencing with Lend Lease’s international offices. “Video-conferencing here is amazing because the technology is so good,” says Young. “It is almost like the person is in the room with you, and it means that we don’t have to fly all over the place for meetings.” He goes on to enthusiastically explain the ethos behind the design: “For the past four years we have been conducting global and local employee engagement surveys, out of which we established key themes of openness and transparency, health and wellbeing. People are our greatest asset so we want to retain them.” Lend Lease and Woods Bagot took the call for transparency literally, glazing meeting rooms and creating around 30 breakout spaces. Woods Bagot also installed an internal staircase so that people could “bump into each other and observe and learn from what they see, hear and talk about”, says Young.
In November last year, Lend Lease bought construction company Bovis and amalgamated the two companies’ various UK offices here at Regent’s Place. So this design has been tasked with helping the two companies – each of which makes up about half of the 500-strong office – to meld their cultures.
“We needed to create a space that could support the habit-change we were looking for,” says Young. Staff retention is a priority for Lend Lease, which asked Woods Bagot to deploy a design that would encourage people to stay. “People don’t hang out at Jessops, but they do at the Apple Store, because of the way it looks and feels,” explains Young.
The high-end materials used within include oak floorboards, milled down from 100-year-old timber reclaimed from old French train carriages. There are also Corten oxidised steel walls and sliding doors, all of which Clarke says “gives the office a truly robust feel”. The oak staircase already resembles something of a dartboard, being the victim of hundreds of stiletto heels marching up and down it every day, but Clarke brushes it off, saying it was all part of the plan. “Places that are well-used look better – you want to see the heel marks and the wood splitting.”
The first floor features a spacious “lending library”, still rather bare but apparently soon to be populated by employees’ favourite books. This space also features daring yellow upholstered Take a Line For a Walk chairs by Alfredo Häberli for Moroso. Again, low lighting and soft furnishings predominate, and you wonder whether there are any conventional desks, or indeed, any workers – the place feels strangely empty of its 500 staff. “We are pushing the idea of bringing lifestyle and work together, and so a soft interior feel means that you are less likely to mind still being at work at 9pm, which, let’s face it, is the way the world is going,” says Clarke.
With a library, kitchen areas and a large, bright, canteen with 100,000 pieces of sustainably sourced fruit bought in every year, along with the many and varied breakout spaces, there is no shortage of places to chill out or break free. And yet they seemed largely unpopulated, with the vast majority of staff working at (finally revealed) regimented rows of brightly lit desks. Storage surfaces are covered with similarly regimented rows of plants, which have the ostensible function of cleaning the air, but are also intended to prevent people from cluttering the surfaces. It is not unimaginable that this might be rather annoying to busy staff with papers and files to put down somewhere. But with all employees sitting at these desks, no matter their seniority, these work spaces were designed with equity in mind: “Lend Lease is keen on the idea of ownership, but rather than making it about ‘owning’ their work stations, staff get a sense of ownership more from the project as a whole,” says Clarke. So, besides receiving unlimited free fruit, healthy snacks and bowls of cereal, employees are engaged in carefully monitoring the progress of an extensive and attractive habitable wall and rooftop meadow, accessible from the canteen. One of the major triumphs of the project, this expanse of wild flowers, raised above the clean grey lines of Regent’s Place below, is a beautiful sight that makes you hope that you are looking at the future of mainstream office design.
Nic Marks, master statistician, is on a mission to make the workplace happy. This undertaking falls into the wider remit of Marks’ work, heading up the Centre for Well-being at UK thinktank NEF (the New Economics Foundation). The centre, set in a converted outhouse in Vauxhall, is the largest centre implementing applied wellbeing in the world. Inside, researchers innovate to promote social change.
The driver for the centre, launched by Marks ten years ago, was the will to put the wellbeing of people and the planet at the heart of policy making. Its challenge was to develop the research methods and tools to make this shift.
“There was a weakness in the current system; of collapsing what life is about into the economy,” says Marks. “Measuring success by growth is a system that’s dependent on us consuming more and more a year; it’s a merry go round that’s hard to get off.”
His search for alternate indicators to GDP (or productivity) led Marks to create the Happy Planet Index, a global index of human wellbeing and environmental impact. Last year he delivered a TED talk, since viewed on TED’s website over half a million times, about how, on the scale of contentment versus consumption, Costa Rica comes out laughing, compared to its higher-income counterparts. “Our agenda asks the purpose of society,” says Marks. “It’s a fun question to engage with, especially when cracks in the dominant economic system are beginning to show, in Occupy and the recent riots for example. We’re not going to go backwards; you cannot imagine a world without business, and large systems in place. But we can see and grow totally new ways of working.
“The centre is not just about ideas,” he continues. “It’s about making ideas operational, giving them traction and implementing them.” Transferring hard statistical knowledge to an organisational context requires a mix of soft and hard skills. Marks has qualifications in management, research and system change and is a trained psychotherapist, but he started out in business and consultancy.
A few years ago he started to think about work. “People spend a large amount of their waking hours at work. What is interesting about a workplace is that it is a complete and bounded system; from a statistical perspective, you can measure the whole system. It is harder to reach people in work with public policy than children, older people or people who depend on the state. A good way to engage them is at work.”
Based on more than a decade of research, NEF has launched the The Happiness at Work Survey (www.happinessatworksurvey.com), an innovative tool designed to both inspire and facilitate change to work culture. Staff surveys don’t have a great reputation – research shows that although organisations recognise their importance, they are not getting value from them, and that even though 50% of workplaces carry them out, 80% of staff see no difference as a result. The Happiness at Work Survey assesses and scores the different facets of working life, and shows where you sit on an average happiness scale, based on the result of a national benchmarking survey. Participants can see their own results instantly, and view results for their team (or whole organisation) the moment
the survey closes, so there’s no sense of HR going off for months to collate information and everybody forgetting it ever happened. And although results are transparent, they are also confidential.
“The survey is to put up a mirror what’s going on in an organisation, and to open a window into a whole new possible space, and a different way of working together,” says Marks. “It’s to help bring about revolutionary changes, not just marginal ones.” Once the survey is done, NEF suggests running a results workshop for participants, then creating an action plan for where to go next. Early adopters include recruitment agency The Works, the Coal Authority and North Central London NHS.
The tool was launched in spring at ad agency Mother in Shoreditch, and also at Westminster in the company of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. In attendance was US entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, leader of the Delivering Happiness movement, co-developers of the survey. Hsieh developed an advertising network called LinkExchange, which sold to Microsoft for over $250m, with a two-year golden handcuff, but after three months he walked out and vowed never to work in an organisation he didn’t enjoy. Happiness is the business model behind his most recent venture, online shoe company Zappos, which sold to Amazon in 2009 for over $1bn. Hsieh remains CEO, operating on the motto “make people happy and great things will happen”. The two policies for his customer service staff are “be yourself” and “use your own judgement”, ie no reading from scripts or placing limits on how long a sales call can last (the longest, for the record, was eight and a half hours). “The strategy is to over-deliver on relationships,” Marks explains.
The arguments for happiness at work are synonymous for business and the economy. “When people are happier, they are more energetic, focused, better at building good relationships,” Marks explains. “People create better jobs for themselves.”
In terms of design, you can build wellbeing into space, but too often it’s done on a post hoc basis. “Creating points for reflection, points to be active, including beautiful spaces for walking and meetings are all ways of helping people lead happier lives at work,” Marks explains. “It comes back to the five simple actions that can improve wellbeing in everyday life: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. Good design can free up space for social connectedness, while giving at work can be through links to local community projects, and allowing people to volunteer on company time, but it can be simpler than that – teams giving to other teams, for example.”
Using the workplace to shape wellbeing needs designers and directors to unite. Go on. Be happy.
NEF’s Nic Marks will be facilitating masterclasses for those who are interested in learning more about understanding wellbeing at work; the next one is on 4 and 5 September in London. Contact
Despite most Londoners’ somewhat phlegmatic approach to the Olympic Games, there’s no doubting the significant impact they will have on office life. Says Peter Hendy, London’s Transport commissioner, commenting on this summer’s events as a whole: “Large parts of the city will operate pretty much as normal but with so many cultural and sporting events taking place on the doorsteps of workplaces across our city, the transport network will be busier than usual.”
That’s something of an understatement. Granted, only 35% of tube stations will be affected by the Games, some tube services will be running an hour later than usual and 200 extra buses will be out in force, but some key destinations will, it’s fair to say, bear the brunt. At Bond Street, TfL predicts a wait of 30 minutes or more for a train between 5pm and 7.30pm, with a similar story at Bank. It suggests avoiding London Bridge altogether at peak times, proposing instead that commuters “walk across the river to Monument, take a bus, enjoy the attractions of the South Bank or have a beer with colleagues.”
Taking to the road is no better, with traffic rising by around 30% according to predictions. The Olympic Route Network (ORN) – more than 100 miles of roads running from Heathrow to the Games’ hub in Stratford – will offer restricted access to ordinary joes, with fast tracks for dignitaries and competitors through hotspots such as the Blackwall Tunnel. The ORN also won’t allow deliveries between 6am and midnight, creating logistics headaches for workplaces of all types, not just offices.
It looks like drastic action is called for, then, especially as TfL suggests that for some stations, transport will only function properly if 60% of people change their plans. Assuming London office workers, and those at other cities around the UK that are hosting events during the Olympic Games, aren’t all going to simply down tools and take the whole period off as holidays, let’s look at the alternatives.
Sophy Hough, business director with BT Workstyle (the arm of BT that advises organisations on flexible working arrangements) pointed out at a recent Steelcase seminar on flexible working that homeworking has many advantages – notably a 30% increase in productivity as well as better work-life balance. And apparently we’re at “extreme risk” of a flu epidemic in London during the Games, so homeworking could also help reduce sickness and absenteeism.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in enquiries for homeworking, so that firms can simply set up their staff in July and August so they don’t need to come into the office,” says Steelcase Solutions’ Rob Jenkins. Backing this up, John Lewis has reported a 14% rise in the sale of office furniture against last year. For the extremely dedicated office worker, there’s also a London-based firm called PodTime which is selling lockable sleep pods for the workplace.
Herman Miller ergonomics specialist Lillian Antonio points out some provisos for successful homeworking. “Having as comfortable a set-up as people enjoy in the office is key. A lot of workers don’t have a designated room in which to work so it’s important to have your laptop propped up so that the screen can be viewed at the right height to avoid straining the eyes or back. Other accessories such as a short keyboard and a separate mouse can prove useful too.”
“With homeworking, office workers need to check their IT set up is installed, tested and ready to go,” says Steve Henigan, who heads up RLF Optima, a management consultancy firm that works on workplace strategy. “They also need to make sure they are taking enough work home with them to last the period.” Putting its money where its mouth is, RLF Optima has already rolled out a roadmap for its 40 London-based employees to see what action it would be best to take during the Olympics. “It contains elements such as whether staff can find alternative means to get to work such as walking or Boris bikes or if it’s a question of whether they need to be in the office at all.
“The other massive consideration people have got to think about is meetings,” continues Henigan. “Even if you can manage to get to a meeting, can everybody else who is due to be attending actually get there? Can we consider doing things out of the office or using videoconferencing?” According to a survey by YouGov, just under half of the bosses questioned expect to have to postpone or cancel meetings and two-thirds anticipate that business contacts won’t be available.
As well as logistical and physical consideration of where people are going to work during the Olympic period, Lillian Antonio also flags up the psychological impacts too: “Homeworkers can often end up working longer hours because they don’t have that commute time. They also put more pressure on themselves to continue working later.” Maintaining structure and taking regular breaks is vitally important, she continues, as is keeping in contact with colleagues: “It puts a lot of emphasis on the individual; you simply have to be more willing to pick up the phone and have those one-to-one conversations and not just email.”
Is the world of the workplace ready for the Olympics, then? Well, that same YouGov survey pointed out that fewer than one in five of the SMEs questioned even had a continuity plan in place. On a positive note, however, Rob Jenkins adds that arranging for staff to work from home this summer can actually offer business insight for the future: “Allowing people to have that flexibility can act as a real testbed to see just how productivity is affected with a view to a future rollout.”
The all-white New York office of bicoastal US production company Logan – it has one foot, as it were, in the Big Apple, the other in Los Angeles – resembles a stylish film set more than a workaday workplace. And more specifically Logan’s offices recall the set of a futuristic movie like the 1965, black and white sci-fi classic Alphaville or – by strange coincidence – Logan’s Run, the 1976 flick starring Jenny Agutter and Michael York, which featured pure white, spatially ambiguous, visually disorientating sets.
There are two major differences between Logan’s Run and its near-namesake Logan though. The former’s inhabitants barely had to work and were condemned to die at the age of 30. And, unlike Alphaville, the new office, where employees work in advertising, video games and feature films, is devoid of the 1960s movie’s clunky computer. But, aesthetically, both make a virtue of ghostly pallor.
Measuring 650sq m, the Logan office occupies the corner of a second-floor loft space in SoHo, and was designed by Brooklyn architects Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO-IL). Its crisply minimalist interior has mainly white walls, with floor-to-ceiling partitions fashioned out of stretched translucent, nylon sheets resembling film-projection screens. Stretched PVC covers the ceiling, which has been backlit to provide an eerily even lighting source.
Two long, identical rooms, split by one of the aforementioned diaphanous partitions, form the backbone of the office, which accommodates a maximum of 55 people. Both rooms are furnished with a 6m long, monolithic table, with glass partitions splicing the tables to create a smaller meeting room and private offices – acoustically sealed off, but still visible.
Skirting the whole length of one wall are a smaller, felt-lined, soundproofed editing suite, a recording room, and rooms for the server and heating and cooling unit. At right angles to these rooms are a hallway, cloakroom, reception, two other editing suites, a kitchen and toilets.
The interiors’ clean lines are uninterrupted by the messy clutter of a more conventional workplace: filing cabinets, desk lamps, and so on. Yet, in contrast to their crisply rectilinear layout, SO-IL’s objective was to create an ethereal interior. Generally favouring minimalist, all-white spaces, the practice is in hot demand: its projects include the HQ of Antwerp’s provincial government, some student housing in Athens and a serpentine structure of tents for New York’s first Frieze Art Fair, held last May. Waxing lyrical about Logan’s office, the press blurb proclaims: “Together, the seamless fabric on the partitions, the luminous ceiling and continuous desks create an environment of abstraction and scalelessness.”
Yet there’s a practical rationale behind this unorthodox, ultra-stylised, determinedly neutral design. It’s intended to be super-flexible – the two long rooms with their communal tables exemplifying this – because most of Logan’s staff are freelance consultants hired to work on a short-term basis on individual projects.
SO-IL had a dream brief in that it was extremely open – it simply had to respond to Logan’s “dynamic working model”, as the office’s project architect Ilias Papageorgiou describes this constantly changing influx of freelancers. “The office therefore had to be able to contract and expand easily,” he says. “This ever-changing work setting requires few personalised workstations and rooms, and a great deal of flexibility. We also had to foster a sense of collaboration and community for the staff, who are often strangers to each other, to make it easier for them to build teams. Because the fabric walls are translucent and don’t block the sound, a sense of a shared space is maintained.”
With the office’s aesthetic so radically dematerialised and abstract, its focus is more on intangible qualities, specifically the way it’s lit. In this monochrome space, the lighting is subtle, nuanced, almost lacking in tonal contrast, partly because the PVC ceiling casts an even, almost shadowless light. Plenty of daylight also floods in through an abundance of windows. The only variations in light, therefore, are created by this natural light when it hits the fabric partitions, where it changes colour and tone throughout the day.
This exploitation of light is unconventional in this context, according to Papageorgiou: “The typical approach for a company whose work is entirely digital is to block out the natural light, as sunlight can create glare on computer screens. But we wanted to deviate from this model and let daylight in. The fabric walls also diffuse this and help reduce glare.”
SO-IL’s aim was – to quote the press blurb again – “to create the illusion of reflections when people look into adjacent spaces, creating a dreamlike, surreal interior … Looking through layers of fabric, people and objects perpetually appear almost out of focus.” It also claims that the symmetry of the two long rooms reinforces this impression but surely the opposite is true. Doesn’t this classical, ordered symmetry make the interior less spatially ambiguous? “The organisation of the space is symmetrical in plan and so classical in this sense,” concedes Papageorgiou. “Even so, the translucency of the fabric creates a multilayered look. And the experience of looking through it varies hugely, depending on where you’re standing and the angle from which you’re viewing the walls.”
I put it to him that the office is reminiscent of futuristic sci-fi movies, or abstract art – it occurs to me that it also recalls Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich’s painting White on White, of 1918. Papageorgiou’s cryptic answer is as understated and neutral as the style of Logan’s office itself: “We get inspired by many things that include movies and other types of art.” Even so, the space is undeniably cinematic – aptly so, given that Logan is a film-making enterprise.