Tech start-ups with the cool factor turned up to 11 are ten-a-penny these days, so it’s refreshing to see a corporate giant like Walmart put its dollar behind something as funky as its São Paulo offices.
“They reached us through another office we designed: São Paulo’s Google headquarters,” says Guto Requena from the design studio that takes his name. “It was a direct invitation and we were the only ones considered for it.” Requena, along with Paulo de Camargo, were the architects responsible for this five-floor scheme in a new-build tower in Brazil’s largest city.
This is the office for the dot-com arm of the American retail giant, and as such, explains Requena, “most of their employees are young people under 30, so the design brief was about making them want to come to work.” Hence the inclusion of skateboards and bikes to reflect the interests of this demographic. “Also, the space is supposed to represent the company concepts of Respect, Service, Ethics and Excellence. They were also open to our idea of bringing some ‘Brazilian-ness’ to the space.”
This workplace is the very antithesis of the cubicle-laden floorplates that so typify the North American office, and by the sounds of it, the architects pushed for it to have a strong design identity. Requena and de Camargo say they conducted the usual interviews and online exchanges with company employees to assess the values, needs and expectations of those working in this environment, but what’s different here is talk of their “having long conversations with coffee and homemade poundcake late into the afternoon, talking about life.” It was this philosophising that then drove all the project choices. Sounds a lot more chilled than poring over space-utilisation charts and various vectors to see what would be best for the way the staff work.
Continues de Camargo, “Brazilian culture is reflected most in the creative and informal way we occupied the whole space and the way we wanted people to interact with each other as they move through the floors.” The architects brought the outside in, to reflect the Brazilian habit of interacting most when outdoors. In rural areas, they say, it’s commonplace to simply place a chair in the street and chat to one’s neighbours of an evening. Communal areas that are more like balconies or patios feature beach chairs, picnic tables and rocking chairs. The feeling of brasilidade, or Brazilian identity, even goes as far as the table settings, the flower species specified for the green belt that runs through the peripheral spaces and the checked carpet pattern, a large-scale nod to the gingham cloth associated with picnics. Images from contemporary Brazilian photographers plus maps, illustrations, folk art and pieces of domestic furniture by established homegrown designers again help to underpin this sense of national pride. The latter includes hammock armchairs by Maurício Arruda, a stool by Lina Bo Bardi and sofa and armchair by Fernando Jaeger.
Workstations are located near windows to take advantage of daylight while in the lounges and what the architects refer to as ‘decompression’ areas, lighting takes a more decorative turn. There are two lamps made from hollowed-out gourds (a fruit traditionally used in the making of Brazilian percussion instruments), painted grey inside and suspended from a wooden frame, with colourful wiring left exposed.
Each floor measures 1,000sq m, meaning there was a challenge to bring this vastness down to a human dimension. To do this, the architects created ‘cocoons’ of enclosed space in the centre. Each is clad in a different wood type and colour: eucalyptus and yellow on the sixth floor, OSB and green on the seventh floor, and pine and orange on the ninth floor, for example. The colours all relate to various elements of Walmart’s branding, with the large-scale pendants on the sixth floor representing the flower of the company’s logo. While different departments are separated out on to different floors, these decompression areas are spread out across the building, for the people from sales or human resources or finance to come together.
On the seventh floor there is a games room with a pool table, table football and board games; the ninth floor features an orange-clad video games room with couches and cushions for relaxing, or reaching for the console to get to the next level. “Going up on the tenth floor, right in the middle of the space, we’ve placed a grandstand, a place for informal meetings and for people to play some music together,” says Requena. Aside from the cocoons, there are other pockets of space, with either wooden bar stools or easy chairs; on the floor here, the gingham check is replaced with rugs in the corresponding branding colour.
The piece de resistance of this workplace is undoubtedly the open area on the sixth floor. Here there is a mini golf course, a space for yoga, an open cinema as well as a cafeteria. Characterised by its timber decking, it also has a shaded area and its own grandstand that can host small events.
The architects say the design creates spaces that are welcoming and comfortable yet professional and practical. While Walmart is no tech start-up (sales totalled US$466 billion in 2013) the elements of digital culture are seemingly the same – which is why everything, from space for guitar-strumming to a round of golf, are exactly what is needed.
One need only hear about NeueHouse’s high-profile visitor roster and sold-out $1,000-per-month memberships to know it’s not your standard co-working office. Described by its entrepreneurial founders as a “private workspace collective”, it’s more Shoreditch House than start-up incubator, with an interior that merges industrial cool with cosy university common room, where members are encouraged to work and network in equal measure. Intended to attract creative professionals in design, publishing, tech, film, fashion and arts, facilities include a recording and broadcasting studio; cinema room; an IT concierge (inspired by Apple’s Genius Bar) that becomes a chef’s table in the evening; food carts that deliver trendy foodstuffs to your desk; and, of course, social spaces galore.
There are three membership types: Gallery members, usually so-called ‘solopreneurs’, can use any workbench on the first floor (left and top) or basement; Atelier members have a fixed desk, or group of desks for teams of one to four people, on the middle three floors; and Studio members have a private office on the top floor for teams up to 10, which can be resized as their business grows (below left). NeueHouse’s business plan is to create a multi-use work/meet hub that small organisations can call home, so for the Rockwell Group, which designed the industrial revamp in Manhattan, it was vital the aesthetic instigated that behaviour.
“So much of design is based on creating an authentic culture,” says David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group, and also a partner at NeueHouse. “In terms of other co-working spaces that existed, there was nothing we saw that was an interesting reference. They tended to be start-up tech slums with a ‘churn and burn’ sense; you’d come in and leave asap. All our references were from the hospitality world, and people don’t want to leave here.” It’s not uncommon for workplace designers to cite hotel lobbies as a source of inspiration, which Rockwell does, but here the lobby-like details draw from his vast well of experience in hospitality design and are expertly refined to make meeting places efficient and adaptable. Rather than big communal areas, which Rockwell says become unapproachable as soon as two people sit down, the floors are cleverly packed with little corners and pockets where members can easily find their perfect meeting spot – a couple of Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs, a square of sofas round a coffee table or maybe a banquette by the cafe – all designed to feel welcoming and comfortable.
To help plot the busy layout, Rockwell looked at urban plans, organising the floorspace like a city. “We wanted to create a flexible space that would elevate accidental encounter. There’s a way you move through cities; there’s planned spaces and then there’s unplanned spaces, door stoops, interstitial spaces.” NeueHouse is therefore split into zones: the Park is where open public areas exist; the Neighbourhood comprises private spaces such as conference rooms and offices, enclosed by panels of glass and blackened steel, which act like city blocks; and the Pier is an access point to hospitality services like the cafe.
Within these areas, the layout can be changed at the hands of its members (below left). “We realised part of the concept was not solving every problem, not being precious with the furniture, letting it be open,” says Rockwell. The space can also transform from daytime to evening. The Spanish Steps at the heart of the Gallery floor, for example, are used for small meetings during the day, then as an auditorium for lectures and performances in the evening. The Brooklyn-made chandeliers in the lounge areas can be lowered via a manual counterweight rig, shifting the atmosphere to intimate and club-like.
The building, a 1913 industrial renovation, came with the 6m-high ceilings and raw, non-corporate aesthetics the founders and Rockwell were looking for. Original terracotta walls were sandblasted (to boost their rich tones), wrapped in metal mesh and lit by spotlights, treating them as art installations. Concrete floors were flash-patched to keep an aged look and concrete beams were left exposed, and all-new mechanical systems and lighting were installed. Tectum acoustic panels were added where possible on walls and ceilings, to ensure NeueHouse businesses maintain their privacy.
Against this mostly grey backdrop, the furnishings add warmth. Wood is used heavily, with desks in walnut and oak, and vintage mid-century soft seating (from online antique dealers’ portal 1stdibs) upholstered in orange, cream or brown leathers and velvets. Details like the black steel table lamps and the Emeco canteen chairs maintain the industrial edge. There’s also a diverse display of artwork throughout, a key element of NeueHouse’s creative identity. “It’s warm, urban and the materials are very seductive and tactile,” says Rockwell. “There’s a huge emphasis on craft, and how things feel, so it’s not slick and anonymous. I think it’s an environment that creates conversation.”
NeueHouse’s merge between membership club and serviced office has certainly got people talking, with stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times marking it as the next step in shared offices, and the latter stating Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and Jefferson Hack as members. The chance to rub shoulders and, more importantly, collaborate with such influential fellow members has created so much demand that the company and Rockwell are already looking at further space in New York and Los Angeles. “Should they come to London?” Rockwell asks, but one gets the feeling that the question is rhetorical.
(all photography except image 5 is by Eric Laignel; image 5 is courtesy of Gestalten)
Reception areas are a building’s chance to make a lasting first impression on its visitors, and construe subtle messages about the companies that inhabit them. Not so long ago, this fact instigated glossy and imposing spaces, with heels clomping across a vast expanse of marble floor (with the sound echoing off the marble walls), but now they are a little more welcoming. Online fashion store ASOS’s entrance (onoffice 80), for example, is done out in reclaimed scaffold board and eclectic vintage furniture, with a bustling cafe to boot, while Rochdale Council’s new HQ (onoffice 81) did away with the ominous reception desk altogether, opting for movable booths and so-called ‘floor-walkers’ to greet visitors instead of receptionists.
“Receptions have always been important because they’re the front door to your house,” says John McRae, director at architecture practice Orms, describing 95 Wigmore Street, the firm’s new multi-tenant office development in London’s West End, for Great Wigmore Partnership. “What I’ve seen change is that they have become more human. Look back 15 years, and receptions were quite prestigious; they had the expensive materials and durability, but they were impersonal. They are used in a different way now.”
Orms’ reception design for 95 Wigmore Street (pictured left and above) is still impressive, but in a softer way. Working with a single-height space but aiming to create the illusion of depth, the firm drew inspiration from the forced perspective courtyard in Rome’s Palazzo Spada. The ceiling and walls form a series of angled ‘sleeves’ that decrease in size deeper into the space. Lights embedded on the inside edge of each fin keep the ceiling minimal and lead people into the building, creating a sense of entrance and drama. Polished plaster surfaces are spray-painted white, to absorb light, giving the space its diffused glow.
“You’re always looking towards an illuminated space; there are no dark grey ceilings or downlit areas,” says McRae. “We still have the marble floors and mirror-backed glass, but there’s a human aspect. Tenants don’t want a cold space – it needs to be warm and welcoming, to feel like it’s their building.” McRae also points out that there is a stark juxtaposition between designing a reception for a single-tenant office and a multi-let. The first is branded from the get-go and often used as an extended meeting/breakout area, whereas the latter needs anonymity while still making an impression on prospective tenants. “It’s a delicate balance,” he says. “This [reception] intentionally didn’t have high-backed chairs and chandeliers and rugs, because it’s more of a transitional or holding space between the street and the end user. We looked at Apple Stores for their use of materials and clarity, but also for their legibility; they’re not for having meetings and drinking coffee – you move through them.”
Similar in intention but very different in scale is the reception at Wilkinson Eyre Architects’ (WEA) recently completed 10 Brock Street (left and below left - photos by Dennis Gilbert), part of British Land’s Regent’s Place development. Tenants including Facebook, Debenhams and Manchester City FC will share its enormous 1,200sq m lobby, which connects front and back entrances, a restaurant and coffee shop, meeting areas and lift lobbies. It’s an intermediary space that Giles Martin, director at WEA, describes as a forum. “We do a lot of large volume spaces like this but they’re generally train stations or convention centres,” he says. “British Land wanted warm colours and high quality materials; a clubbable atmosphere.”
The walls are clad in 7m-high oak planks in various widths, creating a sense of movement, and the floor is sandstone with marble inlay, with a huge bespoke bronze reception desk at the centre, surrounded by clusters of colourful leather furniture. Geometric fins form a dynamic roof over the front half of the lobby that, like the ones at Wigmore Street, are designed to draw people into the space. “It’s such a large space that it needed visual devices to bring people in, like these shark’s tooth ribbons. They open up and let out more light towards the centre of the space, so they get brighter as you move into the building.”
Beyond this lies a full-height glazed atrium with lift lobbies to the offices above, giving workers a view to the bustling indoor plaza below. According to Martin, this busy, multifunctional lobby area is a common evolution in reception design, as is size and impact. “Receptions are certainly getting bigger,” he says. “Ten years ago they were a corner of the building hived out, but now they are double, triple height spaces, with plenty of different things going on. Also, as an architect for a shared office building, the richness of design is in the reception. The offices have to be as anodyne and plain as possible, so prospective tenants can imagine themselves there, so for architects, the reception is the main attractor.”
Lauren Geremia, interviewed in onoffice 77 and workplace designer to Dropbox, Instagram and other Silicon Valley start-ups, spoke about the increasing amount of developers commissioning her to design reception spaces that would entice design magpies. London-based art collective Acrylicize has seen the same trend. “Developers are wanting to give their communal spaces an edge or a differential,” says creative director James Burke. “Often the reception is visible from the street and they want artwork that will stop people in their tracks.” Likewise, most new large-scale commercial developments in London are expected to feature public art, to interact with the public and bring more to the community.
A recent Acrylicize piece for an Investream multi-tenant building features a spiral of dominoes (left), conveying the idea of connectivity. Another, far larger, piece for the Heinz Innovation Centre in the Netherlands is a 30m-long collage of imagery exhibiting the brand’s history of innovation (above left). Comparison shows how designing for a single client is an entirely different kettle of fish. With a developer, Burke says, it’s more up to the artist, whereas with a brand, there’s a story to tell, to encourage you engage with the company. Across both spheres is a concurrent theme, though, for reception areas imbued with more personality.
“People are embracing art and environment a lot more than they were,” says Burke. “There’s a reaction to standard fit outs, stemming from a desire for identity. Businesses are looking to define themselves, stand out from the crowd, and art is an impactful way of doing that. When you walk into a space, it’s going to be one of the first things that hits you.”
(Acrylicize artwork photography by Nikhilesh Haval)
Where the concept of “getting employees involved the design process” is concerned, I always have a vision of it being a bit too much like enforced fun, like a company away day or seasonal party. I’m thinking staff grappling passive aggressively with pipe cleaners to indicate they would quite like a corner office, thank you. At Pinterest, they really mean it. Unsurprisingly, really, for a California-based image-sharing service that has a strong design, DIY and craft bent.
“We talked extensively with engineers, designers and others,” says Janette Kim, concept designer from All of the Above, which co-designed the space with Anna Neimark and Andrew Atwood from First Office, and executive architect Neal Schwartz of Schwartz and Architecture (SaA). “Brand manager Everett Katigbak has been very involved in the space, both before and after move-in, working with artists and staff to create a space that is unique to Pinterest culture.”
Kim was a tutor of Evan Sharp, one of Pinterest’s founders, while he was at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “We’ve kept in close contact since,” she says. “We have had an ongoing conversation about design, information, visual culture and architecture.”
Pinterest, for the uninitiated, is an American tech start-up that has grown exponentially since its launch in 2010, to the point where it has 70 million users and its perky ‘P’ logo is almost as ubiquitous as Facebook’s ‘F’ or Twitter’s bird. (Naturally, onoffice has a Pinterest page.) This scheme is not so much the next chapter for Pinterest but rather the plot, the characters and the vocabulary for them to evolve as they see fit.
When the first discussions were held to discuss the office, then in Palo Alto, there were a dozen people working for Pinterest. After a spell at a smaller warehouse in the SoMa neighbourhood of San Francisco, its current home is an adjacent 4,180sq m site that could easily cope with 300 people. The building’s construction is typically industrial, with large windows, wood beams and a steel structure. There are two full floors, a partially finished basement and a mezzanine level.
The next step after these initial meetings was a quote. Not a budgetary quote, you’ll understand, but an extract from the 1917 short formalist essay Art as Technique by literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, which All of the Above/First Office brought to the table. It runs thus: “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. If the whole complex lives of many people go unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” Which is a rather more interesting way of saying that it’s not enough to just declare that it’s a collaborative space – it also needs to creatively counteract the boredom that sets in from routine. Certainly more Pinter-esque than one might expect from Pinterest.
“There was a desire to strip back the space to reveal its raw potential,” explains Neal Schwartz. “A 1980s remodel had covered up much of this feeling and was therefore removed. Given the tight budget, many basic elements such as the elevator and main stair and railings could not be removed.” The 1980s soffit was taken out to expose the skylights above, while the architects worked with the structural engineer on a new stairway to increase connections between the three levels of work areas. “The value of overt architectural moves was questioned in favour of a looser, more ‘hacked’ space as an expression of their culture and working style,” says Schwartz. And so, Pinterest employees’ hanging art lanterns bob next to the lift while a DIY speakeasy space was an area left relatively untouched by the architecture and design professionals, being somewhat leftover from the main scheme. It evolved organically into an attractive, informal seating arrangement.
One side of a custom-built shelving system displays the staff’s personal objets trouvés. On the other side of this shelving is the reception, where a simple system of film on glass creates varying levels of opacity. As well as affording the main workplace behind it some privacy, the overall pattern created is designed to look like the cataloguing system on Pinterest’s website. Otherwise, there is no statement desk or lighting installation here; instead, the first impression visitors have of the main entrance is one of a fairly unassuming place to work.
Workstations are distributed everywhere throughout the open floor plates. The main atrium features simple movable wooden tables on metal frames, which can serve as both a place to dine and an extra place to work when all hands are on deck. This area is complemented by decorative lettered signage designed by Pinterest. There are no cubicles and no hierarchies: the idea was to create a domestic-like interior transformed by tech-loving people into a workplace. With this in mind, there are four large volumes or ‘houses’, each six metres high, which create pockets of activity within the vast warehouse space. They are made from gypsum board with steel stud framing, and house various kinds of activity from quiet working to a kitchen cum dining area, where again the results of the employees’ curation skills can clearly be seen.
The ‘war rooms’, meanwhile, are big square rooms where people sit at the centre of the space and chat with one another as they work at tables surrounding them in order to lockdown to meet tight deadlines. The idea is that the white and glass surfaces of the volumes should become whiteboards, pin boards and graffiti as the social contact between employees generates ideas and sketches. A large gathering space is created where the four volumes meet in the centre.
If the Facebook-inspired film The Social Network is anything to go by – and frankly this is my only point of reference for working in social media – then the temptation to go from Ivy League dorm room to full-on poured-resin-and-fireman’s-pole workplace decadence is a strong one. But it’s one that Pinterest’s founders have resisted. Anna Niemark of First Office says finally: “They didn’t want to create a sense of complacency. As the project designers, we believe that if the space feels unfinished – even humble – then all workers will feel they have had a hand in the company’s creation.”
Japanese studio Nendo has created a new stationery collection for its own brand by | n. The range is minimal but clever, typical of the studio’s output, rethinking subtle details of standard desktop items to add character and functionality.
The Cubic Rubber Bands (top image) are 3D, making them easier to find and pick up in a drawer.
The Contrast Ruler is a clear acrylic ruler with markings that fade from white to black, making it usable on dark and light surfaces.
The Circle Tag sticky notes are cone shaped, to increase the sticking surface area and reduce the size of the tab area.
Unlike cylindrical penholders, the Cross Pen-Stand stabilises each pen and also holds flat items like rulers and business cards.
Flip back the sides of the Peel Pen-Case when it’s opened to create an upright pen holder.
Link Clips are paperclips made from high friction paper, which are attached together in a loop. This keeps the desktop tidy until one is needed, when it can be detached.
The cap of the Flip Pen can be reversed to turn it into a stylus.
The collection will be sold in Japan from Feb 2014 and will be exported from April 2014.
In 2004, Shoreditch’s Tea Building opened its doors, marking the end of a ten-year process to overhaul a warehouse first built for the Lipton tea family more than a century ago. It was around the same time the satirical comedy Nathan Barley hit our television screens. Written by Chris Morris, the show was a razor-sharp send-up of the “self-facilitating media nodes” that bounced up and down the gritty East End streets, proving so London-centric that not everyone got the joke. The architects behind the Tea Building (below), AHMM, surely saw the funny side. The practice’s retouching of 19th-century warehouse into cool studios crystallised what the city’s new image-conscious entrepreneurs in search of flexible, cheap space, had been doing since the mid-1990s.
The Tea Building marks the moment when the fringe entered the mainstream, and ten years on, it is impossible to image Shoreditch without it. Most significantly, it offered a genuine alternative to the glass towers its brick facade rubs up against. “It showed us what modern tenants wanted from a building. It is not about the glossy things they wanted ten years ago,” says AHMM’s Paul Monaghan when I meet him and his fellow directors (Simon Allford, Jonathan Hall and Peter Morris) at their Clerkenwell office. “The lifts take a long time to arrive; it gets hot in the summer; but people wanted to be there because the mix of tenants created a great spirit in the building. That is what’s important.”
AHMM’s impact on office design cannot be underestimated. No UK practice of recent times has pushed the boundaries quite as far in a section of the market distinguished by its conservatism. Its willingness to approach each project with a fresh pair of eyes, a characteristic that all four directors subscribe to, fired the imagination of Google, with AHMM winning the competition to design the company’s super-HQ at King’s Cross (left). There were other high-profile contract wins as well – the revamp of Scotland Yard and the BBC Television Centre – but the £1bn project to deliver a new home for the most famous start-up of them all was the gin in the martini. Ludic CGIs depicting a rooftop swimming pool, football pitch and climbing wall appeared everywhere from the broadsheets to the blogs. Fittingly, Simon Allford likened AHMM’s building to a theatre, with auditorium and movable walls playing the role of stage sets and props. But then Google shelved the plans, and asked AHMM to redesign the whole thing.
If the practice had any inkling it was about to tread on a banana skin it made no mention of it. Rather predictably, the architects were not answering any follow-up questions, instead redirecting onoffice to Google’s press office. The internet giant is famously paranoid regarding its public image, keeping an asphyxiating grasp on the architects with which it works. It proves that everyone gets knocked back at some point. In September, the firm’s Stratford Centre tower fell foul of Newham’s planning department, which was unconvinced by the amount of student housing included in the design.
Still, AHMM is a potent enough force to overcome issues like this. After 25 years in the business, the directors, who formed the practice after meeting at university, have survived three recessions, emerging from the last one in better shape than most. “The first job that got us headlines was Walsall Bus Station (left), which we won in 1995. We haven’t done another transport building since,” says Hall. The project separated an unhealthy mess of pedestrians and buses with an elliptical glass and concrete structure. More importantly, it brought the practice to the attention of developers Derwent London, which drafted in AHMM to transform the Morelands Buildings in Clerkenwell (now the architect’s main office) from a confluence of brick blocks into a modern, easily navigated workplace. Completed in 1999, it established a 20-year relationship that has drawn the best work from both architect and developer. “We grew up with them,” says Monaghan. “They were doing work that seemed massive to us at the time. It is a relationship where being inventive and innovative is everything.”
Morelands laid the groundwork for the Tea Building, which kicked off a line of mould-breaking office buildings for Derwent, culminating in the White Collar Factory currently underway on Old Street. Ostensibly a medium-rise office tower on the City fringe, behind its punched aluminium facade lies a pared-down, almost warehouse-like interior, with high ceilings and an exposed concrete frame, all aimed squarely at the slew of tech companies around the so-called silicon roundabout. “Its an extreme version but the logic of this building can be taken into projects – generosity of floor-to-ceiling height, public space, natural ventilation – they are all things London will increasingly have,” says Allford. A case in point is a brace of mixed-use buildings for the Crown Estate in the West End. The target audience is far removed from the nerdocracy dominating the city’s opposing end, but nevertheless Regent Street blocks W4 and W5 incorporate elements from the White Collar Factory. “The thing that ties them all together is the energy story, which used to be a kind of bolt on. These days, no tenant going into a modern building would not be interested in the energy performance.”
AHMM’s first building was an award-winning pool house for a private client before it moved into schools with Great Notley Primary School (left) in 1999 – a dynamic, arrowhead-shaped concoction that scooped yet more awards. More education work followed as the practice capitalised on the wave of investment that defined New Labour’s early years with the Building Schools for the Future programme. During this time, AHMM was branching out, scooping landmark office developments like 240 Blackfriars (due to be completed in 2014). As the practice grew, the four directors slipped into clearly defined roles, with each one taking the lead on a project with the rest remaining slightly removed. This approach mirrored the way AHMM wins jobs – much of its work is repeat business thanks to strong relationships between a director and client. It is also guards against too many creative ideas diluting a design.
The firm’s upward trajectory looked set to continue until the recession hit and, as the banks called in their loans, the construction industry ground to a halt. “I wouldn’t say we flatlined, but we went slower than we might have done,” says Monaghan. “We are just now getting back to where we were.” That the architects avoided the huge staff culls that befell similar-sized operations is thanks to its willingness to diversify rather than specialise. “We felt that by being architects we had already specialised enough,” says Allford.
AHMM avoids complex CGIs at the early design stages, preferring to work with its seven-strong model-making team to create an object that can be tweaked, adjusted and played around with (shown left, the model for the University of Amsterdam's new building). “The danger is that you do not know what the building is at the early stages,” says Allford. “You might have ideas about the building in the city and how it might be used, so you don’t want to be stuck with this bloody image too soon.” Process and a free exchange of ideas prevent architecture becoming formulaic. “I don’t think we have ever tried to create a formula for our architecture because we like to try to invent that with the clients we work with,” says Monaghan. The practice’s conciliatory nature has allowed it to create great buildings within a system where architects are often periphery figures. The directors remember when after years of publicly funded work, the new Design and Build contracts were viewed as a disaster for the profession. “We went from being kings of the world to being employed by contractors,” says Allford. Some architects saw it as a mess and did not want to get involved. But we realised that Design and Build was just another contract and providing you can draw enough information, and get paid enough money to protect the product, you can work very well with them.”
This tight-knit relationship with developers means AHMM can pinpoint exactly how and where to spend its money. The Yellow Building in 2008 (left), for example, is a seven-storey office block for Nottingdale Ltd/Monsoon Accessorize produced on a tight budget given the building’s scale. The architects allowed the impressive concrete frame to take centre stage in an apposite marriage of function and the aesthetic. Monaghan sums up: “You know when your staircase detail is going to be a pain in the arse for a contractor. We work out how or where to adapt our design – because if it is a fire escape stair, then who gives a toss?” Naturally, this level of attention is only possible when an architect is committed to a given project until the keys are handed over. “We don’t just get planning and bugger off. The detail is everything.”
AHMM’s best-known office space, the Angel Building (2010), unites all of these themes. On paper, the overhaul of a muddy brown lump at the top of Pentonville Road was a far from promising brief. The building’s transformation, however, was so emphatic that it appeared brand new. Aside from the beautifully finished interior, the architects convinced Derwent to carry out significant concessions to the public realm. Security was shifted towards the rear of the atrium and the ground floor was given over to a cafe. Despite being a speculative office building, it was deemed good enough to make the 2011 Stirling Prize shortlist (eventually losing out to Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy), and has become a euphemism in developer speak for reinventing a tired building. Angel demonstrated AHMM’s belief as to the role an office should play in an urban context. “They are the core buildings of the city and they have a huge impact on the success of the businesses – the less fortress-like they feel the better it is.” Like the Tea Building, it has become iconic by virtue of the spirit it brings to the neighbourhood.
Though they employ close to 300 people, the directors are not bent on achieving a presence in every continent, preferring an organic growth built on trustworthy contacts. The project architect on the Angel Building (left), for example, was associate Wade Scaramucci. An Oklahoman relocated to London, his presence has provided a foothold into the US market with AHMM opening an office in Oklahoma City; the firm completed 250 apartments there last year. The practice’s other overseas work is in the Netherlands, at the University of Amsterdam, and a housing project in Ghana, which again came about serendipitously through a former employee.
Though not averse to working abroad, Morris says the firm has no interest in chasing Middle Eastern petrochemical dollars. “While there are firms doing good buildings out there, a lot more are bad. We have friends who tell us [clients] want to see a CGI even before the first meeting because they are selling objects, where as we are selling ideas and space.” It is certainly hard to picture AHMM in a place like Dubai: the 90-metre-high 240 Blackfriars is a pygmy compared with the glittering glass edifices of the emirates, but even so, it folds back deferentially from the pavement and neighbouring Ludgate House. In an environment where context is nothing and shape or height is everything, compromises like this are unlikely and probably unwelcome.
There is an acute plausibility about all of AHMM’s work. Even the doll’s house it designed for a recent charity auction was utterly feasible where other practices had allowed their imagination to run amok. Perhaps it is just as well. The architecture world has enough dreamers. One gets the feeling that AHMM’s work, which for the most part helps hold our cities together, will be appreciated for many years to come.
It’s a dismal, soggy day when onoffice makes the trip to Rochdale’s new council headquarters, but inside – if it weren’t for the rain lashing against the windows – you’d never know. Past an impressive but unpretentious five-storey glazed entrance, topped by a collection of hanging oversized fluorescent tubes that seem to slash through the air, stands a vast, light-filled atrium that cuts through the centre of FaulknerBrowns’ contemporary S-shaped building. A spine of skylights can be seen at every level, from the ground-floor public library and customer services areas to the overlooking offices, and the open-plan, white- and glass-dominated interior makes for a gloriously bright and airy environment, even on the greyest of days.
Number One Riverside brings together 1,700 people from 33 different offices, a previous set-up that was not only disjointed for the workforce but confusing and unapproachable for the public. Hence this architecture, explains FaulknerBrowns’ partner Steve McIntyre, needed to promote interaction and engagement. “The design focuses on the relationship between the public and the council,” he says, “so the employees are always reminded of the people they’re working for, and the public can see the people working on their behalf. It’s very direct and transparent. Still, being a civic building, it had to stay simple, not contrived or corporate.”
With this in mind, the facade also had to stay true to its civic values by responding to the character of Rochdale, says McIntyre, referring to the town’s traditional architecture – the Edwin Lutyens-designed war memorial and Grade II-listed post office by CP Wilkinson – rather than its uglier modern neighbours, which include one of the council’s previous offices, the aptly named Black Box. The historic buildings are made from Portland stone, and though this looks very similar, it isn’t – but that’s a taboo subject. “They [the council] call it stone, but it is beautiful pre-cast concrete, with polished edges on the reveals, so it weathers well. To this day, we’re not allowed to say it’s pre-cast concrete, because of its preconceptions.” The windows decrease in size towards the top, mimicking the language of the town centre’s post office building, while the side elevations have different motivations; glass fins on thesouth-west side control solar gain, and protruding glass boxes on the north-east side aim to animate the otherwise monotonous lengthy facade.
Any publicly funded building, especially one of such scale and budget, is bound to be scrutinised. A local paper proclaimed recently that, if sold, the building would only fetch half the £42.5m shelled out for its construction, but this is exactly the short-term thinking the council and architects were trying to avoid. Uniting the staff, McIntyre says, will save £28m in maintenance costs compared with the stock of previous buildings, and a further £1m a year on energy consumption thanks to the clever inner workings of the BREEAM Excellent-rated structure.
Then there’s the immeasurable paybacks of being under one roof, such as the increased productivity that comes from employees not having to travel to meetings, and the sharing of ideas that should naturally occur in a more collaborative environment.
To bolster this forward-thinking approach, Rochdale has also adopted a new agile working culture. There are 7.5 desks for every 10 employees, a clear desk policy (with a locker for each person) and plenty of touchdown work areas separate to the main workstations. Meeting areas range from informal cafe tables to tree-trunk-like cylindrical pods, some of which stretch through two floors, acting as a landmark on multiple levels of the building. “When it was all concrete and white, it was quite hard,” describes McIntyre of the interior, “but when the pre-fab pods were dropped into place it added a warm quality.”
McIntyre is something of a workspace expert, as former chair of the BCO Northern Chapter, and as such, the plan reads as ahow-to guide for designing modern, efficient workspace. Rather than a never-ending sea of benches stretched across large floor spans, the desk areas are split across the building’s two parallel S-shaped sides, joined intermittently by bridges. The desks are laid out in sections, so departments (including teams from the NHS, the police and HMRC) can populate their own district. A fully integrated M&E system built into the concrete structure means the office space is unspoilt by the usual heating and cooling mechanisms, with just acoustic dampeners and very simple lighting added to a clean, minimal interior.
On each side, supporting columns have been inset 1.5 metres into the floorplate, eliminating the need for an obstructive central column in the middle of the work areas and creating a circulation route on all sides of the districts. This means the inevitable clutter doesn’t build up at the ends of benches, and instead these areas can be used for small meetings or as breakout space.
“The biggest hurdle a lot of organisations have is changing people’s perceptions that it’s still working if you’re away from your desks,” says McIntyre. “If you integrate breakout areas into the work areas, the edges are blurred, so there’s more chance of that happening.” He also believes a new build, as opposed to a revamp, also encourages a more progressive outlook on working practice. “A new building is a huge catalyst for cultural change. It enables things to happen that you couldn’t necessarily do in an existing one; it’s a step change.”
Being the keystone project in a huge masterplan development, Number One Riverside now stands as a shiny beacon amid a large building site. To the left of the entrance, past the gushing river Roch, is the brand-new metro link station, and to the right, the bus station, making this an ideal spot for a civic hub. Opposite, the Black Box and a dilapidated car park sit stubbornly between the building and the town centre, but they are due to be flattened as part of a £100m redevelopment, in which the council’s bold investment was the first domino. It has put Rochdale on the map and, for the most part, restored local optimism. “Now when people come in, they talk about civic pride,” says McIntyre. “They say ‘I bet you didn’t think this was Rochdale.’”
An exhibition tracking the evolution of working culture has opened at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool. Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life has been developed by the Royal College of Art (RCA) Creative Exchange Hub, based on the scientific method coined by Frederick Taylor, used to analyse the efficiency of working methods.
The show features artworks, research projects, archival materials and installations to examine how our patterns of day-to-day working life have changed, from clocking in at the factory gates to logging in from our local entrepreneurial networking space, and assesses work/life balance and the shifting focus of industry.
It is the result of a major research and innovation programme by the RCA and features artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Harun Farocki, Oliver Walker, Blake Fall-Conroy, Sam Meech, Molleindustria, Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothernberg, Andrew Norman Wilson and The Creative Exchange.
The free exhibition runs from 12 December – 9 March at FACT, 88 Wood Street, Liverpool, L1 4DQ.
When 900m people watched the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, the pictures were beamed from a gargantuan purpose-built broadcast centre reputedly big enough to house six jumbo-jets. In November, Londoners were given an insight into the buildings’ legacy, as iCITY – a joint venture between property firm Delancey and data centre operator Infinity SDC – submitted its plans to transform the press and broadcast centres, totalling more than 100,000sq m, into a new creative neighbourhood. It followed an initial and unsatisfactory collaboration with GMW before the company drafted in Hawkins\Brown to design a suitably edgy home for start-ups. Alongside what Delancey undoubtedly hopes will be a tempting proposition for Old Street’s tech businesses, there will be a postgraduate research centre for Loughborough University, a new branch of Hackney Community College and Infinity SDC’s super-efficient data centre.
Top: One of the most significant moves by Hawkins\Brown has been convincing iCITY to retain the former Broadcast Centre’s gantry - a supposedly temporary gridded steel frame overlooking the Olympic Park. Taking inspiration from a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, the architects envision an eclectic mix of small structures, housing small businesses within each opening
Left: Separated from Hackney Wick by the Regent’s Canal, this space, the former Press Centre, aims to attract cafes, shops and social spaces that will merge with the existing small businesses of the Wick
Below left: On the former Broadcast Centre’s west elevation, the architect has emphasised the building’s industrial scale with aircraft-hanger-sized doors emblazoned with graphics, and huge openings in the facade that work as breakout space. The media briefing room (pictured far left), described by Hawkins\Brown as the ‘handshake’ between the two buildings, will become a 1,000-seat auditorium. The courtyard below will be used for film screenings, markets, pop-up stalls and street-food vendors
It’s been 15 years since Huntsman Architectural Group last designed an office for Tolleson, and its latest project for the San Francisco creative agency is the third fit out it has done for the firm. Since the last one, not only had the company expanded – the new office is three times the size of the old one – but the way it worked had changed, too. “With each iteration of the office, the space has evolved,” says Bill Puetz, principal designer on the project. “The projects and solutions that it has undertaken have grown, and the space has grown to allow for that.
“The brief was very much to support the agency in meeting much broader design requirements, and in turn broadening their impact. Although a lot of the features in this office space reflect design characteristics of the original Tolleson fit out, we approached this as a new generation of office space.” The extra space has allowed the company to accommodate new specialist functions such as video and audio editing, and photography. It also allowed Tolleson to enlarge the studio space, and introduce a suite of rooms dedicated to client engagement. “Clients were a large focus of the project, but there are also more facilities to make staff feel at home, and to encourage collaborative and creative processes,” says Puetz.
The two-storey masonry and timber warehouse was built in the early 20th century as a dancehall, but was more recently occupied by flooring company Amtico. “It was painted all white inside, and one of the first things we wanted to do was to strip this back to reveal the building’s basic materials,” says Puetz. As well as lending integrity and honesty to the project, the exposed brickwork, skylights, wooden trusses and wood floors all reflect Tolleson’s previous office space, providing a comfortable sense of familiarity.
The building’s owners, Birmingham Development, specialise in the redevelopment of historic properties, and came on board to do the structural renovation, working from Huntsman’s architectural plans. “They were both the client and the developer, so it was a good working relationship,” says Puetz. A mezzanine floor, and a new staircase with open timber treads and forged-steel railings, were added. Puetz says that the addition of the mezzanine floor, where the project management and accountancy side of the business work overlooking the main studio area, “really refreshed the space”. The desking is by Coalesse (a client of Tolleson’s), and Puetz adds that the lighter, more mobile workstations were “a big part of the refresh”.
The computer monitors are all much larger, too. “Typically a design company’s office is buried in paper, but in this office work is done 100% on people’s computer screens. Output is pinned straight up on to the walls for group critique,” says Puetz. A magnetic whiteboard made of back-painted glass is used to display work, and most of the studio walls have been designed to double as pin-up space, so that ideas can be shared both with clients and the rest of the studio.
The steel-framed conference room, like the rest of the office space, has been upgraded to meet the demand for more client interaction and engagement. Fully fitted out with AV equipment, including a large screen for digital presentations, the room can be closed off to create a separate, box-like volume within the office space. Four white, individually pivoting doors close it off from the studio area, but when they’re open, the room feels immediately connected again with its surroundings. Reclaimed barn timber clads two of the inside walls of the conference room, lending a rustic air that fits with the salvaged wood flooring used throughout the ground floor and on the staircase.
Although the space brings in natural daylight through the skylights, the building has a rectangular, shoebox-shaped footprint, so glass walls are important to maintain flow throughout, and to prevent closing off central areas. In the conference room the rippled, cast glass provides both transparency and privacy at the same time: “The poured glass we used for the walls shows up imperfections; it adds texture and complements the existing palette of wood, steel and brickwork,” says Puetz.
“Tolleson definitely wanted the project to have a classic and timeless feel, but they also called for very high-end technology,” he continues. The rough-and-ready brick and timber envelope is countered by these hi-tech elements, and also by the design-statement furniture and lighting: Louis Poulsen AJ table lamps on the desks, for example, or an arrangement of Tom Dixon pendant lights. In the kitchen are Flos’ Skygarden oversized pendant and white, green and blue Eames chairs, alongside bar stools from Coalesse, which also supplied much of the furniture in the occasional spaces. The reception desk, custom made from hot-rolled steel, also evokes both the industrial nature of the building and the modern aesthetic.
There are plenty of areas to encourage informal gatherings, including a library with sofas, placed adjacent to the conference room. As so much of the office space is designed to be client-facing, a non-disclosure area, referred to as the War Room, sits behind a discreet panelled door. This small but purposeful room ensures that there is always space for confidential work to take place. The directors’ office is also in a separate room, and a library and gallery space on the mezzanine floor provide room for more private meetings and independent research.
Puetz sums up San Francisco’s Barbary Coast as “characterised by its large brick and timber buildings, its community of design firms, and its many technologically minded people.” In that case, Tolleson’s new office couldn’t sum up its location any better.