On 29 November, onoffice and B&B Italia will host Designing for the Media, a presentation and panel discussion delving behind the scenes at the BBC and Channel 4 headquarters. We will hear from Helen Berresford, head of ID:SR, and Claire McPoland, interior designer at HOK, who will present their recent landmark projects for these leading broadcasters and explore the rollercoaster that is designing a workplace for a media giant.
The talk will start at 6.30pm on Thursday 29 November at B&B Italia, 250 Brompton Road, London SW3 2AS
One of the largest, most complex and most expensive workplace design schemes of the past 50 years will draw to a close next March. By then, the BBC will have shifted the last of its 6,000 staff into New Broadcasting House in London’s Portland Place, marking the end of a decade-long exodus from Aldwych and west London, codenamed The W1 Project.
The new building, a glassy, corporate curve meshed into the heavy masonry of George Val Myer’s purpose-built art deco barge, expresses the BBC’s future identity as a more coherent, fluid and ultimately more transparent organisation. It has taken three architects to bring us this far: MJP and Sheppard Robson carried out the base build and Phase 2 respectively, and HOK thwarted 120 other contenders (including Sheppard Robson’s interiors arm, ID:SR) to win the fit-out.
In the BBC’s swish new cafe, onoffice met W1 Project director Andy Griffee, the Beeb’s very own Moses tasked with leading the people to the £1.04 billion promised land. “This is the first time in the BBC’s history we have all the programme makers under one roof,” Griffee says. “We see massive creative opportunities from throwing those people together, so we needed an interior design that allowed us to collaborate more.” Journalists, however, are generally not great collaborators, and the move toward more shared content, driven by the financial pressures the BBC faces, must surely endanger the BBC’s originality. It is a risk Griffee is all too aware of. “The idea that we churn out some grey porridge that’s the same for every single audience would kill us. But there is a financial reality as well.” Our shiny new surroundings belie the austere times, but Griffee calculates that by selling off buildings and cancelling leases, the BBC has summoned £750m to offset against the budget. Moreover, he points out that Auntie’s great strength is revealed when all its various muscles pull in the same direction – Children in Need and Comic Relief being excellent examples.
Events like these, which mobilise and engage audiences in such a direct way, are practically unique to the BBC. Consequently, a significant chunk of HOK’s many-sided brief was to ensure the building could handle tour groups and live audiences as well as the legion of journos going about their daily business. Our tour begins in the Media Café, a semi-public space adjacent to the main reception that will be used as a waiting room for TV and radio audiences as well as a casual meeting/eating area by BBC staff. Only the World Service has fully occupied its new digs and the space is quiet. HOK’s lead designer Claire McPoland explains how important it was to strike the right balance between modern, forward-thinking workplace while studiously avoiding anything too flash. Well-put-together but understated work by homegrown talent such as Hitch Mylius, Naughtone and Deadgood features throughout, and hanging above us are sizable red light boxes, which both define the large rectangular room and reference the blocky BBC logo.
The cafe is the hardest working space in a building that has been designed for intensive use and, decked out in the BBC’s potent red and orange palette, is also relentlessly on-brand. Connecting the cafe to the reception is a wide corridor displaying icons of programming (Dr Who, for example) while bulletins of the world’s tragedies, hostile takeovers and crimes glide by on thin digital strips. The reception itself is pretty standard save for the mock-up studio where tour guests can read the weather or present a show. To enter the office proper one must negotiate first the reception and then pass through a blast-proof glazed wall onto a gangway that overlooks the newsroom. Sunk one level below the entrance and flanked by two spiral staircases, it feels like a gladiatorial arena. HOK’s Daniel Herriott describes it more prosaically: “It’s more of a trading floor than an office.” That said, there is a sense of theatre to what is reportedly the biggest newsroom in Europe. TV studios (there are five in total in the building) form a live backdrop and are positioned so that the journalists, sitting at desks fanning out from two horseshoe shapes, can produce lightening-quick bulletins. Hovering above like a halo is an enormous light feature, which breaks down the soaring atrium into a more palatable scale.
Awash with technology, the dense desk layout is wilfully intense, a space to ramp up, rather than ease off, the pressure. “We did live one-to-one mock-ups made from card and tested it on 40 journalists to see what shape would be the most effective,” explains Herriott. “In the end, they wanted to be on each other’s laps. As you can imagine it gets pretty fiery.” Occupying a nook by the staircase that spirals down to the underground TV studios is a Vpod, adapted to be DDA compliant, where guests can record radio pieces. As we stroll around the second floor it becomes clear that HOK has squeezed as much use as it could from the 80,000sq m space by turning the whole building into a giant studio. “Staff can set up a camera and broadcast from almost anywhere. That was why it was important to get the branding right so nothing jars.” HOK also designed classic on-air/off-air lamps that blink on and off periodically when the 50 radio studios are in use. “It brings the whole thing to life,” says Herriott.
The office’s flexibility is striking. A variety of meeting/touchdown areas pepper each floor and light-filled collaboration lounges hug the apex of curved facade. Elsewhere, McPoland astutely transformed otherwise dead areas around the atrium perimeter into intimate meeting zones. “Each floor was tailored to suit their needs. This becomes a private space, but News needed larger breakout areas across the floor for big get-togethers,” she says. Herein lies a problem. With extravangant architectural interventions off-limits, HOK was left to conjure some variety through the furniture. However, with multiple brands rubbing shoulders in some areas, some of the lounges feel too busy.
Things calm down in the News Cafe. Aware that staff might need occasional respite, HOK stripped away the branding for this private canteen behind the newsroom. Playful PXL lights hang in a mellow space populated with James Burleigh furniture and decorated with out-of-focus graphics. “The whole building is on-air apart from this area. Here you can come and switch off,” says McPoland. At times HOK battled, with limited success, to inject some soul into the corporate architecture, naming meeting rooms after notable BBC figures and wallpapering railway-carriage-style booths with photos taken by foreign correspondents.
The World Service, now on the fifth floor, was HOK’s toughest audience because of its emotional bond with Bush House, from which it broadcasted for 70 years, surviving Luftwaffe bombings in the process. Bush House and the new premises are diametrically different – open plan versus compartmental – which made the wrench even more compelling. To its credit, HOK has transferred art and gifts from Bush House, displaying them in the lounge alongside a classic BBC microphone. It is nigh-on impossible, however, to recreate an atmosphere built up over decades in a building where the paint is virtually still drying.
Still, watching a journalist study a huge TV screen is a reminder that the W1 Project’s success or failure hangs on how well the building works. No one can really know until the building is at full capacity, but all the ingredients are in place. Modestly, McPoland and Herriott praise the base build architects for a “fantastic canvas” and admit to being somewhat humbled that their design will be beamed to millions of viewers across the globe. Successful film set design goes unnoticed when it’s believable. Certainly, for the BBC and HOK this project is no leap of faith.
Worktech 11 North kicked off today at the BBC’s landmark new building at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. The event features guided tours of the building and the BBC’s design team will be on hand to explain the project. There will also be talks on the future of work, workplace, real estate, technology and innovation. The event is held by Unwired, the events and publishing arm of the Cordless Group.
Words by Helen PartonEncouraging staff interaction was integral to David Chipperfield’s design for BBC Scotland’s new headquarters, in Glasgow’s West End, which included creating a giant indoor street. BBC SCOTLANDARCHITECT: DAVID CHIPPERFIELD ARCHITECTS CLIENT: BBC SCOTLAND COST: £188.4M (INCLUDING RELOCATION) START DATE: JULY 2004COMPLETION: SEPTEMBER 2007FLOOR SPACE: 3,160SQ MThe prohibitive cost of adapting BBC Scotland’s base on Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow to new technology ensured that the broadcaster would have to find a new home. “We were trying to find a place where people would be encouraged to meet,” says Victoria Jessen-Pike, director of David Chipperfield Architects. “For the first time, all broadcasting functions, radio, television and internet, were to be brought together, and ways had to be found architecturally to encourage interaction between members of the large staff.”Chipperfield’s solution was to create Pacific Quay, a stepped sandstone “street” that rises over five levels and has been likened to “stairs in a giant’s house”. To my mind, though, the end result, as viewed from the top floor, is more like the cross-section of an ant hill, albeit one in which the insects favour stylish lounge furniture. “The idea was also to put all the black boxes in this concentrated solid base of the building,” says Jessen-Pike. Here, in the three broadcasting studios, including the largest in Scotland, begins the start of a tapeless revolution, allowing the workforce to share its content on a highly sophisticated digital server. The building also has 23 editing suites and three dubbing studios for state-of-the-art production. Red sandstone was selected as the main material for the street – a nod to the building material used in Glasgow’s tenements – and a Dumfriesshire quarry had to reopen to meet the order. Other locally sourced elements included the Scottish oak used for some of the street’s meeting tables, while the reception desk made from girders alludes to the area’s shipbuilding heritage. “The desk lends theatricality,” says Ross Hunter, director at Graven Images, which was charged with the interior design of the project. “This is a broadcast building, not a bank.” Back on the street, the break-out spaces and informal meeting areas, spread over the various steps‚ further encourage movement, with a wireless network serving the space. The steps can also be used for more formal gatherings and presentations. The open-plan offices that wrap around the street mean there are even more opportunities for cross-departmental encounters. Exposed concrete and steel finishes provide a workmanlike quality to the interior. “We also wanted to add ceiling panels only where we needed to, and we wanted a workshop aesthetic, rather than a very corporate one, to give a creative atmosphere,” adds Jessen-Pike.The building’s glazed facade maximises light and affords fantastic views, emphasised by the floor-to-ceiling and, in some cases, double-height, glass construction. “One of the things we wanted to do was to have as much space for the staff as possible, in terms of the number of metres and the height,” says Jessen-Pike.The architecture of the BBC building is simple in comparison with its neighbours: the futuristic Glasgow Science Centre next door, and the new Clyde Arc bridge and the SECC building across the river, known locally as “the armadillo”. But what it lacks in geometric interest, it makes up for in the practicality of its finishes. The double skin of the glazed facade, for example, with a fixed outer layer and opening inside layer, means that natural ventilation combines with floor-level displacement ventilation. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, as Jessen-Pike explains: “Staff can control their own temperature without having howling gales coming in. It brings in fresh air but not wind, and there is also an automatic venetian blind system. “We also wanted the building to be transparent, so that people could see the workings of the BBC,” she adds.The idea of involving the public is one that runs strongly through the project. When visitors enter the reception area, they immediately get a fantastic vista of the sandstone street. “The environment had to be conducive to making great programmes, while accommodating collaboration and new aspects such as public access,” says Hunter. As the new workforce settles in, plans are being drawn up for providing tours of the building, most likely commencing next year. The circulatory nature of the space means people can be at the heart of the action without disturbing those at work. When I visit, the widescreen television has yet to come to life and the finishing touches are also being put to two sound cones‚ and several booths, which are part of a series of interactive features. “The area [between the BBC building and the Science Centre] can really become a public square – it will start to improve when all the staff are moved in,” adds Jessen-Pike. As if on cue, as I approach the end of my tour, a group of tourists meanders in and exclaims in wonder: “What is this place?” Balancing this out, however, as I leave, the taxi driver comments, “This place, it’s no’ very accessible, eh?”, potentially ruining all the positive PR work done thus far. But, to be fair, it is early days for Pacific Quay as an area and, hopefully, with an organisation such as the BBC on board, accountable to the licence fee-paying population with a remit of inclusion close to the design brief, it will avoid a repeat of London’s Docklands, where workers spill out of the their glass-and-steel megaliths leaving the deprived local communities wondering where they fit into this hub of employment, entertainment and wealth.It is hoped that the area will become something of a media city, with Beat FM and Scottish Media Group already located in the vicinity. Pacific Quay’s location in one of Glasgow’s less salubrious areas did nonetheless prompt one wry blogger to quip: “The BBC is off to sunny Govan – and a culture shock.”Graven Images worked with local artist Toby Paterson, who has been commissioned to provide a work that will eventually sit outside the BBC building. “We had an ‘off Toby Paterson’ palette, if you like,” says Hunter. “There are connections between Toby’s piece and our layers of colour.”To say Graven Images’ job was to add colour would be to simplify its involvement in the project. Hunter says they started off incorporating shades of dark grey, before moving on to the more dramatic hues such as the fuchsia-coloured break-out spaces and lime-green counter tops in the tea-points. One of the biggest challenges Graven Images faced was the size of the building, which is more than 100m long. “We had to have elements that were bigger than the desks,” says Hunter. “Flooding the area with furniture would have made it look like a call centre.” To combat this, a series of sub-spaces was created, introducing systems of clear shelving to give a sense of ownership back to the staff, as well as colour-coded telescopic poles and signage.The most notorious element of the scheme, which has already featured in the Scottish Sun, is the two B&Q potting sheds. “They have taken on a life of their own,” says Hunter. “They are supposed to add a bit of humour, but have serious and non-serious roles. They are effective landmarks, quiet places for thinking, and amidst all the glass, their walls accommodate drawing pins.”Frequent changes in the size and make-up of teams, depending on the project, were also a workplace issue. “You can’t exactly phone up the facilities manager every time you want to add a desk,” says Hunter. “The team tables had to deliver flexible density, and storage pedestals are on the side so that you can easily fit in an extra person.”On the top floor, the licensed restaurant is where you sense Graven Images had the most freedom to put its design stamp on the space. “The area where they moved from was full of bars and cafes, and the BBC was conscious that it had to provide something that would replicate that,” says Jessen-Pike. There is a mix of seating styles, from benches and chunky tables to more delicate dining chairs and tables, as well as an outdoor terrace, to serve BBC employees from breakfast time through to evening. “Byres Road [the location of the bars and cafes] is no longer on the doorstep, so we wanted the canteen to look as good as a city restaurant,” adds Hunter. “It is said to have the best view of any restaurant in Glasgow. We designed it so that the bar is the focus, instead of that whole motorway service station-style of catering, with the canteen and shop, selling emergency items such as tights and aspirins, located behind, so they don’t drain the life from the place when they close.” In essence, the life of the project will come not from the high-spec furniture, or a quirky shed, or even a giant’s staircase, but, says Hunter, from the mix of people, both the staff and general public, who pass through the doors. “Like a television,” he says, “it has to be turned on.”