“I heard you wanted to see the gold medal,” says Herman Hertzberger, pushing a saucer-sized plastic medallion into my hands. The architect is referring to the RIBA Royal Gold Medal he was awarded this year, but even the most credulous would immediately spot that is the sort of knickknack people buy for friends who have staggered through a fun run.
As one might expect from an architect who rewrote the rules of workplace and school design, there is more to the gesture than just larks. Turning it over reveals signatures from the architect’s 40 or so staff – an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek tribute to their principal. The real deal rests in its furry velvet case on the desk in front of us.
Hertzberger smiles. The architect is clearly still buzzing from his 80th birthday celebrations the week before. His office, a converted school in Amsterdam’s gentrified De Pijp quarter, was packed to the rafters with well-wishers. Typically, Hertzberger made a game of analysing how many people per square metre the building could handle before collapsing. He settles back into his chair, and waits for my first question.
“Of course, I was surprised because most of the time all these awards go to sexy architects and I am not a sexy architect,” says Hertzberger.
Indeed, in an age where spectacle became a building’s primary purpose, Hertzberger became an almost forgotten figure. The Dutchman’s humanist tendencies meant his first concern was always for the people who inhabited his buildings, rather than any stupefying wow factor.
Nevertheless, there were many in the industry that felt the award was long overdue (“I only heard that after I won it, not before.”) Like his architecture, the great man is not given to grand gestures and seems a little bashful about the medal – a suspicion that is later confirmed during our photo shoot when he baulks at posing with it and then playfully pretends to throw it at a colleague.
Hertzberger’s work grew from the seeds planted by architectural collective Team 10 in the late 1950s. Formed in reaction to what they saw as the lifeless hand of rationalist architecture, architects Aldo van Eyck, Jacob B Bakema, Alison and Peter Smithson, Shadrach Woods and Giancarlo De Carlo broke away from the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1959. This was the beginning of the structuralist movement, which attempted to inject a more human element into architecture and urban planning. Buildings and spaces had become too rigid, Team 10 believed, and should be designed as a loose framework, which allowed for interpretation rather than letting function rule.
The new approach struck a chord with Hertzberger, who published the group’s manifesto in avant-garde architectural journal Forum, which he edited.
He soon became a key figure in the second wave of architects inspired by the founding members, and with post-war economies booming, the young architect surfed the wave of optimism, landing significant projects – Delft Montessori School, Centraal Beheer and Music Palace in Vredenburg – early in his career. But that was then. As form became conspicuous once again, Hertzberger’s studio faded from view, eclipsed by new pretenders such as fellow countryman Rem Koolhaas.
After years away from the headlines, Hertzberger’s renaissance is nothing if not timely. The financial crash has forced a rapid reappraisal of the age of excess and the buildings it spawned.
“Most architects are missing empathy, I’m afraid. They make sexy things, beautiful things, but it seems as if there are too many standing outside their buildings looking in rather than standing in the building,” says Hertzberger, who sees the waning European star as a precursor to a new architectural era. “At the moment we are in another culture shock and I am so happy that even being quite old, I can still be a part of it,” he says. “We need to do more with less and get back to the simple, basic things.”
Hertzberger’s energy and enthusiasm are undiminished. In the twilight of his life, where one might be expected to take the foot off the gas and slip into a retirement of guest lectures and golf, the noughties has proved to be a prolific period for his studio, with 20-odd projects on the boil.
Brutally self-critical (“I only look at the mistakes [in my buildings] for the first few years”), Hertzberger reveals he is still searching for his masterstroke, a career-defining structure that pulls together the knowledge garnered from years of teaching, learning and building.
Glamour projects like museums or libraries – “architectural sweeties” – do not figure on his agenda. The Dutchman is far more concerned with longevity, which he sees as the best way to address conflicting ideologies of consumption and sustainability.
“At this moment there are seven million square metres of office buildings lying abandoned just in Holland. They are not appropriate any more. It is a disaster which hanging like a big cloud,” he says. “My hope is that I could make a building that is truly generic, in the sense that it can be used in different ways. A universal building.”
There is a distinct possibility Hertzberger has gone some way to achieving this generic utopia with his most famous early work, the ground-breaking Centraal Beheer (1968-72).
Commissioned to design a new headquarters by a Dutch insurance company, Hertzberger created an internal village comprising 60 cube-shaped towers joined by bridges, intended to encourage the 1,000-strong staff to work in more intimate teams. Each department was given its own social area for coffee and casual meetings – the vaunted “third space” we hear so much about in contemporary workplace design.
“This was not an artistic performance, this was a scientific approach. I found out their way of working and decided that to make people happier you should create these islands,” says Hertzberger.
Though the product of hours of rigorous study, Centraal Beheer expressed a rugged congeniality in its raw concrete columns and exposed blockwork. The design, with little offices overhanging a “street” below, only enhanced the informality. The office served its masters well helping them work, collaborate and, in some cases, fall in love for 40 years. The company will move out next year and a developer is investigating whether it can be turned into a school – a prospect that delights its original architect.
The natural successor to Beheer was the Apollo Schools scheme, which bears a striking resemblance in both materials and form. Hertzberger transplanted the successful elements of these projects – connecting bridges, staircases, clusters of small space – into other projects, like DWR Waternet HQ (2005) and the Faculty of Science at Utrecht University (2010). Curious about the connection between the worlds of work and education, I ask if we so often end up working in a glass tower, why aren’t we taught in one?
“Well, they are both work, but at this moment you are thinking like a functionalist,” Hertzberger says, and suddenly I feel I should be lying on an analyst’s couch. “Why shouldn’t you be educated in a glass tower or work in a school?” Not that he is suggesting children learn their times tables in the Shard.
Moreover, it is the need to question that is important. What really interests Hertzberger is the contrasting dynamics of concentration and co-operation in educational buildings. “Modern education asks for a completely different type of space – more open and articulated so there are many places where people can do their work, not be distracted or look at a nice girl. At school I always wanted to do what the others were doing because I always thought what I was doing was dull. You are inspired by what others are doing.”
Fittingly, Hertzberger believes his own architectural awakening was sparked by a series of lectures he curated while teaching at Delft in the early 1970s, involving biologists, sociologists and psychologists.
“I learned a lot and maybe that was my formation. I have seen students in universities discussing what shaped top to put on a high-rise building. It is all nonsense, it has no value.” That said, Hertzberger’s deeds show he places great weight on scholastic pursuits. In 1990, he co-founded the Berlage Institute, which is recognised worldwide as an incubator for innovative thinking. He also writes extensively on his own work.
Hertzberger is also quick to acknowledge outside influences on his work, in particular the Japanese Metabolists, but despite this he remains a peculiarly European architect.
Aside from a brief forays in Japan (1998’s YKK Dormitory) the studio has built mainly in the Netherlands. “I prefer one little school in Amsterdam over three cities in China,” he says; it seems a pity, because China, in its frantic quest for glass superstructures, might benefit from a dash of Hertzberger.
While the true beauty of Hertzberger’s buildings is the way they allow people to adapt to them, the Chassé Theatre in Breda (1995) showed a more flamboyant side. Shoehorned between an abandoned 19th-century barracks and a nondescript office block, the tricky site was mirrored by the complexity of the programme. The building needed to house three auditoria, two film theatres plus an array of stage loading bays and backstage areas. To bring all the pieces together, the architect draped undulating aluminium blankets over the whole lot.
Chassé is perhaps the closest thing Hertzberger has come to designing an icon but its form was almost an accident, he says. “We had the model and we were wondering, what can we do with all this junk? Then somebody came up and put a piece of paper over it to keep the dust off overnight. And we looked and said, ‘Lets do that!’ Of course, it needed refining…”
As we wander through the office, Hertzberger points out various models and competition entries, stopping to introduce me to Marijke Teijsse, an architect who has been with him for over 25 years. Throughout the studio, memories, distant and fresh, are captured on the walls in black and white prints. In one, a schoolboy Hertzberger sporting a side-parting sits serious next to a model of a building – a career in architecture beckoning. In another, the architect, now an old man, sits at a piano while a cellist looks on. Architects famously find it hard to relax and Hertzberger finds refuge in chamber music. “I wish I had more time for that,” he says. “I’m not a Buddhist; I don’t see the advantage of switching off.”
Whatever Hertzberger attempts next, his legacy is secure. His influence is apparent in the social areas that have become de rigueur in contemporary office and higher education designs. Most telling is that the monuments formed by the other great movement of the 1960s, Brutalism, are now being torn down, written off as a catastrophic blunder by an unforgiving public.
In stark contrast, Hertzberger’s first project, Delft Montessori School (1966), which he revamped in 2007-9, is still going strong. Indeed, his buildings lend themselves easily to modern extensions, as evidenced by the studio’s ongoing work at the Music Palace, Vredenburg, which was initially completed in 1978.
The Montessori has a special resonance; Hertzberger jokes that the reason he took such care in the design was because he was trying to impress one of the teachers. The lady in question eventually became his wife, and 45 years later Hertzberger remains dedicated to her. He apologises for not taking lunch with me because of her ill health (“I have to be on standby, just in case”).
As we near our conversation’s end, Hertzberger runs through my list of questions. “This was really the one I struggled with,” he says of my by-numbers enquiry into his favourite building. “Maybe what you admire is far away from what you can do yourself. Le Corbusier was my big hero. Not many people have seen his house in Argentina, La Plata [1948’s Curutchet House]. That is absolutely my favourite house. If I could take one with me, that would be it.”
There are two architecture practices that spring to mind when the phrase “curvy, organic form” is used to describe a building. The first one, which shall remain nameless (hint: rhymes with “llama and swede”), is known as a bit of a one-trick pony – loved and loathed in equal measure. The second practice in question, UN Studio, also masters the white-blob vernacular but has so far managed to avoid the worst sting of the critics. No stranger to onoffice, the practice’s buildings can be flamboyant, but the difference is that they’re compelling on more than one level. The recently completed Centre for Virtual Engineering (ZVE) in Stuttgart is a good example of the Dutch firm’s overall approach to institutional architecture. Director Ben van Berkel and his team attempted an office building that pushes the envelope visually, socially and in sustainability performance, and they have come up trumps.
Located on the research campus of the Fraunhofer Institute, ZVE has been awarded a Gold certification by the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) – an achievement due in large part to the building’s compact, rounded shape, which has a 7% smaller contour than a rectangular volume with the same footprint. But most unusual for this kind of structure is that only 32% of the facade is glass. BubbleDeck ceilings (a system where plastic balls take the place of cement) lessen the overall weight of each floorplate and therefore alleviate the need for structural columns – which means the same amount of natural light for less glass.
Despite the accolade from the DGNB, van Berkel is keen to point out that good buildings address a number of issues – not all of them to do with physical sustainability. “The building needed to be affordable. I’m not often referring any more to what is sustainable. I prefer to talk about what is attainable,” he muses. “I’m trying to argue for a way of architecture other than seeing it as an efficient building alone. The sustainability should be plugged in without pointing at it. I don’t like something too obvious because then it becomes highly representational.”
Similar to UN Studio’s AAE Tax Office in Groningen (onoffice 54), the form of the ZVE building, in theory, is not for its own sake. The striking saw-tooth windows help to reflect light into the building and are individually operable for ventilation. Inside, a linear office grid was ditched for curving, open-plan spaces because van Berkel believes they promote better working practices. Hence, the rounded form of the front of the building. “I think the whole idea of collaboration and being team-oriented doesn’t work in a square rooms,” he says. “A curved space is a space you can look back on to, that follows you, whereas a linear space is a mechanical space. When you walk into the next room the last one is forgotten. In semi-circular spaces people can talk and see each other better,” he says.
Which leads in to one of the main tasks set for UN Studio: to enhance collaboration between the research institute’s 70 staff. Situated around a light-filled central atrium, the building takes cues from forward-thinking office design of the last five to ten years. The lift has been hidden away, prompting people to use a series of stairs that criss-cross the open void, with colour-coding and gradients to help them find their way. The idea was to give staff a chance to socialise and “be seen”, as van Berkel puts it.
The brief had the usual buzzwords: “knowledge sharing”, “communication”, “collaboration”, “flexibility” – priorities that have been seen to work in office design for the creative industries and even banking, but for science is still a bit of a new frontier. “The client was very ambitious. They said it was important to make a building that isn’t typical, with research and meeting points combined in a new way that would generate ideas of what an office building could be,” says van Berkel. Laboratory and science workstations mix in with exhibition areas and offices. There are no dedicated departments on different floors. It’s a science/research/office mash-up, which is exactly what the client wanted, says van Berkel.
Van Berkel puts utter faith in architecture’s ability to change human behaviour for the better, and gives no credence to the doubters who suggest that good working practices are down to things like good management, versus curved rooms. “I believe in a form of optimism you have to give to the building, a form of vigour. I know you can influence how people use a building,” he says. He sees companies like Google which are interested in building social responsibility into their business practices and physical spaces, and thinks everybody, including the architecture community, can learn from their example. “This building is not literally an office building,” he says. “Programmatically we gave it a twist, but also organisationally we gave it a twist. This is what I like so much about the topic of sustainability. It doesn’t have to be an added-on principle, like a green roof or facade, but an integration of concepts, organisation, infrastructure, and the way you make a building more intelligent.”
London’s Cannon Street has recently become something of a hot-spot for high-spec offices. There’s no missing such strident new developments as Cannon Place (above Cannon Street station) and on the other side of the road, Foster + Partners’ rippling Walbrook Building, not to mention Jean Nouvel’s blockbusting One New Change a short haul up the road. Existing accommodation is having to raise its game to compete, and one of the first out of the blocks is 110 Cannon Street, the 11-storey, 6,500sq m office building now owned by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
This 1970s block has now been overhauled by architectural designer MoreySmith, which was commissioned to revamp the structure by then-owner Land Securities after the departure of the tenant to One New Change. “The building was looking a bit tired, so it was a good opportunity to revitalise it and give it a real sense of quality that would make people notice it again,” says MoreySmith director Graeme Montague.
The main moves have taken place at the entrance. Here, the designers had to contend with an extremely unfortunately placed ventilation shaft to the right of reception on the corner of the building. This had to remain, but was, says Montague “stupendously ugly and needed camouflaging”. Other factors thrown into the mix were Land Securities’ desire for some ground-floor retail in the previously under-utilised area left of reception, and the presence of a poorly accessed and underused first-floor terrace on either side of the entrance.
MoreySmith’s solution tackles all of these issues, making a virtue of the need to create a screen for the shaft. Instead of remaining a problem, this provided the impetus for the design solution of a movable mesh screen wrapping around both corners of the building. On the right, it shields the shaft; on the left, it provides a filtered facade to a new cafe unit. Above both, the terraces have been enclosed to create additional office space, a move which also gives the entrance more balance and impact.
The success of the 4m-high mesh screen, made from anodised aluminium, lay in the details. On the one hand, the screens had to be delicate enough to provided a pleasant ambience for those inside the cafe, and to pass the close-quarters scrutiny of passing pedestrians. Yet they had to be strong enough visually to minimise the shaft, and strong enough practically to function as a rigid yet moveable facade. MoreySmith worked with its supplier over a five-month period to achieve exactly the right gauge of expanded metal mesh that would function as large-scale, framed screens. A full-scale prototype helped finalise details such as the hinges, the concealed locks, and corner edging. On the shaft side, three 4m-high panels slide to completely open up the corner, then concertina-fold back to allow access to the basement plant when necessary. On the cafe side, the screens open individually, allowing access to the windows and also the low-level lighting, if necessary. Screens on both sides incorporate signage lightboxes that wrap in a horizontal band around the corners.
Like quite a few buildings in the area, 110 Cannon Street was faced in brown granite. To give the building a visual lift, this was removed at the lower two levels and replaced with the mesh screens and also by anodised aluminium panelling, which was introduced to frame the entrance in a more dramatic way. Above the mesh, back-painted glass covers the spandrels. “It has a nice metallic finish – almost jewel like – giving a feel of quality as you walk down Cannon Street,” says Montague.
Inside, the task was to update and inject a bit of personality into the reception area, which had decent proportions but was looking rather outdated and anonymous. As a base, MoreySmith introduced limestone flooring and painted plasterboard walls. To this the designers added stylish seating by B&B Italia and SCP and a bespoke reception desk finished in leather and copper, with a turquoise lightbox in one corner. The rear of the reception area is shielded from the lifts by a simple glass screen with fabric interlay.
The real stars are the bespoke elements here, in particular the two chandeliers by Eva Menz positioned above the reception seating. Each has three tiers with reflective bases and is made of acrylic and white glass pieces. As well as being attractive sculptural pieces in themselves, they cast playful shadows on the walls.
Those waiting for the lifts have a tactile treat – the entire lift lobby wall is clad in beige, corrugated leather, created by Harcourt on an MDF frame with the same anodised bronzed aluminium trim as is used elsewhere in the reception. “The leather is something that’s interesting but reasonably subtle. It’s very tactile, quite hard-wearing and ages very well,” says Montague. The cladding continues up into the lift area on the first floor, where a balcony overlooks the reception. The same aluminium is also used for the lift controls and numbers, and for the 3D directory lettering on the wall nearby.
Upstairs, the offices have been refurbished to Cat A standard with new raised floors and suspended ceilings, and relined walls. WCs have been revamped in a neutral palette with Laufen washbasins, limestone floors, ceramic tiles and etched, back-painted glass wall panels. Cubicle doors are in fumed-oak veneer. The new office areas on either side of the building have green roofs to give a more pleasant view to those in the floors above, while in the basement there are new shower facilities and changing rooms.
New owners USS (which uses its investments to fund pension schemes for university workers) bought the building before work began on site. Its fund manager for offices, Alex Turner, is pleased with MoreySmith’s “exemplary use of existing space”, and tenants are now being signed up. Unsurprisingly, the top floor has been let first, offering great views city-wide and also of the more recent office newcomers to this up and coming part of Cannon Street.
For many designers, UK copyright law has never been fit for purpose. Unsurprising, when you consider it was never drawn up with them in mind in the first place. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 was formulated to prevent car manufacturers wielding a monopoly on spare parts and thus ensure the industry remained competitive. Sadly, the car industry spluttered and died not long after, hoisted by a petard of head-gasket failures and rusty bodywork, but the law remained alive and well.
As it stands, registered designs in the UK are protected for a maximum of 25 years, whereas unregistered designs are covered for 15. Now, after 25 years of inertia, the government is proposing to reform key elements with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill 2012-13. If passed, the Bill will abolish section 52, which effectively limits the copyright protection available to “artistic works exploited by an industrial process” to 25 years. This is the same protection offered to songwriters, artists and the like.
So this is good news, right? The days of small studios been copied and ripped off are over. Well, not quite. While this new-found interest should be welcomed by an industry that Whitehall has largely ignored, the new legislation is, according to some, far from the panacea designers feel they deserve. Adrian Heath-Saunders, a lawyer at Wedlake Bell LLP who specialises in Intellectual Property contracts. “The types of 3D designs which are going to benefit from this are sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship – and the latter term has been interpreted fairly narrowly by the courts,” he says. “The problem for most designers is that their work would not fall within the definition of ‘artistic work’ or work of ‘artistic craftsmanship’. The reform is not therefore of any assistance to the vast majority of product designers.” So if someone designs a sculpture that can be transformed into a lamp, it will be protected for the life of the designer plus 70 years; but any other lamp won’t be. The question is how to convince government to re-examine its stance.
Never far from the headlines in the design press, the fakes debate was reignited earlier this year when Samantha Cameron bought a fake Arco lamp, rather than the Flos original. The vituperous backlash forced a PR-conscious government to re-examine the antiquated copyright laws. Until recently, the UK was seen as a haven for copies. “I believe that is quite stunning that an evolved country such as UK is not yet in harmony with the most relevant legal framework of EU,” says Flos’s CEO Piero Gandini. “To limit to only 25 years the protection of a industrial design product recognised as an ‘icon’ is an approach totally inconsistent with respect for the creativity and the investments made by companies for the design, and designers themselves.”
A measure of how out of step from our northern European cousins we had become came when Fritz Hansen CEO Jacob Holm pursued a UK-based company, Voga, through the Danish courts for selling designs protected by Danish law. In a landmark ruling, Voga was banned from selling or even advertising copies in Denmark. Sweet revenge for Holm, but sadly a plaintiff’s financial muscle or lack thereof is often the reason why smaller studios baulk at taking action.
“Its pretty crap behaviour,” says Luke Pearson, one half of UK studio PearsonLloyd, whose own work has been “interpreted” by a multitude of spivvy manufacturers. “But I think you have also got to realise that the gains of taking action may not be worth it.” Getting rid of section 52 will finally put the UK on an equal footing with northern Europe when it comes to so called design icons.
Figures from Anti-Copying in Design (ACID) estimate there are 350,000 people involved in the design industry, with nearly 90% employing fewer than four employees. These small businesses are easy prey for copiers, according to CEO Dids Macdonald, who founded ACID after the fakes market stymied her own career. A veteran 15-year campaigner, Macdonald agrees with Heath-Saunders that the proposed changes do not go far enough. Macdonald is urging designers to take part in the two-month consultation announced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which closes on 2 October 2012. It will be sent to IPO stakeholders and tackle issues such as simplifying the scope of protection, enforcement and, crucially, the possibility of equal protection for designers for their lifetime plus 70 years.
Having worked hard to appear on the government’s radar, MacDonald is determined not to fall at the final hurdle. “It has been a long and arduous campaign and we are finally seeing it ripple to the surface. To me, it couldn’t be more simple. Why shouldn’t a designer have parity of rights?”
Of course, the elephant in the room is China. Thanks to the globalised marketplace, replicas can be made in the Far East leaving designers with virtually no recourse, but the proposed reforms here will at least restore the UK’s reputation as a place where creativity is to be admired rather than imitated.
To have your say in the government consultation, visit /www.ipo.gov.uk/pro-policy/consult/consult-live/consult-2012-designs.htm
Four years ago, Microsoft unveiled a pioneering Sevil Peach design for its Netherlands office, inspired by the emerging concept of “activity-based working”. In the service of promoting social interaction and collaboration, the Schipol scheme got rid of all desks, going far beyond the established notion of hot-desking to “not-desking”. Employees were encouraged to work wherever they wanted, whether that was at home or in the office.
Then, last year, Microsoft’s Vienna headquarters unveiled its own activity-based workplace design, by Austrian architecture firm Innocad. This time, the desks are back. About 200 of Vienna’s 340 staff can sit at a desk at any one time, with 65 desks specifically assigned to particular workers. “One lesson from the Schiphol project was that we should respect people who really need their assigned desks – such as in the human resources and finance departments,” says Paul Zawilensky, who is responsible for managing Microsoft’s real estate at the Vienna site. “Desk-sharing is not always the antidote to the old-fashioned way of working.”
Another lesson from Schiphol was in the design of the open areas or breakout spaces. In contemporary offices, attractive breakout spaces can be left largely unused, a problem that Martin Lesjak, Innocad CEO and the lead architect on the project, observed in the Netherlands. “Schiphol didn’t really work that well, particularly in that the open communication areas are rarely used. That office has helped us get our design right,” he says. After looking at feedback from Schiphol, he opted to concentrate the so-called “open communication areas” in the centre of the building instead of dotting them around. “People are more able to bump into each other, so these spaces get used a lot more,” he says.
Microsoft Vienna’s H-shaped, three-storey building, sited in an unremarkable business park, inspired the architects to create a wide variety spaces for people to work in according to their changing moods and needs. “The ‘H’ is a good shape to work with as it makes it easy to create differentiated spaces,” says Lesjak. Inside, Innocad reconfigured all the walls and pierced holes through floors and ceilings to create lounges, hidey-holes, green walls and 60 variously sized rooms including 23 striking, themed meeting rooms. There are also “focus rooms” that seat up to four people, and phone booths if you need peace and quiet when making a call.
“These rooms help give staff back a sense of ownership and individuality that not having your own desk can take away from you,” says Lesjak. “They may not have pictures of their families but they do have their favourite room, which helps them to express their sense of identity.”
The rooms do offer a wide variety of atmospheres, from the intimate and womb-like larch-panelled Nature room, through the blue and watery-looking Flow room and the Japanese-themed Sapen room, which features low seating and an exciting forest of Anglepoise lamps. Staff were closely involved in the office design, with two workers from every department consulting on the interiors project, which can only have increased their sense of control over the workplace environment.
However, some elements of the project could only have been devised by designers: behind the glossy white bespoke reception desk glows a giant backlit image of the inner workings of a Microsoft laptop. “We actually took the computer to a hospital radiologist to have it X-rayed, which was fun,” says Lesjak. It offers a clue to Innocad’s inspiration for the office’s textural and visual palette, which was based on the features of a computer. White furnishings and floorings denote the “open communication areas” in which staff can wander, bump into each other, or recline, sit, perch or stand for an impromptu meeting. Data stream – or USB cabling – has its representation in the transit areas, which are carpeted in whooshy, striped vinyl flooring.
Instantly recalling Google’s office design at its Zurich headquarters is another “horizontal movement line” – otherwise known as a slide. If you are struggling to imagine busy executives ruffling their dignity on an adult-sized playground toy, Lesjak will put you right: “It is actually a very common sight to see a manager in a suit, mobile phone to his ear, sliding down to the lounge – and the slide even allows you to stand up gracefully at the end. It is a great symbol of the dynamic movement that Microsoft wanted to create.”
Innocad’s brief was also to showcase Microsoft’s latest technology in the design. So the company’s software controls the climate in the office and each meeting room features 360-degree cameras for virtual meetings, as well as its own Outlook address for bookings. The wayfinding system uses plasma screens to direct visitors to the many events that Microsoft hosts there.
The building has welcomed an impressive 5,000 visitors since October last year – just to view the office design – as part of Microsoft’s New World of Work guided tours. “Companies are very interested in learning more about the office and how it works,” says Lesjak, who claims that “every big company in Austria” has visited.
But more than its visitors, the real test of success for Innocad’s design is in what the staff think. In a survey, Microsoft found that the new office has boosted employee satisfaction with their workplace by 30%, whether they chose to actually work in the building – or out.
Catnapping in a “wall cocoon”? This term is Miami-based interior designer Piret Johanson’s name for a chaise longue built into a wall, where you can make a private phone call, read under a wall light or literally have a kip. Redolent of Verner Panton’s iconic Living Tower seating system of 1969, on which people can lounge at different levels, it’s hardly a form of seating you’d expect to find even in a relatively unconventional workplace. Yet this is one of several quirky features in Johanson’s design for the office of US digital marketing agency Valtech in New York’s Meatpacking District.
An internationally successful firm with offices in eight countries, including France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and India as well as the US, Valtech has a penchant for architecturally distinctive buildings. “It’s a digital agency that’s extremely efficient yet funky, and it prefers spaces with character that allow for a creative approach to office design,” says Johanson.
“For this project, I was briefed to respect the existing features – exposed brick walls, rows of columns and windows,” he continues. “Valtech also asked for a design with ecology in mind – the use of natural materials.” The firm also stipulated that the 300sq m office, which has 28 employees, incorporate a reception area, private office, two meeting rooms and a rest area for one person, namely that wall cocoon.
Johanson’s cocoon reference is crucial to her design for Valtech. In contrast to the ruggedly industrial-looking, brownstone building it occupies – once a factory for US multinational General Electric – and its sharply rectangular floorplan, Johanson’s design is softly organic. She has inserted a curving, billowing, snowdrop-white structure sliced in two in the centre of the space between two rows of columns. The structure’s two halves contain the reception, which has a built-in desk, a private office and two meeting rooms accommodating 12 and six people respectively. Its walls lean outwards as they rise up, forming a funnel shape that sometimes fuses with the columns, making the latter look as though they’re disappearing into the structure. Another serpentine wall, echoing the central structure, has been erected along one perimeter of the space; this houses a kitchen-cum-bar where informal meetings are held, as well as wardrobes, a photocopier and printers. “All these walls are made of multiple layers of plasterboard that can be shaped into curves, then plastered to create a smooth finish,” explains Johanson.
Elsewhere, the office’s palette is similarly neutral. The floor is in a mottled beige concrete, and snaking furniture made from a concertina of recyclable cardboard (by Canadian firm Molo) can be found in a large, informal meeting area. “These pieces are flexible: they can be shaped into any curvy form you want, so they worked perfectly with my concept,” says Johanson, who sourced all the other furniture, including Eero Saarinen side tables, the kitchen (from Ikea) and unobtrusive pendant lights by Luceplan.
“My overall aim was to create a free-form, organic volume,” says Johanson. While the phrase “think outside the box” might be overused, it serves as the headline
for this office’s project description because, she stresses, “it sums up this design so well. At first it initially came as a surprise to the client, but they were adventurous enough to go with it.”
The aforementioned Verner Panton comparison is apt: the office’s aesthetic is very 1960s pop, albeit all-white and space-agey, not psychedelic. Openings in biomorphic shapes have been carved into its pristine white partitions: one Emmental-cheese-like hole fronts the reception, while the apertures in the meeting rooms are glazed, ensuring the conversations there are kept private. The outer edges of these openings – as well as of the wall cocoon – were originally hand-drawn on to the walls before being cut open or hollowed out. Organic aesthetic aside, transparency is a another key feature here. “These openings allow employees to stay in visual contact with other parts of the interior,” says Johanson. The structure in the middle of the office is also bisected by a passage fronted on either side by glass walls incorporating doors, which make the space feel even more transparent, and allow daylight to flood in.
The Knoll workstations – in two symmetrically arranged groups, each seating 10 – are divided by low-level partitions that allow staff to interact easily and encourage creative ideas to flow more freely. The office’s predominantly open-plan layout, adds Johanson, is symptomatic of Valtech’s non-hierarchical culture. “There are two offices, one occupied by chief operating officer Olivier Padiou. However, at one point, he suggested we reduce the size of his office to create space for an additional, small meeting room.”
Before this Estonian-born architect became an interior designer and set up her practice, Johanson was a model who worked for Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent as well as glossies such as Vogue. She then studied design at Paris’s École Camondo (Philippe Starck’s alma mater) and lived in the city for 15 years. She now also creates swanky residential interiors in Florida. So – leaving aside the fact that Valtech’s office doesn’t resemble a runway – does she think her background has influenced its design? “Experiencing life in three countries – each with a distinctive design aesthetic – has taught me that there’s no single, conventional way to look at the things that surround us,” she replies. “With this project, I tried to relate to people who spend most of their time in front of computers, in a virtual world. This world is free of limits, angles, corners. It isn’t linear. This inspired my free-form design which hopefully matches their free-thinking mindset.”