You wouldn’t want to walk into Burberry’s new HQ underdressed, this building would show you up. Corinthian grey marble floors, dark oak panelling and polished black chrome all spell out classic, unbudging style.
We meet by a sculpture of Ozymandias in the atrium of Kings Place, best known as the new home of the Guardian newspaper in Kings Cross. But unlike the protagonist of the Shelley poem, which is concerned with the hubris of mankind, this office building’s architects and developer have something more philanthropic and inclusive in mind.
Words by Michael Willoughby Kohn Pedersen Fox ovehauled the 1930s offices of Uniliver, making the most of the spectacular riverside views. Michael Willoughby was blown away, by the outside at leastIt’s always good to get out of the office. On the roof of the Thames-side 100 Victoria Embankment, it’s absolutely sublime. Pampas grass and beech trees form the dune-like foreground for a view that takes in all the splendid spires and towers that the South Bank and the City of London have to offer. It’s extraordinary to be at eye level with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and Wren’s more fanciful creation, St Bride’s. The National Theatre, the Globe and Westminster Abbey look completely different when seen cheek by jowl.
But, my is it blowy! The wind pummels the roof, bowing the roof garden rows of pampas and beech and playing havoc with my digital recorder.
“It’s like being on the coast!” I yell to architect John Bushell, of international practice Kohn Pedersen Fox, as my jacket flaps wildly around my midriff.
“London funnels all of its wind down the Thames and so what are here are the only things that would survive on the coast,” he say, leaning authoritatively into the wind, and giving me an impromptu geo-biology lesson. “That’s why they have chosen these plants. It’s in a windy space.” He is absolutely certain about everything and doesn’t ask me a single question during our tour. I feel like an excitable, windswept schoolboy.
But Bushell must be somewhat excited because the roof garden, created with the famous plant expert Charles Funke, is the realisation of a long-held dream for the architect, who did his fifth year dissertation on the very subject.
Perhaps his blasé nature has been buffed during the process of simultaneously planning a complete gutting and structural refurbishment of a Grade II listed building while working with Unilever, legendary trustee of some of Britain’s most respected brands: Comfort, Persil, Knorr, PG Tips, Lynx, Marmite, Walls and, more recently, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
Its hard to believe that Unilever was ever thinking about moving away from the building, but when KPF started on the project, the steering committee asked Bushell straight up whether he thought they should stay at 100 Victoria Embankment. “I simply drew their attention to the view, to the location,” Bushell says. The building is itself a national treasure. Built pale grey Portland stone in 1932 in the style known back then -
Bushell informs me - as Classique Moderne. The front curves round towards the river with a stone base made up of a heavily rusticated ground floor with a portcullis-like door, and massively extended solidity over the next three floors with smaller arched windows punched in. The second level of the composition has a huge attached, Doric colonnade with strong solid ends, the third is a window-pierced subtly detailed cornice with original urns. At least some of the carvings on the base were by Eric Gill. It deserves to be better known, but is perhaps invisible sat next to the traffic chaos of the Embankment and Ludgate Circus.
So KPF’s task on the exterior was quite simple: “It was a question of preservation and undoing ad hoc things that had happened in the past,” Bushell says. The back of the building was simply falling apart and needed a good seeing to.
Inside was a different matter. While the building was spacious in the 1930s, with five of the partners being in a pioneering open-plan-style office, an accretion of walls and partitioning had taken place through the years. “Over time lots of things got filled in. You lost all connection with where you were in the building and it became a rabbit warren,” says Bushell.
During the war, the Ministry for Food took possession of the building and started to fill in spaces and confuse things. “The front door had been put at the side and the real front door had been closed and turned into a meeting room. So the whole process had been to take something that was quite fresh and over time it got to the point where they felt they had a very closed space; somewhere difficult to orientate yourself inside,” he adds.
Ironically, given the building’s aspect, people coming in from all over the world to meet with senior executives would be hustled to underground meeting areas. It got to the point where the directors were ashamed of their building. “They were worried they weren’t getting good graduates because it had a fuddy-duddy atmosphere,” says Bushell. “They wanted us to design a new workplace.”
Luckily, despite the classical flavour of the building, the structure is steel framed, allowing the architects a fair amount of latitude when it came to remodelling the interior, particularly the atrium, which is the most startling addition to the building.
White, clad in glass-reinforced (GRP) acoustic panelling with rounded edges, Bushell says that the atrium is a form of soft modernism which “makes reference to” but does not pastiche the Thirties. Large columns project into the space and affixed to them, at the top, are four platforms with large, white joins offset with each other that seem to spiral down. They are each connected with a spiral staircase that is hewn from a cylindrical form.
From the bottom of the lowest of these platforms, dubbed “the flying carpets”, is a rather sinister structure: a four-phonograph horned installation – Space Trumpet by British artist Conrad Shawcross – modelled on the listening devices that were used on the south coast of England during the second world war. The trumpets are controlled by a central computer and change shape every day at noon, never forming the same sculpture twice.
The atrium is intended as a semi-public space – the floor is of the same material as the pavement outside, Bushell points out – and it was created to feel like a room, but somehow, I don’t feel happy about it. The steel columns seem too thick, the rounded plastic balcony edges look wrong – too chunky, somehow – and the acoustic material is too obviously acoustic material. The installation appears to be stuck onto the platforms as an afterthought. The architect says that projectors are stationed around the building and shine varicoloured light onto the interior surface after twilight.
Lime green supports hold up the lifts and thin segments of straws form a background wall, ensuring that lift occupants can see out when at a horizontal angle, but exterior prying eyes are unlikely to be able see in. On the struts of the windows next to the lifts are holographic strips, which reflect all the colours of the rainbow around the gallery.
Bushell talks of the influence of Alvar Alto and Future Systems’ Selfridges building and of the 1930s, but I can’t make the links. Perhaps it is a space to be photographed. It’s sensationally photogenic.
But if the atrium falls somewhat flat, for me at least, the top floor cafe and meeting room areas are a triumph. Bushell tells me that he wanted to give people who came to the top floors – particularly those who were just in from overseas – “a sense of arrival” and he has achieved this in spades. The roof garden and the river and London, looking splendid, can be seen through the windows.
The chief executives’ dining room must be one of the world’s leading corporate spaces. A huge, round, glass-topped dining room, a bespoke design by Luke Hughes with rough metal mesh under glass, is surrounded by simple VVD01 B&B chairs, softly bent into an L-shape. The table can be extended to seat 22 people. A chandelier floats above. Eames Softpad chairs and a Vitra Noguchi coffee table sit in the next door executive lounge.
The architects haven’t neglected the regular Joes, either. They share the same view and Campus chairs, but Lammhults and Fritz Hansen tables vibe with the slate walls in the staff canteen.
Abutting this area are meeting rooms with reeds embedded into the walls by the entrances. These have been made by an Amish community and sit – incongruously – next to a fridge containing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Though the teams have just begun moving in, products for tasting and testing have started to arrive.
“They always bring loads of them to meetings,” says Bushell. “After a while, all I could eat was Slimfast. Apparently they work if you have enough of them.”
The building’s large floor plates ensure the workings are tremendously spacious and curve around the front of the building. Large ‘vitality’ boards are installed every so often containing, what the team says, is ‘inspirational art’, but to me looks more like the kind of thing you might expect to find in a BUPA hospice – reeds, flowers, leaves, trees, smiling faces – on boards that can be slotted in. Perhaps it’s just the effect the boards themselves have. They bring “colour and brand promotion throughout,” a spokesperson tells me.
The Naos desks are by Ergonom and at the same height as the KI storage units. The confidential documents storage has been taken out of ugly green bins and placed into a flush and colour-matching, lockable depository. “We wanted something very flexible with a certain amount of height adjustment requirements,” says KPF employee
Etain Fitzpatrick, who worked to choose the furniture. “The brief was that they didn’t want to spend loads of money on the build and then skimp on the furniture. There were a few systems that fitted but we liked the ones with the glass top. It’s all cantilevered and height adjustable and can be regrouped into twos and fours.” Le Klint Undercover Pentant lights float in clusters above, bringing a spot of colour.
As I leave, corporate office cleaners with massive feather dusters are listlessly tickling the spotless furniture. The marketing genii of Unilever are arriving at their new space. I have no doubt their sparkling new office space – and being able to go up on the roof and gaze at London’s architectural wonders face to face – will inspire them to create ever more alarming personal hygiene issues, more tempting ice creams and less disgusting diet shakes.
Words by Michael Willoughby When Michael Willoughby went to visit marketing firm Dunhumby’s Ealing HQ, fitted out by London based architecture practice Jestico + Whiles, he was dazzled by LEDs but somewhat kept in the dark... Corporate visitors to Dunhumby’s Ealing headquarters can expect a sparkly multimedia welcome with their firm’s corporate colours lit up in LEDs on the reception desk and projected onto the back wall. Comforting videos of their exploits will show on a plasma screen above tulip chairs and Boundary seating by Orangebox.
No such cordiality was offered to your roving reporter. The firm’s property manager, Doug Good, had gone without warning to Ireland and in his place appeared two rather alarmed marketing women. They had attempted to cancel the meeting when I was already on my way. But there I was and for the first time I have been doing these project profiles, a room had not been found for the architect and me to talk in. We perched in the cafe until Stefano Manuelli of Jestico + Whiles was stopped in his tracks trying to describe – in rather flattering terms, I thought – what Dunhumby was all about, and I was told that I would have to talk to the “right people”. Ironically, as Good (later) told me, Jestico + Whiles was chosen for its intimate knowledge of a company for whom it had been working for six years.
Things got really difficult when I asked if I could speak to office inhabitants – I was told they would have to be “told what to say”. This defeats our objective of always trying to find out how successful the work has been from a user perspective. Yet no explanation of the firm’s purpose was offered by the ladies from marketing. Eventually I was offered an unenthralling company boilerplate. The architect had gone “over the top”, I was later informed. Has Dunhumby got something to hide? Had I stumbled into a front for a military research establishment, like the dry cleaning shop in the Man from Uncle? I’m sure I will never know, but I am aware that they are at the sharp end of customer “management and analysis”, having invented the Tesco Club Card. They specialise in “customer behaviour”, or the dark art of analysing how we shop, so they can tell their customers how to get us to shop more. Perhaps I should be flattered that they think our magazine could make such a difference to their reputation. Dunhumby, with 400 employees, is growing by 40 per cent per annum and the company’s main area of growth is overseas. “International,” said one marketing lady; “global,” the other one corrected her.
Despite this mean experience, there was a fair amount to enjoy in the building. Manuelli has gone all out to pack the HQ with the latest gadgets and gizmos. It was a dark and dingy build that now sparkled and shone. He has packed it out with light – coloured lighting, LEDs, up lighting, down lighting and daylight.
“It should make you think of James Bond; that anything is possible,” he says, in his Genovese accent using self-taught English. The aforementioned welcome lights in the foyer and atrium naturally shuffle through Dunhumby’s corporate colours on a half-hourly basis, but they can be programmed to show whatever colours are required. In the middle of the atrium space is projected light – a projector hangs, like a spider in its web, on tensile steel stabilised by rods. “It was a big challenge to keep it floating there,” Manuelli says, “to keep it steady and ’angin’ there.”
Lights in meeting rooms can be shuttled through four settings, depending on the level of intimacy required. Sometimes they have been used for customer interviews. More LEDS – in the corporate colours – are planned for the exterior to increase the visibility of the company, on a humdrum strip of road, and to improve security. But it was natural light that was needed most, both in the atrium and in the office spaces. The former, now a charming, colourful space with Eames wire frame cafe chairs, a clear glass drop-in workstation and coffee bar, was originally crowded with rather sinister-looking plants. The ground floor had plastic cladding all the way down, and contained, says, Manuelli, “an ’orrible water feature.” From photographs, it seems like “stagnant pond” was the look they were going for. In the centre of the impinging greenery sat a lonely foosball table. “It wasn’t used much,” Manuelli adds of the space. “It was almost redundant.”
But now, the plastic cladding at ground floor level has gone and halogen lights and whiteness abound. The practice has made the best of the rather dated building design, clarifying the edges of the internal windows from floor one up. Light from the upper floors is allowed to enter through the banishment of meeting areas to the four corners of the building. One disappointment is the fact that the architect originally wanted the atrium totally open, without glass. The landlord was not happy with the idea, however, since Dunhumby was only on a ten-year lease. At ground floor-level, behind the cafe, depth has been added through the building of a corridor linking to the toilets and the gym. On the north-facing wall, major client meeting rooms with automatic blinds sit with training rooms stretching back from this. The final doors of the training area can be swung open into the atrium to create a grand space for entertaining or for other kinds of corporate events. And although very large, the atrium is a surprisingly intimate space, due to the timber used on the floor and the acoustic ceiling in the coffee bar.
Good explains that the atrium can be used for all types of welcome: “Clients suppliers and external agents can be received in the ground floor meeting space where our cafe is, with a five-room meeting suite. It caters for the informal chat in the open area to meetings with clients and suppliers in formal meeting room space.”Once one of three tenants inside the building occupying the first and second floors, Dunhumby has now expanded to a position where it fully occupies the building. The reception desk, previously a gloomy affair, shared between the lawyers and the police on floors three and four respectively, is now fully the company’s own. Contrasting with the bright welcome lights, it has a wrap-over plane of dark polished plaster, which projects over the seating area keeping the light reflected in the glossy grey tiles and indicating that the welcome desk “takes care” of its guests. The polished plaster theme is carried through to the coffee bar – also, of course, a sign of hospitality. The plane is just one of many that interlock on the ground floor, where the tile spills out from the reception area and the timber floor of the atrium is bounded by Teflon carpet, which has “escaped” from the meeting rooms. This effectively destabilises the over-square height of the atrium – a fine build by Elsworth Sykes but rather dated and topped with that Nineties cliche, the high-tech-style PVC canopy.
Surrounding the atrium on work floors three and four are common areas, which include break-out stations – with Duna chairs in company colours – along with sophisticated copiers that obviate the need for fax machines, and kitchens with smoked-glass splash backs. IT, HR, marketing and other departments that don’t travel light have made big gains through the addition of a great deal of storage. Factor 39 desking systems in rows of four to six people allow Dunhumby employees to collaborate on projects – or client projects – without having to move so much. If there is a requirement to move, rolling pedestal drawers and VOIP make it easy to do so. “We can get up to four to six people working at one bench looking at a particular piece of work and delivering ideas on a project,” says Good. “Before that it wasn’t really terribly feasible to do, so they had to take up a meeting area or an office.”The benches have ice-blue modesty screens and panels, which, added to the glass kitchen splash backs, manage to change the interior from “accountant grey” to cool. It reminds one that it’s the details that often make the difference. There are white screens on some of the floors where graphics can be attached and there’s a suggestion that the team’s client logos and products might form part of the display. Not much decoration has gone on up to this point, however.
It’s not that the staff don’t get to relax. The gym has a masseur, and the addition of an extra room to the gym means that it does not have to be taken out of action the three afternoons a week she is in attendance. Good is certainly laid back about the outcome. “The consultant team and the construction team worked pretty well. That’s reflected in the fact that the building was handed back to us within three weeks of completion date and it was right on budget.” He says he would have refurbished the toilets completely instead of giving them the once over, but apart from that all is to his liking.
Unfortunately, I never did get to speak to any of the users of the space since one of the marketing ladies missed a conference call, failed to return calls about setting up an interview and then went on holiday. From my eyes’ evidence, however, employees looked comfy enough as they worked out how to increase the hold that Tesco has over our buying habits.
Words by Elizabeth Choppin When a media company moved to bigger premises, they were concerned not to lose the energy of their former offices. The result, says Elizabeth Choppin, was much closer to home than they had thoughtWhen MediaCom, the advertising planner and media buyer for some of the world’s biggest companies, decided to move its UK headquarters into a considerably larger building, a two-pronged dilemma presented itself.
How could the buzz and energy of its old space, situated over two floors, be transferred to six storeys of an office block? And how would the new offices support MediaCom’s identity as a multi-national corporation while at the same time preserve the informal, funky image so important for its business?
The answer, according to London-based pracice ORMS Architecture Design, was to blitz the new space (a 52 year-old building in Holborn) with the concept of domesticity and home – plus a dash of drama for good measure.
“We intentionally did not look at other offices,” says John McCrae, one of the directors of ORMS. “The question in this case was how do you make it not like an office environment? We were trying to upset the corporate feel of the building. The idea was to say, ‘Retreat to it as though you were moving home. You have actually moved to a bigger, better home.”
MediaCom ran the risk of diluting the vibrancy and cosiness of its old offices in the new building at 124 Theobalds Road, with its cold marble finishes and glazing. What they asked for, quite simply, was that the design should enhance relationships amongst staff and with clients.
“It was about the people,” says McCrae. “That’s as much as they knew they wanted – and they had a building. They didn’t believe this building could actually work for them – they were really worried about it.” Yet the company was at bursting point in its previous space and needed room to expand and grow.
ORMS rose to the challenge. The scheme is a combination of bold use of colour and scale alongside the strategic placement of communal spaces. This manages to deliver the required impact for MediaCom’s high-profile clients as well as a fairly homely environment for its 520 employees to interact, promoting a culture of knowledge-sharing.
“Staff are essentially what helps us win business and what helps us keep clients, so it’s all about these relationships,” explains MediaCom marketing director Karen Blackett. “The core concern for us was that it feels intimate, because it is such an imposing building. It was also about ensuring that people feel a part of the team.” “When they say ‘People First’ (the start of the company’s tag line), they really do put them first. They encouraged us to bring the organisation to the front,” says project architect Ana Monrabel-Cook. Because MediaCom’s departments are separate and now spread out over more space, the design is meant to knit them back together and maintain the spirit of integration that is key for staff.
This was done on each floor by concentrating break-out spaces, tea points and meeting areas around the periphery of the central atrium, which extends up from the ground floor reception to the top of the building – effectively coaxing people out of their separate departments into an accessible and highly visible hub. “Whilst you make a cup of tea, you can see people passing by and have a chat with them. It feels more domestic. If you’re on the furthest side of the building, you have to come here to make a cup of tea. There is nowhere else you can do that,” says McCrae.
Inspiration was drawn from hotels and private houses – even the organised chaos of a Marrakech marketplace influenced the design. Wall graphics with key words for each area and a timber “racetrack” – a circular walkway connecting communal spaces that replaced dull carpet flooring – serve as orientating devices for staff. “Before the timber was installed, it looked like a labyrinth,” says Monrabel-Cook. “When you came out of one door, it felt exactly the same as if you had come out of another door.”
Along the east side of the atrium, glass has been replaced with open walnut frames, much like balconies. “You can hear the activity of the atrium on every floor, which is quite important because of the company’s shift from horizontal to vertical,” says McCrae. “From the lift you can see activity, you can see the organisation.” A cafe spills out into the ground floor of the atrium adding to the buzz and energy of the building.
Much of the existing building was not changed – ORMS opted to focus the design, and 50 per cent of the budget, on finishes. “Rather than spend money in the ceiling, we decided to concentrate our efforts and resources on the things that you touch, the things that you really see, the things that you sit in,” explains McCrae.
On every floor, the break-out space sits next to the glass panels of the north atrium wall. It is divided into three zones: two formal meeting spaces – with Maximo couches and floral patterned Egg chairs – sit on either side of a more informal area with leather benches and stools upholstered in bright fabrics. Felt-upholstered partitions for postcards or messages flank the entire space, adding to the the feeling of a lounge. “This is where you might have a team meeting or get away from your desk, but again, it is the most public bit of the building instead of back in the corner,” says Monrabel-Cook.
With varying degrees of subtlety, the company’s branding is reinforced with accents of colour – shades of purple, red, pink and grey – in the entrance hall and throughout the open-plan offices and break-out spaces. “The choice of the colour palette is so that it doesn’t date within 12 months,” says McCrae. “It’s not the latest lime green or bright yellow. The idea is to make it quite a sophisticated palette.”
So carefully selected hues of orange, green and yellow are applied sparingly in meeting areas and key meeting rooms to avoid an overly corporate message. “One of the core things we said to ORMS was that it needs to be warm,” explains MediaCom’s Blackett. “Colour was quite important for this – we did spend quite a bit of time making sure that we do reflect MediaCom’s style guide, but that we also make it warm and intimate.”
After the move in December, an initiative called Pimp My Area was launched to encourage departments, via a competition, to personalise their spaces, which were designed simply with clusters of white work stations. “Although we’ve created this interior with this look and ambience, we still wanted people to feel as though they could put their own stamp and personality on it,” says Blackett. The results – ranging from wall graffiti and yellow flocked wallpaper to illustrated self-portraits – make unified, central areas even more crucial.
Another key aspect to the design was about client experience, including capacity for business pitches starting at the front door. An oversized, black acrylic lampshade, the underside of which displays a lit diagram of MediaCom’s offices around the world, looms in the entrance hall and immediately informs a client of the scope of the company.
An aubergine carpet catwalk leads clients through the entrance hall before they are whisked up a white, spiral staircase to the formal pitch rooms – an experience which is meant to parallel a walk down a VIP carpet. “It’s quite theatrical – but that is part of what they are about. It’s about how they communicate to the people and the clients,” McCrae explains.
Meet and greet pods have replaced the imposing reception desk, and gigantic planters and picture frames on each side of the space play on the theme of home – albeit with a bit of tongue-in-cheek.
The idea of a domestic picture frame is woven throughout the building in reception, work areas, the cafe and the corridors. Pictures of clients hang in an eclectic mix of frames resembling what might be found in a family home.
Blackett explains: “You know when you go to somebody’s house, you always have a bit of a nose at the photos on the mantelpiece. This was trying to create that sort of atmosphere so you feel as though you are looking at our family album.”
The combination of grandiose and domestic flourishes is meant to represent this duality within MediaCom. “It is to give the impact that this is a huge organisation. It’s global, but it is also very personal,” says McCrae.
A lack of security machines to pass through, or a visible security desk of any sort, allows the space to feel more like the lobby of a boutique hotel than a corporate office building.
“When we walked into this building, you had a reception desk and it felt that you had to go behind the scenes to have a meeting,” says Monrabel-Cook. “We wanted to bring a bit of that informality back in, which is what the meeting spaces, the cafe and the break-out spaces are.”
All in all, says Blackett, the design has received glowing feedback from both staff and clients. “Clients love it because we’ve thought about how we work with them and we were able to design the space around them,” she adds. “It has increased productivity, it has increased creativity and it’s comfortable.” One can only remember how the company’s tag line finishes: “Better Results”.
As for staff, with an average age of 24, plans are underway for a bar in the east wing. A home away from home then.
Words by Michael Willoughby British firm Scott Brownrigg Interior Design has created the new offices for medical company BD in Oxford. Michael Willoughby went to experience the organised randomness
The people from BD, an American medical instrument and drug manufacturer, were scoping out a refurbished 19th-century asylum when they saw what is their current home over the way in Oxford’s Science Park.
A certain amount of insanity is to be expected the day I visit the company’s new HQ, since it is Red Nose Day. I am told that the UK division of the New York-based company’s 130 employees have officially moved into the pristine building., but the place seems empty – the ophthalmic department, for instance, currently consists of one man.
So instead of the madcap jollity I was expecting (Peter Thomas, designer with Scott Brownrigg, was scared that men dressed as chickens would haunt the official photographs he’d commissioned today), I see an electronic mouse in a ball whirring its way through the building, an empty, impromptu barber’s chair surrounded by charity hair clippings and Thomas’ crazy-angled corridors and archways covered in blue film. Views through the nearly deserted first-floor training area look like a blue take on Superman’s Kryptonite cave. The feel is more David Lynch than Children in Need.
But there is method in at least Thomas’ apparent madness: the angles at which the internal architecture is constructed mirror those at which the wings project from the main building. The angles from the plan end up in the elevation. This crystallinity is echoed everywhere, from the reception desk in the lobby to the countertops in the staff restaurant, made of cement and recycled glass composite respectively. It is almost as though the building was a chemical that had grown itself in a test tube. Science is the art of discovering the rules to what might look random to a casual observer, and Scott Brownrigg’s architecture seems to pay homage to this. Occasional meeting points, peopled with some of the last century’s best furniture, pop up throughout the building, particularly on the ground floor. Jouissance is not to be confused with haphazardness.
What there is is a looseness and limberness – a spontaneity – that has, it seems, played to BD’s advantage, helping it to become a Fortune 500 company. The same people appear on different teams in different “businesses” within the company and in different regions. If it’s confusing to the outsider, perhaps that is not surprising. Each employee (or “associate”) is regarded as unique. The best line I can get on it is from Tim Daley, business director for Western Europe, which is that the company is a matrix.
Randomness is – literally – celebrated in the company. The CEO is known to stand on a T-junction in the Manhattan HQ and chat to employees as they walk past.
Facilities manager Tony Ford says the same thing has begun to happen here since the overhaul. “I saw a facilities guy from Europe I hadn’t seen since November. There was another guy from San Diego. We were able to get together spontaneously without worrying about booking a meeting room or ordering tea and coffee. You can’t buy that kind of thing.”
What did that mean for Peter Thomas? Logistics had to be carefully worked out with HR to keep teams sensibly together. It was a challenge, but also an opportunity: the move took place over several months and was organised by a series of committees and task forces comprised of employees. Sometimes the head of the task force was an obvious choice – like the training task force – but in other cases, the group was set up specifically for the move. For example, the aesthetics task force was comprised of a guy from marketing, a guy from graphics and Tim Daley, chosen because he had a feel for or an interest in design.
The news of the move was put together by another “impromptu” task force – the “communications, relocation and associate engagement task force”, who produced a monthly newsletter called “On the Move – your dedicated source of news and information on the Oxford office relocation”. The purpose of this was not just to update people on progress and keep them keen, but to gee them up when they needed to do something, like dispose of the 1km long line of boxes full of crapola – over 60 per cent of stuff that the company had collected in a 25-year residency in its former home – that consultants McDermott Associates said they could probably do without. The feeling behind what they called the “Late Spring Clean”, which took place in the summer, reminds one of a family moving house, or pupils and teachers breaking the school down together on the last day of term. Everyone was, it seems, expected to do their bit.
In short, the emphasis at BD is on the fact that the organisation is the associates as opposed to it being management that directs the employees. As little as possible is taken from outside the company even when that involves appointing associates to roles one would normally give to consultants of one kind or another. For example, the photos that line the walls were taken by a man from the graphics department who is a keen photographer and was sent into the city to take a variety of types of photograph. When the aesthetics task force settled on “abstract” he was then dispatched to take more of that type.
And, while still a consultant, Peter Thomas, the task force and the committee leaders worked tremendously closely together throughout the process. “I think Peter and I are more or less friends, now,” Daley says. “Probably because we spent so much time together.”
And Ford, who himself has a 20-year design background, had an overwhelming input into the process of designing his areas, adding, for example, a drop-down kerb in the goods delivery point and ensuring that the circulation of drop-offs and pick-ups was kept away from the client-facing front of the building. So adjacencies were not the only rules that Thomas had to work to. Despite the fact that BD wanted a fair amount of cellular offices, it also wanted everyone to have a view of the outside or at least access to daylight. This was accomplished by keeping the walls of the cellular offices as glassy as possible. Lines of offices in the previous building frequently had blinds pulled and doors locked by absent employees, making the space dark for the remainders.
Another rule was that the more permanent the staff (the less the travelling), the better the view they should have. Therefore, the marketing and sales staff have the plum vista of the manicured Science Park gardens and the fountains while the CEO has a view of the car park.
“You could argue that he is keeping an eye on who is arriving. Possibly.” Thomas says, charitably, of the less than glorious position. But it was the glory of the grounds – of the view of the setting – that attracted the firm to the spot in the first place. Grasses and bushes are meticulously shaped and curved like the surrounding Cotswold hills, to provide a smooth and subtle backdrop to the life of the company inside. One side has the view of a fragment of a French formal garden, the other a high fountain. The glass walls of the building allow the light and the subtle colours to stream in and Thomas was extremely keen to get the “outside in”, echoing the colours of the vegetation on the inside and the lines of the terrace leading to the fountain in the atrium.
“The whole inside is very neutral, balanced by measured splashes of the strong orange and blue,” he says. But glass has a downside. The atrium, welcoming to visitors with its meeting areas and high ceiling, is also a terrific noise generator. Thomas had to keep the offices away from the perimeter. At least the atrium was not filled with the sound of glass breaking – the chandelier hanging high in the space was to be supplied by a local glass blower, but Thomas and facilities manager Tony Ford decided that he wasn’t convincing enough. “What with the air channel through the atrium and the tension of the wires, I was thinking: ‘Glass balls – shatter – crash!’” Ford says.
Thankfully Thomas solved the problem of what became known throughout Scott Brownrigg as “Pete’s Balls” by finding a specialist – Bocci. The final solution is inspiring, capturing and emphasising the lightness of the place. Tim Daley says the staff has responded extremely well to the change of environment. “Everybody is extremely pleased with it,” he says. The whole tone has dramatically shifted to a much more motivated feel. They can’t believe they are in the building.” It sounds like a step up. The old building had served its purpose. “There was a toilet downstairs that was full of marketing material,” says Ford. “It hadn’t been used for five years. You couldn’t get in. No one knew what was there, though.”
And customers are happier, too. The north wing – orange rather than blue to capture the warmth (BD’s logo is orange and blue) – contains training labs like showrooms where BD can demonstrate its products and teach clinicians how to use them. The orange is matched with white fittings and muted, corrugated, silver door panels. “I can’t resist running my fingers over them when I walk past,” says Thomas, doing so and making a buzzing noise.
There are also a couple of rooms with one-way mirrors in which customers can discuss the products without feeling the supplier’s presence. “It allows us to reach out to the clinicians in the surrounding area. They have access to products they didn’t have before,” Daley says. BD is even inviting organisations that want to have their own meetings into the building creating valuable sales relationships.
Thomas seems to have been truly inspired by the height of the building, putting the cafe and gym on the third floor no matter what it might mean for the difficulty of deliveries. “The idea was to draw people up into the building,” he says. Again, it’s the voice of a leading company that wants its people to talk.
And at £3.5m, what of the economics? Daley says the firm is able to save money because it doesn’t have to book outside meeting rooms and catering. And meetings are taking place that wouldn’t before. There are new people appearing. “You’re running into people you didn’t know worked here!” he says.
Happy bosses, happy architect – even the receptionist and security guy are smiling good humouredly with each other as I wait for the cab and vying with the other to take a load of copy paper to the third floor.
“Great building,” says another employee, as Thomas and I introduce ourselves. Everyone likes it here. You wouldn’t have to be mad not to like working here, but it would help.
Words by: Michael Willoughby How would you make the vast headquarters for a global biotechnology firm feel homely? Michael Willoughby visits the Horizon Serono HQ to find out how London-based practice Mackay + Partners fared. Mackay + Partners prides itself on its ability to create welcoming spaces within corporate schemes. The London-based practice feels a great deal of its influence comes from work on hotels, such as London’s the Sanderson, St Martins Lane Hotel and The Trafalgar. “Our office projects relate more to people and they have a more hotel and leisure kind of twist,” says senior partner Ken Mackay. “We are not the typical commercial-space-planning office.” On the day I spoke to him and partner Gavin Harris they were preparing to zip over to Kenya to work on a five-star hotel in the region and there’s another hotel project underway. So consider for a moment the Horizon Serono project in Geneva, where Mackay + Partners has created the interior for Chicago-based architect Murphy/Jahn’s colossal office building. This new “campus” for what has, following a merger, become Europe’s largest biotechnology firm Merck Serono, is a 40,000sq m, glass and steel beast. The six buildings in Helmut Jahn’s signature new-modernist style are arranged around a seven-floor-high atrium, which encloses a slice of avenue and several trees.
Grids of super-clear, low-iron glass and sparkling steel form the walls, screens and roof of the building. There is nothing between the viewer and the open sky except glass. In a corner of this cathedral-like space hover sharp-edged bridges, criss-crossing in mid air, linking separate parts of the building like the city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Elegant stairways with large balconies descend from these walkways.
Murphy/Jahn has said it was inspired by the challenge that the client – specialising in multiple sclerosis, reproductive health, dermatology and growth deficiencies – had set itself, to be “the biggest and the best biotech company in the world”. As such, “in terms of construction and performance, the building is more informed by principles of science and technology, rather than design and style,” says the practice.
The feeling upon entering the Merck Serono’s headquarters is indeed one of incredible cleanness and efficiency. It’s like a scientific experiment in which several infinite planes are made to intersect with each other in the shape of a building.
But for all its merits, Horizon Serono HQ is less than welcoming, and Mackay + Partners had its work cut out if it wanted to put the ghost in the machine. The firm worked hard to bring warmth, colour, organic life and cohesion to the project. Place-making was important in bringing a human scale to the building interior. Both the reception area and the cafe are structures within structures. The cafe is double height, with cast-iron pillars linking the two floors. The reception of bright blue glass welcomes visitors with a splash of colour, with bench seating by B&B Italia. The cafe is banded with LED lights at the top and bottom and the footprints of all structures are kept as minimal as possible; these may be large intrusions into the “infinite” space, but they float appropriately.
The most striking colour element within the building is the “wax wall” – the first thing that visitors are likely to see. Coloured LEDs project ever-changing content – including stylised DNA, images of babies and chemical strands – through thin yellow wax. This wall hovers in front of a “rain cloud” or misting device, like a steel rain forest, with a tank at the bottom. Elsewhere, trailing plants – including orchids and ferns – hang down in front of the external skin. These elements point to the “natural” roots of biotechnology.
Nature and colour are also combined in a glass wall that starts in the restaurant and runs out into the atrium. The panel features orchids and other flowers in the hanging plant wall. The shade of the wall is just the start of the colour riot taking place in the restaurant. It is here that Mackay + Partners’ experience at designing high-end leisure spaces shines through. It has created three different dining environments, two self serve and one waiter serviced. In the self-serve zone, large tables are surrounded by clear plastic chairs, both by Arper, so that people can take their time, sited next to a more casual set up where employees in a hurry can grab lunch. The glass surfaces are yellow, with a cell-bond material beneath. As well as a mesh ceiling pierced with spot lighting, the back of the self-service restaurant is flooded with blue light. “We were careful to choose the type of light,” says Harris. “You would think that food on a yellow table top with a blue light might be a bit ‘yuk’ but it’s actually fine.”
Mackay + Partners has converted the end of a large self-service fridge into a screen with a projection of flowers, taking a functional element and allowing it to welcome diners rather than having to hide it. The waiter service area strikes a different note of contemporary luxury more suited to lingering. With its shaggy, glass lampshades and crisp white tablecloths, you could be in the hottest new restaurant in town rather than a staff canteen. The third dining space, a cafe serving breakfast and coffee, is visible through the line of trees.
A notion of transparency, aided by the low iron glass, carries throughout the building. People can be spotted from almost any point overlooking or within the atrium. “It’s not Big Brother-like or negative,” says Harris. “You can look across from all six buildings into one building and go, ‘Where’s John? Oh, John’s there.’ So, I think that’s good.” Mackay + Partners’ design celebrates this type of random interaction at all points. On the walkways and landings are what the firm calls “speakeasies”: informal points with B&B Italia tables and chairs where people can grab a coffee and sit down. The red chairs are an extremely striking element in the midst of the white and steel, but one can’t help but feel it would take a large ego to be prepared to have a meeting sitting, exposed, hanging in space. It could be that this is just what Merck Serono’s people possess, but 900 of the firm’s 1,200 employees were present in the building when I was there, and few were hanging out in these spots – it was lunchtime though.
Another stunning area that was under populated on the day of the visit was the library, where Corian shelves by Molteni – the edges lit by LEDs – snake around and hold periodicals. In the other part of the section, curved oak shelves house research books. The library is abutted by a separate seating area above the cafe overlooking the atrium, providing another visual and practical linkage of space.
The workspaces, including laboratories (not designed by Mackay), work desks and administrative and marketing areas, have a subtler quality. Harris and Mackay speak of these areas as “warm”, but they also feel a little bland and soulless. The only colour here is the yellow of the worktops and some of the tables, which can appear sunny and warm or pale and insipid depending on the setting. The screens on the bench desking by Ergonom seem like they might be too high. The private offices are, however, airy and inspiring, with a wall serving as a whiteboard. The shared areas outside the laboratory overlook the atrium and the yellow is repeated in the top of some of the storage areas.
While there is no suggestion that quality was sacrificed in the common areas, it is the private CEO’s office that is the stand out space in this building. Definitely not in the line of sight of all, the sheer quality of the chairman’s quarters – three times the specification of the rest of the build according to a supplier – makes architect and client uncomfortable even discussing it.
I’m not supposed to mention the 280 cows that went into surfacing the white kid leather walls by Fritz Hansen and chairs by B+B Italia, the en suite bathroom, kitchen and bedroom with views of Lake Geneva. The words “luxury” and “softness” are ones that Harris uses and then retracts, instead saying: “It was designed to the quality of a hotel, but it was for business. It’s really a personal suite for the CEO or someone. It’s not something we can really talk about and they are concerned about how they are representing it to their front people. It’s very unusual.” It certainly is: the air is early Frank Lloyd Wright by way of Stanley Kubrick. The dark leather and wood, traditional signifiers of the powerful boardroom, are white and light here. Is it a hangover from former owner Ernesto Bertarelli’s style and taste? The Italian sold the company to Merck last year for $13.3 billion. The change of leadership might explain the somewhat ambivalent attitude of the PR machine to the suite (including no pictures being released to us).
Other aspects of the building are more modest in aim. Being next to Lake Geneva allows for all heating and cooling between plus and minus five degrees to be provided by water, cooling in the summer and heating in the winter. There are three layers of shades on the skin of the building, all of which are controlled by computer. Flaps in the glass can be opened and closed. And, most spectacularly, the whole roof of one side can open up in summer. Mackay’s “rain cloud” feature adds to this natural cooling and humidity.
So has Mackay + Partners made a home in this quartz crystal of a building? Comments from users were not forthcoming, but it’s fair to say that the reception, restaurant, cafe and CEO suite areas are incredibly successful: high quality, innovative and very stylish.
Horizon Serono is a polarising space. “It was important to specify an equal quality to the original building,” Harris says, and the building’s precision, efficiently clean aesthetic and beauty cannot be doubted. But the coldness of the Lake, the Alps and, perhaps, the scientific enterprise itself, makes this a hard space for a human to feel entirely comfortable in.