NBBJ has submitted revised plans for Amazon’s downtown Seattle headquarters that include three glass and steel bio-domes.  The interconnecting spherical structures will house up to five storeys of office space surrounded by internal botanical gardens, hoping to provide, “a more natural, park-like setting,” for employees.

Original plans were submitted in late 2012, comprising three 37-storey towers, two low-rise buildings, a new public park and a low, rectilinear, green-roofed building, which the domes have replaced in the updated renders. NBBJ intends for the domes to be LEED Gold certified, filled with natural light and ventilation, and accommodate diverse plant life from around the world. The open plan interior will allow for fully mature trees to stretch throughout the building’s five storeys. As part of its proposal, NBBJ provided images that inspired the project, such as Wilkinson Eyre’s Gardens by the Bay conservatories and Renzo Piano’s La Bolla.

The entire campus development covers a three-block area, with the tri-sphere building jutting into the central park. As explained by NBBJ in its proposal to the city design board, the rounded, transparent structure of the revised design aims to reduce shadow as well as widen the entrance to the park, as well as improving the general landscape. Its biggest sphere will measure 40m in diameter and its smallest 25m, providing 6,000sq m of flexible workspace, meeting, dining and lounge space, anchored by retail units. 

If given the go-ahead, the project is intended for completion by 2016.

Images courtesy of NBBJ

24 October update: The City Design Review Board has now approved the plans, which have been tweaked since this article was first published. The glass domes now comprise a more organic cellular structure, rather than the original gridded aesthetic. Also, in response to criticism, the new plans include more public spaces so members of the local community can see the spheres close up.

Published in News
Monday, 18 March 2013 10:40

A warehouse revamp by MVN Arquitectos

The decline of heavy industry in western Europe has prompted a rise in so-called “white collar factories”. The warehouses these companies inhabit were originally snapped up by artists looking for cheap, rugged space. Unwittingly, these creative trailblazers prepared the ground for the next wave of occupiers, usually start-up businesses. Today, one only has to examine the Tea Building in Shoreditch – where architects rub shoulders with advertisers – to see how far the typology has come. It is a similar story on the continent.

In the hands of judicious architects, warehouses can make great workplaces. They do not, however, always produce great shops, as Diego Varela from MVN Arquitectos discovered when his practice revamped a brick pile for the Botín Foundation, a charity with  a prime focus on cultural development and social change. Hiding down an alleyway in Madrid, the 1920s building, a former silversmiths, had morphed into the Spanish equivalent of a John Lewis. “The brickwork was painted black and the skylights were covered over because they didn’t want people looking at the building instead of the goods,” recalls Varela. In lieu of the completed overhaul, it’s easy to see why people were distracted. Once the architects stripped back the paint, the building’s soulful character revealed itself. As Varela explains, there is always an element of risk when adapting a hundred-year-old building, so it came as a relief when all that was needed structurally was some patch-up work on arches that had been bricked up.

BOTIN2Initially the Botín Foundation, which was consolidating its two Madrid offices into one, seemed happy to leave it at that. “They said, ‘just paint it. We don’t want anything too fancy.’” Varela had other ideas: “We convinced them to go deeper and do more.”

This began, logically enough, with the entrance. A contributing factor to the shop’s failure was the foreboding alleyway connecting the building to the street. Seeking a more welcoming feel, the architects planted a green wall that entwines around the Foundation’s blocky red signage and fashioned some top-lit wooden slatted seats on the opposing walls. Resembling decking, these structures set a design language that continues throughout the ground floor.

Once inside the employee (or visitor) is bathed in natural light, coaxed in via a rectangular atrium populated by three trees. The trees are a real-life manifestation of Botín’s arboreal logo as well as a very charming addition to the space. Hanging above the atrium is a large wooden lantern that directs sunlight downwards and away from the first-floor office space. Varela explains: “We wanted to give the building as much natural light as possible so we opened two skylights on the roof. One runs the length of the offices and the other shines down on the trees. We used thermal glass for the office, to reduce heat, but we couldn’t do that on the other one because the trees need the ultra-violet light. The timber element protects the rest of the office by focusing the light into the trees.”

The ground floor is a huge open-plan area, but if smaller spaces are needed, the room can be broken down by two movable partitions – one timber, the other glass. The partitions, which are interchangeable, can be configured to create one or two medium-sized meeting rooms at either end of the space or pushed aside to make one big super-studio joining the atrium. Concerned that too much exposed brick was making this conference room feel like a basement, the architects clad one of the inside walls in the same light oak used for the flooring. Above, oak panelling undulates across the ceiling to hide the ductwork and muffle the sound.

BOTIN3MVN’s most significant architectural intervention was to shift the main staircase (which sat bang in the middle of the old shop) and place it adjacent to the reception. This allows employees access to the first floor offices without wandering through ongoing conferences. The new black and white staircase looks like it is cut from paper and is a simple, atmospheric feature.

Botín’s management team all reside on the bright first floor, which follows a slightly more rigid pattern. Near the atrium, an opaque glass wall conceals four private rooms, ranging from boardroom to solitary work pod. The workaday offices are open plan (save for a free-standing glass meeting box) and rely on the clever use of furniture, Vitra Alcoves for example, to demark the space. Nestled discreetly underneath three arched openings are nooks for phone calls or one-to-one conversations. “They collaborate a lot so we created different kinds of spaces for meetings,” says Varela, “not a conventional closed space, not a meeting room, but ‘soft’ meeting rooms – places for a coffee and to talk.” Continuing the simple material palette, the floor is made from the same light oak, and steel A-frame trusses are painted black to offset against the white acoustic ceiling.

Varela is modest about the project, instead praising the foundation’s general director, Iñigo Sánez de Miera, for his openness to new ideas. The flexibility of the ground floor space alone, which can accommodate up to 200 people, shows what can be achieved with astute design. It is also refreshing to find an organisation that’s comfortable enough not to fill its HQ with branding or gimmicks. Varela says that “Iñigo was the key to success. It was risky to leave the building as it is, but he really understood what we wanted to do. We wanted to show the history of this building and our interventions are one more layer. Maybe in years to come, someone will renovate and we will become one more part of this.” Whoever it might be, it’s a tough act to follow.

Published in Projects
Monday, 21 January 2013 10:15

VMX and i29 add colour to Combiwerk

Our view of disability has changed immeasurably over the centuries. In medieval times, it was regarded as divine retribution for some heinous transgression. Later, the Victorians deemed the afflicted dangerous, the safest course of action being to lock people in asylums. (There were a few enlightened exceptions – at the Normansfield Hospital, Victorian founder Dr John Langdon proposed education and activity as treatment rather than restraint and castigation, even building a theatre for his patients.) It was not until after the second world war, when wounded or traumatised soldiers demanded better pensions, that society at large began to try to understand and accommodate disability, rather than hiding it away. Today, fringe groups or minorities are far more likely to be absorbed into mainstream society.

And so to VMX Architects’ new headquarters for Combiwerk, a private training company where the physically and mentally impaired work – in packing, or assembly, for example – and are coached for entering the job market. The building, a shiny steel skate-ramp on the outskirts of Delft, is quietly sculptural, featuring a scalloped roof curving gently to meet precise rectangular facades. “It was our intention to show a glamorous building,” says says VMX’s Leon Teunissen, the project architect. He adds that Combiwerk’s trainees “can have an inferiority complex, so it was important to have somewhere they could be proud of.”

To describe it as glamorous might be stretching it a little, but the steel framed and clad building is certainly well-thought-out – housing a contrasting blend of factory, offices, training and job centre. It is generous, too, with an abundance of natural light thanks to a pair of skylights. At the building’s heart are two indoor gardens that allow the occupants to take a break from daily tasks and relax in privacy.

combiwerk2Three floors of offices populate the building’s northern elevation while storage and deliveries are contained at the opposing end, judiciously dividing people and trucks. The result is an expansive open-plan floor for the workers. Showing commendable forethought, VMX drafted in interior designers i29 at the project’s construction stage to ensure that the building was workable from the inside out. The collaboration proved successful, with i29’s designers immediately grasping the need for an inspirational but serious workplace that avoided speaking down to its prospective occupants. “We wanted to put together something of quality and maybe even to be able to empower maybe, to add some brilliance to it,” explains Jasper Jansen, one of i29’s two directors. In contrast to its previous work, the monochrome Office 03 (onoffice 58), the studio created rhomboid, coloured zones dotted across the ground floor space demarcating the various activities that take place within. The different areas appear as colourful islands in a grey ocean of floor, ceilings and walls. It not only gives the space clear navigation, but (just) prevents it from sailing into the realms of playgroup.

The zones feature different hues within the same palette, adding a certain nuance to the look and feel of the place. “It is a reference to people being pigeonholed or boxed-in, in an abstract way,” says Jansen. The office begins with exclamatory deep-red splashes in each of the two reception areas. Some workers get around on mobility scooters, so the architects constructed a miniature car park, made from rectangular blocks of high-pressure laminate (HPL). The building’s soul is the central atrium where the restaurant (the green zone), the career square (the blue zone) and the reception are located with more formal offices (the orange zone) on the first floor.

Dividing and defining the space is custom-made furniture (storage, walls and desks) designed by i29. The grid-like structures separate the zones in a more physical sense and dissolve the scale of the 4,000sq m floorplate. A key element of Combiwerk’s remit is to unlock the world of work for their clients, and so, by way of encouragement, those that “make it” are displayed on a grid in the job forum zone.

Jansen reckons that going down the bespoke route shaved a few digits from the bill: “When you buy furniture for a property you have all the layers in between. Sometimes with larger projects it can be financially better get things custom-made because you go straight to the factory.” Although the designs were unique, the raw materials were off the shelf, which Jansen concedes made it trickier to achieve the right colour spectrum, adding that it would also have been inappropriate to be too flashy: “On one hand we wanted a special place that we wanted to show off, but on the other it had to be modest. It isn’t about ‘look at us; we’re spending a lot of money.’”

The architects found themselves doubling as behavioural psychologists, conducting a series of interviews with Combiwerk which revealed that its clients were upset by change. Searching for a sense of stability, i29 retained some of the furniture from the firm’s previous office, which were restored by Weder, another company specialising in working with disabled people. A further 250 wooden chairs – an eclectic mix picked up on eBay and at second-hand shops – were also restored by Weder, their individuality meant as an analogy for the unique characters found at Combiwerk. Each chair has been stripped down to its original untreated state so as not to compete with the colourful islands. “The funny thing is we were a little bit afraid it was getting too much, but a lot of this neutrality absorbs that colour,” says Janesen. “ You wouldn’t think it but it turned out to be very peaceful in a way. It has balance.”

Published in Projects
Thursday, 22 November 2012 10:21

VNB by Vitra and Gert Bock

While this office in Darmstadt, Germany is no spectacle, it is nonetheless a space that shows how an everyday workplace can be transformed with thoughtful planning and a simple design feature to tie it all together.

Created by Vitra for German gas and electricity supplier VNB, together with VNB’s in-house architect Gert Bock, the new office brings together 50 employees from several different departments in separate offices. A key aim was for the space to be open plan and fluid, but its location in a former factory building meant the architecture had its restrictions. “There are five arches within firewalls that we had to keep, but they are quite narrow,” says Vitra’s Miriam Vogel, who led the interior design together with colleague Pirjo Kiefer, “but we still wanted an open space to link the departments.” The team therefore devised the idea of the yellow line, which runs through the main office space as a suspended partial roof supported by yellow partition walls. Made in lacquered wood, the shape is not regimented but asymmetrical, like a freehand drawing, which breaks up the uniformity of the office and introduces a vibrant design element to join the spaces.

“We wanted to emphasise the importance of this corridor and we had the room height for it so we came up with this idea, which covers all the space as a unifying element,” says Vogel. She explains that, in Germany, the colour yellow is used as a universal symbol for gas, which is one of quite a few design elements that were included so the employees could identify with the company they are working for. Across one wall is a graphic designed and installed by German design studio 22quadrat, which depicts a map of interweaving lines representing a network of pipes, and a map of a small town, to “show where the gas ends up,” says Vogel. To the same effect, Vitra chose to leave the air ducts and pipes exposed on the ceilings, a reminder of the building’s former use, but also – according to Vogel – a reaffirmation of the employees’ responsibility.

vnb 2Perhaps a subtler link to the company’s identity is the use of natural materials, which according to Vogel is a reference to the natural gas VNB uses. What it does achieve is a welcome softener to the lines of white desks and grey floors, creating a warmer atmosphere. Oak is used for some meeting-room floors, thick-pile rugs are used to delineate smaller breakout spaces, and olive trees and plants are dotted around the whole interior. The Mouette light by Artemide that hangs throughout was even chosen for its bird’s-wing shape.

Though the “yellow ribbon”, as it has been penned, has become the signature detail of this project, it was actually an afterthought that arrived after the meticulous and thorough planning of the layout. Before embarking on any design work, Vitra carried out a two-day workshop with some employees and department managers, looking into how they worked and how they wanted to work in the future. “We asked – what do you need? What is bad in the old office? Where would you like the printers, what type of coffee area do you want? Everything you need to design a good office. At the end, we had a concept for what it should be.”

The 1,100sq m space was planned for 50 people, a fairly generous space-to-person ratio, and included a few individual offices for managers. Where space was left over, it was filled with think tanks, meeting rooms and breakout spaces. Some of these are just two of Vitra’s Alcove high-back sofas put together, while others are big boardrooms. “At the workshop we asked, do you really need all these meeting rooms – what do you use them for?” says Vogel. “You don’t need much space for most of the meeting areas, and each one can do different things. You can meet there and be creative without disturbing your colleagues.”

Like most of Vitra’s workplace projects, the office is based on a raised floor built from 60x60cm sections, enclosing all the wires. This, together with the easily adaptable workstations and breakout spaces, makes the space more flexible to accommodate new layouts in the future. “This is a sustainable office because they won’t need to move out very soon!” says Vogel.

It seemed a silly question to ask if all the furniture was Vitra, which it is, but Vogel says this is not always the case with their commissions. Sometimes, once the space is designed, the client decides not to specify Vitra furniture, but in this case Vogel and the Vitra team were in charge of the fit out from beginning to end. “This project is a complete work – in German we would say it is ‘round’,” she says. “We get the perfect result.”

Published in Projects

The ultra-minimalist new office of Junta de Castilla y León – the advisory board of Castile and León, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain – appears to differentiate itself defiantly from the traditional architecture around it. One of its starkly monolithic perimeter walls stands right opposite a 12th-century Romanesque cathedral with ornate domes. These butter-smooth walls zigzag wildly at jagged angles, seemingly unsympathetic to the neighbouring buildings’ crumbly aesthetic.

Contemporary architecture rarely gets a look-in in Zamora, an ancient and conservative walled city that boasts the most Romanesque churches in Europe. However, the greater culture clash is not the new building’s walls, but the entirely glass-fronted, two-storey, ice-cube-like building that stands within them. This inner sanctum, flanked by two courtyards, is hidden from view from the outside unless you are viewing it from above. It’s fronted by two layers of glass, which shoot up directly from the ground; the outer one wraps right around the building at full height, forming a horizontal plane that creates a cube. The cavity between the glass walls is ventilated in summer so that the interior is kept cool, while in winter the solar heat trapped within it helps keep the building warm. The double-layered facade is similar to a trombe wall – an idea first developed in the 19th century in which a sun-facing wall is separated from outdoors by glass, letting in solar heat which is then released into the building’s interior.

Baeza 2“It’s as if the building’s walls are made of air,” enthuses Alberto Campo Baeza, the architect who designed the project in collaboration with four others. Indeed, it’s very ethereal, an impression reinforced by the fact that it appears to lack a frame to support its glazing. Rather innovatively, the glass sheets are joined solely – and apparently seamlessly – by structural silicone. Bridging the two vertical skins of glass are rectangular glass panels (attached to the former at right-angles) that give the walls greater rigidity.

From the outside, the building at the core of this structure – which, says Baeza, houses a “simple, clear interior with open-plan spaces and private offices for senators requested by our client” – is barely visible, veiled as it is by the glass facades and several slender, white columns behind them.

Yet while the project seems confrontationally futuristic in the context of Zamora’s medieval architecture, Baeza insists this isn’t so. In fact, the building turns out to be paradoxical: cutting-edge, yet inspired by past architecture and local context. The office was primarily influenced by arch-modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, specifically by his (unbuilt) Friedrichstrasse tower, designed in 1921 to be Berlin’s first skyscraper. This was to have fully glazed external walls supported by a steel skeleton that would free the outer walls from their mundane, load-bearing function.

But while Baeza’s muse may have been a modernist, the Spanish architect’s ideas are closer to those of postmodernism, given his passion for history and local context: he believes strongly in fusing contemporary architecture with historical influences. “It’s important to realise that new architecture in a historical city is living history,” he stresses, citing the fact that, for example, “Rome simultaneously has the Pantheon, Bernini and Zaha Hadid [her Maxxi museum of 21st-century arts].” Even so, contemporary architecture mustn’t slavishly imitate buildings from the past as this results in unimaginative pastiche, he adds.

Baeza uses lofty language – he has a penchant for ancient Greek and Latin terms – to explain his beliefs. His name for architecture that values the historical but avoids mimicking it literally is Mnemosyne (the personification of memory in ancient Greek mythology and the mother, by Zeus, of the nine Muses). And he describes architecture that directly imitates past buildings as mimesis (the ancient Greek word for imitation). In a recent article entitled Mnemosyne vs Mimesis: On Memory, Baeza quotes from architecture professor Reinhold Martin’s book, Utopia’s Ghost, which champions postmodernist thought and the acknowledgment of architecture from the past.

baeza 3In fact, it turns out that Baeza’s Zamora project – modernist inspirations aside – embraces history and local context, too, albeit in a very abstract way. “The perimeter walls are made from the same stone [sandstone] as the cathedral,” he explains. “Zamora is traditional but, from the outside, I think our building looks like a medieval wall.” The jagged, idiosyncratic outline of the 12,100sq m site is determined by the shape of its former occupant: a convent’s kitchen garden. He refers to the site as a hortus conclusus, Latin for enclosed garden – although it is not much of a garden in any other sense, since nature is kept truly at bay with its stone paving and scarcity of trees.

Given the project’s radically modern aesthetic, was it difficult to get planning permission? “It was the result of us winning an open competition in 2007, and so we didn’t face any difficulties getting our design approved,” says Baeza. “And our client gave us enormous freedom. The building has been well received by the city’s population.”

For all its historical allusions, the project fuses the past and future, he continues: “The glass box represents the future. The glass sheets have been used reflect the latest technology; at 600x300x12cm they are the largest size of glass that it’s possible to make today.” By contrast, in a further nod to the past, the project revives an ancient custom of engraving a building’s cornerstone with the date it was laid. The one at this office bears the words “Hic lapis angularis Maio MMXII Posito” (this cornerstone was placed here in May 2012).

The building’s ultra-minimalist, all-white interior is less remarkable than the envelope that surrounds it, although it is pleasant for being light-filled, thanks to a grid of porthole-shaped skylights on the ground floor. Some of the furniture was provided by Spanish firm Sellex, but Baeza says that “because of our economic crisis, we reused furniture from the client’s previous office, only adding new furniture sparingly.”

At present, there’s no staff canteen, but Baeza hopes a “cafeteria” will be installed on the roof: “It would be great if people could enjoy the views from there.” Given the building’s potential for spectacular vistas of Zamora’s Romanesque architecture, this addition would surely further Baeza’s aim of fusing past and present.

Published in Projects
Thursday, 22 November 2012 09:38

BVN curates Allens Linklaters' Melbourne HQ

When the previous tenants left Allens Linklaters’ new Melbourne HQ, they left nothing more behind than the grey carpet – the perfect clean slate. BVN architecture was appointed to develop a simple and sophisticated new workspace for the international law firm, which was relocating to a seven-storey space in the city’s landmark skyscraper, 101 Collins Street.

First off, a central stairwell was cut, connecting floors 35 to 40. Not only did this create a feeling of a building-within-a-building in the 57-storey skyscraper, it made for a more integrated, sociable space: “Otherwise, people on different floors do not see one other,” says Ninotschka Titchkosky, lead architect on the project.

“Mergers and acquisitions or tax lawyers will work together on the same deal, and come together to problem-solve,” Titchkosky continues, highlighting the need for a workspace that was custom-designed to accommodate a project-based working practice for the firm, in which teams are more closely connected. In its previous premises (at the other, more “corporate” end of Collins Street) offices were all sorts of sizes, ranging from 9sq m for a junior practitioner to 25sq m for a senior partner. “This meant that moving people around was problematic; there were hierarchy and status issues, and meetings tended to take place in people’s offices,” says Titchkosky.

The new space offered up the opportunity for a new format. Offices are now grouped into clusters around central secretarial workstations, and office sizes have been standardised, with two junior lawyers sharing an office of 12sq m, and all other lawyers occupying a standard office size of 10sq m. “The standardised model allows for really good breakout spaces and shared meeting areas, for the same total floor space,” says Titchkosky. “This is the trade-off.”

BVN 2BVN worked closely with a design committee of eight group partners, mocking up different-sized offices to test, and undergoing a whole range of prototyping, to bring them on board. There was then was a “town hall” meeting with the rest of staff. “The consultation process was interesting,” says Titchkosky. “A lot of the time, firms have a desire to be more creative and want to be pushed, but they are also sophisticated strategic and logical thinkers and want to see the evidence that a new design works and makes sense.

“The majority were excited about the design concept, but some were used to creating a world within an office, hanging up ten shirts” – for privacy, presumably – “and holding all their meetings there.”

The artwork incorporated into the building also greatly lifts the space. “The concept of having an art-gallery feel to the offices came from the fact that the firm had an extensive collection of Australian art, and the feeling that this was a strong part of their brand, a differentiator,” says Titchkosky. “The idea of the workspace being a showcase made sense, as some of the collection hadn’t been seen in a long time.”

On the client floor, the concept has been ramped up; clients can come in and sit on benches to look at the art as if they have entered a gallery space, but the collection is also hung throughout the floors and within shared spaces. Managed by the firm’s own curator, it gives each floor a slightly different feel.

Talking about the inspiration for the rest of the fit out, Titchkosky says that “in the user-group interview, the term ‘clear thinking’ came up a lot. We wanted to come up with a space that was calm and uncluttered, where you can carefully think about solutions.” The team looked at a lot of art galleries, examining how they break up and manage space. Wide timber floorboards – inspired by Titchkosky’s stay at the Nimb Hotel, Copenhagen – help to add character to the space. Supplied by Dinesen, they are cut from Douglas fir with a lye and white soap finish, and along with the white walls, they have been used throughout to tie the project together. “They bring texture and warmth to the interior, without being busy, which is important,” says Titchkosky.

Manoeuvring 15m-long floorboards to the top of a skyscraper, and making them lie flat across large surface areas in the steel-and-concrete-slab building, was a complex element of the project. BVN looked at craning off part of the building’s facade to get them in, before it was sensibly decided to cut them and transport them in the goods lift instead.

“Since occupying the space, the design has filtered right through the organisation,” comments Titchkosky. “Employees have taken it seriously, and the space is maintained immaculately. The attention to detail in the finishing touches they have bought to the space have really set it off, right down to the hand-made grey Japanese teapots bought to complement the fit out.”

With the move, the firm also had a new part of the city to look forward to. The eastern end of Collins Street, Melbourne’s main boulevard, is known as the “Paris end” for the high-end mix of designer shops, restaurants, clubs and theatres that sit alongside office accommodation. The building also backs on to Flinders Lane, home of BVN’s studio as well as a plethora of after-work restaurant and bars.

As an added incentive towards teamwork, the architects made sure that the breakout spaces in each floor make the most of the building’s enticing views over Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens and Yarra River. Titchkosky confirms that it’s all going to plan: lawyers are being lured out of their offices, and into shared spaces and project-based working. “For younger team members especially, it has made the workplace a more interesting and dynamic place to be.”

Published in Projects
Thursday, 15 November 2012 09:43

onoffice talks: Designing for the Media

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.

If you’d like to come along and hear from these leading industry figures, and enjoy a prosecco or two with us, please rsvp to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The talk will start at 6.30pm on Thursday 29 November at B&B Italia, 250 Brompton Road, London SW3 2AS

Invitation Designing-for-the-Media

Published in News
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 15:57

BBC's London HQ by HOK

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.

bbc-2Events 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.

bbc3Things 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.

Published in Projects
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 15:53

Eneco offices by Hofman Dujardin Architecten

The spacious new HQ for Dutch energy company Eneco on the outskirts of Rotterdam has all the qualities a big corporate would wish to convey. Inside, the design is fresh, vibrant and clean, with a workplace strategy focused on collaboration and efficiency. Outside on the roof and southern wall, sun-tracking solar panels harness power for the building. And then there’s the huge living wall that wraps around the first few floors of its exterior and stretches into reception, a reminder of the company’s green credentials and a softener of its otherwise rather businesslike facade.

Eneco has a particular business focus on sustainable energy, and the reason for commissioning the new building also came from eco foundations. With five divisions at five separate locations, it wished to consolidate its 2,100-strong workforce in one place to reduce traffic between its offices and increase interaction between different departments. Dam & Partners designed the building itself, but fellow Dutch practice Hofman Dujardin Architecten came in during early planning stages to collaborate on the interior architecture and make sure it aligned with its vision for an open, lively space. “Eneco wanted the office to be flexible and dynamic, so we came on board early enough to influence spatial elements,” explains Michiel Hofman, partner at Hofman Dujardin. “We added three staircases, we took out glass partitions, we added voids; we aimed to maximise openness.”

At the heart of the building’s form (a curvy-sided triangle) is a central atrium, a vast light well stretching up eight floors of the main building, with a glazed roof and ground-level courtyard. Overlooked by six floors of offices and two levels of open-plan communal areas without a gloomy corner in sight, the utopian, all-white atrium fills the building with natural light. It’s also the centre of all the action. In the middle is a cafe, bordered by two floors of meeting areas, which are adjacent to the restaurant and auditorium within the attached tower; taken together they create a town-centre-type space through which people are constantly moving. Three staircases connect the two floors of communal areas, a further nudge towards centralising the flow of people, and there are no secret back routes. Besides various necessary hidden elements, like the Board of Directors’ room and the food preparation area, the architecture dictates that employees walk through the atrium. “Our starting point was to create a central area for people to gather. We called it Eneco World,” says Hofman. “Everybody goes through there, it’s so easy to see and talk to colleagues. There are diagonal relations.”

Community and transparency are big themes. It begins that begin the minute people walk in – visitors are met by three receptionists, each with a Corian pod to stand at, with views past reception into the atrium. “When you enter, there’s not just a high wall with a logo,” states Hofman, “you are immediately part of the experience. Usually at other offices, security guards are the first people you see, looking at you suspiciously, but here the receptionists come and meet you.”

Eneco 04 02 rtThe entrance and atrium are clinical and, in parts, intentionally futuristic, but in contrast to the gleaming white backdrop, the work areas on the ground and first floors are hubs of bright colour. This is another technique the practice (together with Fokkema & Partners Architecten, which collaborated on the interior fit out) has used to determine how employees use the space. Dotted around a swish corporate setting, these meeting and working spots of various sizes and levels of formality – from clustered Egg chairs and sofas to good old-fashioned meeting tables – are clearly defined by blocks of vividly coloured carpet with furniture in harmonising hues. Hofman describes them as “islands”, each serving its own purpose. “In the Netherlands there is a lot of development into activity-based working, where different environments suit different types of work. We explored how we could emphasise different atmospheres, so on the islands it is vibrant, and in between it is neutral.” He adds that employees can also orientate themselves by the colours, for example arranging to meet at the orange island. The in-between areas feature a more muted palette, such as the cafe, done out in blonde oak, while an LED lighting scheme by Studio Rublek reaffirms the island effect. Instead of a constant and even light source, a sure-fire way to produce a banal atmosphere, light was concentrated on the islands to segregate pathways from areas of work.

To align with its new flexible way of working and improve efficiency, Eneco conducted in-depth research into the patterns of its workforce. From profiling every employee and assessing their individual schedules, it found that, because of sickness, work travel or holidays, only 1,500 of its 2,100 employees were present at once. The design therefore incorporated 1,500 desks, just enough for its newly adaptable, hot-desking workforce.

Most of the core working areas are housed in a 14-floor tower attached to the main building, which also contains the auditorium and restaurant, two starkly different, dramatic spaces with black ceilings and grey furnishings. The island theme is carried throughout, with pockets of colourful carpet adding warmth. The list of material and furniture suppliers namechecks everyone from Arper to Vitra, all recognisable quality brands to fit a brief for modern, classic and corporate. And as you might expect, every company’s sustainability policy was checked from head to toe.

Published in Projects
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 14:18

Touch Digital's HQ by Post-office

“This is an absolute dream space to work in,” says Philippe Malouin of architecture and interior design practice Post-office, gesturing to an expansive, herringbone-floored space illuminated by two white walls of tall, Victorian windows. It houses Touch Digital, a photographic retouching company based in Perseverance Works in Shoreditch, for which Malouin has created a monochrome heaven of black aluminium, grey fibreglass Eames chairs and grey woollen curtains.

The space recalls stylised 1950s black-and-white photography, but beyond aesthetics there is a practical imperative for the restrained colour palette. Dressed head to toe in grey, Touch managing director Graeme Bulcraig claims he never wears a brightly hued T-shirt to work, since placing colours near images skews the way we perceive them. Happily, Post-office’s favoured aesthetic is one of understatement. “We didn’t want to go all Google,” says Malouin. “And anyway, AstroTurf and sofas is not our style – we are anti-bling and anti-trendy.”

Bulcraig is in the middle of a day of interviews to expand his team to eight. “So far, the interviewees have been impressed: in most retouching places you are stuck virtually in the dark, in tight little rows,” he says. Coming from a creative background himself, he had an unusually significant input into the design, putting together a thick scrapbook of images to inspire Post-office. “It was all about textures, and ply,” says Bulcraig. Accordingly, plywood and timber used are in abundance, adding warmth and charm to the scheme. One especially quirky feature is the herringboned walls surrounding the entranceway (an upward extension of the original flooring) punctuated by a row of beautiful Bakelite 1950s light switches, sourced from Germany.

postoffice2Touch moved here in March, from its former studio in nearby Rivington Street. After 13 years in business, Bulcraig calls this “a massive step up in terms of investing in the look and feel of our studio,” adding that clients “enjoy coming here because they can relax and switch off after being in the hectic environment of a photographic studio.” It really is strangely relaxing here – the monochrome hues and natural wood are gentle on the eye – but the bold lines and big bold box-like shapes offered by the fixtures strongly signal that you are in a creative space. Malouin, who spent a year at Tom Dixon’s studio after graduating in 2008, has created most of the office furniture, including a massive, castor-mounted desk to store photographic papers. Opening the doors at each end of the three-metre-long free-standing cupboard reveals a set of neat box shelves that each house a single roll of paper. This is truly bespoke storage space – Malouin had to order outsized ply to make it.

Having enormous paper means printers to match, but these machines are by no means obvious as you walk through the space. They are disguised as black monoliths, sheathed in anodised aluminium – the same material used for second-generation iPods, notes Malouin. “These shapes help to show that the printers’ position is purposeful, rather than just being randomly parked,” he says.

Malouin also custom-created much of the lighting in the office, including 17, metre-wide disks of LED-illuminated aluminium that hang over the kitchen space. Like colour, lighting was another constraining element in this project. Retouching studios are by necessity low-lit, yet this is a bright and airy space. Post-office’s solution was to create freestanding work pods constructed from adjustable vertical steel and wooden louvres, allowing the retoucher exquisite control over the light levels in their workspaces. The pods are striking objects, built to resemble “giant sculptural installations, or shipping containers,” says Malouin. Over on the other side of the office are more slatted room dividers, only these “slats” are made of grey Bute wool fabric stuffed with polystyrene beanbag balls. They are oddly reminiscent of lilos.

While this project may have had a fairly modest budget (“Luckily we like Graeme, so we didn’t feel exploited,” quips Malouin), there is nonetheless a close attention to detail. Malouin betrays a fastidious streak – a desirable quality in any designer – when he tells how he sent Post-office’s intern on a frantic dash across the Channel to buy 90mm-diameter dowel for the legs of the birch-ply desks. “The only place with that diameter of dowel was Paris, and I had to have them; they absolutely had to be that diameter. Because the desks are so simple, they have to be perfectly proportioned.”

Published in Projects
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