“This is not like a conventional office like Sevil Peach’s Vitra office, where it is all open. The client wanted individual rooms,” says Marta Alonso, interior designer at Isabel Lopez Vilalta + Asociados. It is a measure of how far the office environment has changed that a client request for a cellular layout has the power to surprise. Indeed, scouring back issues of onoffice for a corresponding example proved fruitless. For many organisations, cubicles went out with the ark – a point of fact underlined by the belief, in Alonso’s mind and no doubt countless others, that Peach’s groundbreaking redesign of Vitra has passed quietly from the avant garde into the mainstream.
So, despite prevailing fashions, there is nothing to say that cellular style is totally done and dusted either aesthetically or practically. In this case, the client was Banc Sabadell – a bank that had moved into a purpose-built headquarters on a the Sant Cugat del Vallès business park just north of Barcelona. The building, a double-skinned five-storey cube enveloped in a zigzagging dark grey aluminium mesh, was designed by Bach Arquitectes. The practice demolished a tatty warehouse building to make way for the new office block, simultaneously creating a 193sq m outdoor terrace that capitalised on the Catalonian climate. It was at this point that the interior architects took over, introducing a radical proposal for a client best described as conservative.
“The [terrace] space was completely empty so we decided to use it as an outdoor meeting space – not in a formal way but somewhere they can do whatever they want.” Alonso recruited Barcelona-based architects and wicker enthusiasts Miralles-Tagliabue EMBT, best known for its award-winning Spanish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, to create a large wicker pergola, which owes little to the buttoned-down world of finance. The structure breaks down into two distinct halves – a meeting room with large rectangular table and a lounge populated with outdoor furniture. Though the image of some bloated financier quaffing martinis in dappled sunlight might turn the stomach there is no denying the charm of this casual outdoor space. Alonso says that the wicker “is not something that is really sophisticated, but a natural material, which is a good combination.” The pergola relates directly to the interior programme of the ground floor, where the architects arranged a series of meeting rooms that open out onto the terrace thereby forming a strong connection between inside and out.
An elongated boardroom running the width of the basement is the centrepiece of this cloistered floor, which contains two smaller meeting rooms and an adjoining waiting area off an L-shaped corridor. In material terms the palette is restrained to the point of austere. Parquet flooring and dark wooden doors are intended to create a natural but serious countenance. “We choose very natural materials rather than trying to imitate with artificial ones,” says Alonso. Unlike many contemporary offices that might borrow design elements from hotels or schools, there is no mistaking that this is a place of business. That said, carefully chosen Artemide lamps and rich brown fabric wall panels instil a sense of intimacy.
Staying true to traditional hierarchies, the big nobs hang out on the top (fifth) floor. Here, Alonso and her team distilled the fit out into a kind of nerve-centre that orbits the central core. The most significant space is the boardroom where 21st-century technology collides pleasingly with what, on the surface, is an old school environment. Integrated computer screens embedded in the table display video art when not in use and show the person speaking when a meeting is in full swing. The boardroom is served by secretarial area, the only open-plan area in the building.
The top floor is a magician’s box of sliding panels, cubbyholes and little niches for various objets d’art. This compartmentalised approach is most effective in the corridor where, in contrast to the sunlit workspaces, the architects cut square sections from the walls and inserted lights that reflect off golden-toned brass ceilings and walls to create a moody atmosphere.
Tackling the acoustic challenges prompted by the myriad of hard surfaces, Alonso wrapped concrete columns in black leather and applied Kvadrat fabrics to some of the offices walls. Ordinarily, the words ‘bank’ and ‘art collection’ can make the most optimistic of hearts to sink a little. Nevertheless, Alonso was obliged to raid the bank’s archives for some suitable appliqué. To be fair the results are pretty good – a mixture of abstract daubings and vaguely Rothko-eqsue blocks of colour add points of interest to the toned down interior.
“We tried to change that old style, with the video art and by prescribing Prouvé chairs in the meeting rooms,” says Alonso. “There wasn’t just one client – we had to talk to ten people, each one with their own thinking, so it was difficult to put together a brief for what they all wanted. We had to do a lot of preliminary drawings but in the end we gave them what they were looking for.”
The French expression a priori (roughly translated as “at first glance”, or “with preconceptions”) is a dirty word for César Ruiz-Larrea, of Madrid-based architecture practice Ruiz-Larrea & Asociados (RLA) and one of the architects of the Andalusian Energy Agency in Seville, Spain. The agency was founded to develop policies established by the regional government to optimise its energy supply in terms of economics and the environment, and has set up its HQ in a riverside park called Cartuja 93, part of a scientific and technological complex set up in 1993 on the former grounds of Seville Expo ’92.
The imposing, geometric, irregularly shaped building is the antithesis of an a priori approach to architecture according to Ruiz-Larrea, who has written a statement about the building’s aims that includes his polemical views on architecture. Referring presumably to Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted “A machine is a house for living in”, Ruiz-Larrea says, “We don’t believe a building should be seen as a machine – the old modernist paradigm – but as a flexible organism capable of adapting to variable conditions surrounding it.”
He bemoans the fact that the legacy of modernist architecture is simply an aesthetic one. “We’re seeing a proliferation of formally pared-down designs that lack the technological influences that originally justified the work of those early, modernist pioneers. Today, there’s a gulf between architectural languages and concepts that are relevant now.” Rather than taking this shallow, primarily aesthetic approach, contemporary architects, should, he believes, be responding to today’s ecological imperative to create environmentally friendly designs. “Technological systems like solar panels, ways to harness thermal energy, wind power – these should be the prime materials used in new architecture. This approach should replace those awful projects in which terrible, energy-saving ideas are prosthetically tacked on to banal buildings whose existence is then justified by their ‘eco’ credentials.” He also laments that “vulgar, consumerist architecture, encouraged by the mannerist, highly personal work of some starchitects, exists alongside the ever more pressing need to address energy-related, economic and social problems”.
In order to conduct its research into finding solutions to such issues when designing the Andalusian Energy Agency, RLA joined forces with universities and bodies, such as Spain’s National Renewable Energy Centre (CENER), which has an office in Seville. This made the project in part a collaborative endeavour.
The Andalusian Energy Agency is a striking structure but it isn’t necessarily evident from the outside that its aesthetic has been determined by its chief goal: to minimise energy consumption. In fact, the pattern of rectangles and squares on its facade are Mondrian-esque (save that they’re not in primaries but shades of grey and blue); less flatteringly, its grid-like exterior looks Lego-like. And the way in which the cantilevered top of the building projects over an enormous void looks extremely ungainly.
But, says Ruiz-Larrea, the way the building looks is determined by its energy-saving features. It is bioclimatic, meaning that its design takes into account changing climatic and environmental conditions to help achieve optimal thermal comfort inside. Its intriguing, technologically sophisticated facade, developed with the company Sistemas TDM, is called Biopix. The term seems to refer to the fact that the cladding is, as RLA describes it, like a “biological organism”, given that its panels – which have different functions, from solar ones that generate electricity to others providing ventilation – respond flexibly to changing weather conditions. The panels also help regulate temperatures in the building by retracting telescopically into a cavity of air behind them.
Seville is in southern Spain, where the summers are very hot, so ventilation is a key concern. But, in this regard, the building’s location works in its favour: it stands in the path of winds that sweep up the nearby Guadalquivir river. In fact, the building takes much inspiration from local context. It nods to the Andalusian, architectural tradition of the mocárabe – skylights and elaborately decorative perforations in walls and ceilings, like those at the Alhambra palace in Granada, Andalusia, which passively draw natural light into buildings.
If, as Ruiz-Larrea says, his building’s form is shaped solely by its philosophy rather than by his aesthetic preferences, then logically the look of its skin is accidental. The interior, by contrast, is more obviously functional and less visually arresting.
The building has two floors below ground level (these house its services and a car park) and five above. The ground floor is dominated by an atrium overlooked by balconies on all the upper floors. Aesthetically, the icy white interior might look bland, even rather sterile, but its experimental, eco features are admirable. The architects claim the project is practically self-sufficient in terms of energy consumption; it meets 75% of its energy needs. Supplementing these are a biomass boiler (which burns wood pellets as well as olive stones from locally grown olive trees), while some air-conditioning is supplied by an absorption refrigerator (a method of air-conditioning using waste heat from a gas turbine or water heater).
On the ground floor are an auditorium, multifunctional rooms, a library and creche, while lining its perimeter are oasis-like, shady areas with plants and pools of water, across which blow currents of air, entering the building and making the interior cooler. These areas are enclosed by transparent, grid-like windows (rather than the Biopix panels cladding the floors above), and so let in plenty of natural light.
Also bringing daylight into the interior – and so helping to cut down hugely on electricity consumption – is a massive skylight at the top of the building. Again referencing traditional Andalusian skylights, this lets in as much sunlight as possible yet regulates its temperature. Covering this inside the building is a frosted polyethylene shade comprising inverted pyramid shapes that diffuse the light evenly and prevent glare.
Further key features include the innovative, cylindrical lightwells that double as structural columns. Partly covered in a semi-translucent, milky white methacrylate, these cleverly transmit daylight vertically from the top of the building to all the floors beneath.
It’s commendable that this office’s design is radically driven by ecological concerns yet its architects seem misguided – indeed puritanical – in thinking that these are incompatible with an interest in aesthetics. The two can coexist, as the gorgeously decorative, proto-eco Andalusian buildings that influenced this project show.
To some, the phrase “It’s all a blur” might be an admission of a poor memory, but to Manuel Rodenas and Jesús Olivares, of Spanish architectural practice Cor & Asociados, “blur architecture” – their name for buildings with indistinct outlines or “diffused limits” – is to be encouraged.
They use the term to describe their design for the Central Office of The Confederation of Employers of Albacete (FEDA), a non-profit organisation that represents and supports businesses in the region (Albacete is a city in south-east Spain). From the outside, this looks like an apparently conventional, white, starkly rectilinear office block but for its intriguing, semi-transparent, perforated facade. This skin – which Rodenas likens to a “veil” – is made of poly(methyl methacrylate), a lightweight alternative to glass.
The organisation previously had offices scattered throughout the city but decided to bring them together under one roof. “FEDA needed a new iconic building to present itself to Albacete,” says Rodenas. “This was the seed of the project. Although it was completed last year, the process took a long time because of our economic crisis and because our budget was cut by 35 per cent. We spent four years redesigning the building to make it cheaper. We think this made it better because we took away anything that was unnecessary.”
This was the architects’ first project after leaving university. Before construction began, they met the directors and staff to ascertain their needs and working culture. These centre on an egalitarian belief in “self-managed teams” (rather than a hierarchical one with staff working under managers). Accordingly, Rodenas and Olivares designed an open-plan space with what they call “reprogrammable” floors – a flexible design that can adapt in future to changing requirements. There are currently 30 employees, but the building can accommodate up to 300 people. “We proposed a structure with few columns, so the elements in the space can be easily rearranged later to suit different needs. We also included a technical floor that incorporates such services as electricity, air-conditioning, heating and plumbing, leaving the other floors free of these.”
At the moment, the 870sq m floors – all accessed by a staircase in the reception area – are organised as follows: reception, glass-fronted meeting rooms and rooms for training staff and employers on the ground floor; offices on the first floor; a business school and library on the third, and a conference and press-related rooms on the top floor. Although there are meeting rooms, the emphasis at FEDA is on informality, stresses Rodenas. “It’s more common to see people gather spontaneously around a table than go into a meeting room. Other rooms include a cafe and changing rooms for sporting activities; for those who want to use public sports facilities nearby or just go for a run.”
It’s not the building’s interiors that excite Rodenas and Olivares, however, but its skin. In one sense, the project is part of a trend for eye-catching facades with the potential to have softer, more expressive qualities, challenging the impersonal aesthetic of steel and glass that has long been the dominant language of contemporary architecture. Take Foreign Office Architects’ work on the John Lewis department store in Leicester: its patterned, lace-like exterior nods to the city’s history of textiles, and to the fabrics and haberdashery famously stocked by the shop. The FEDA building’s comparatively abstract outer layer, however, doesn’t make literal references to anything Albacete is famous for: instead, it is determinedly abstract and as such is more open to interpretation, variously resembles a hairnet or a fascinator, and, on a more mundane level, even an anti-pigeon device.
The facade isn’t merely an aesthetic afterthought but is central to the architects’ philosophy, and stems in large part from a dislike of monolithic, static, dully familiar architecture. “The idea with the FEDA building is to counterbalance its strong, clear volume with its blurring facade,” says Rodenas. “This results in a delicate, volatile effect. Looking at this diffuse landmark creates a slight feeling of strangeness.” And for all its visual ambiguity, the building does aim to elevate the area: “It’s in a new neighbourhood between the old city and an industrial area. The architecture isn’t interesting there apart from two historic buildings once used to make flour.”
Cor & Asociados’s “blur architecture” aims to make both a psychological and aesthetic impact, adds Rodenas. “We’re researching the idea of rehumanisation of architecture, of emotional architecture. We’re interested in creating atmospheres, sensations, not just in how buildings look. We’re interested in how people feel in buildings. We have an intuition that architecture has to change its goal.”
The appearance of facade changes too, thanks to contrasting optical effects created by different weather conditions, which make it appear either solid or ethereal. (In this sense, it’s similar to the John Lewis store, which glows softly at night because its decorative envelope is subtly illuminated from within.) When it’s bathed in bright sunlight, the FEDA office’s skin looks – to quote Rodenas’s organic, anthropomorphic term – “fleshy” and thick, since the graphic shadows it casts on the building make it appear more 3D, while on cloudy days, it becomes wispy and diaphanous.
The building and its skin represent polar opposites, he adds. By contrast, the architects have designed the inside space so that when people enter it, they feel no difference between being indoors and out. A small garden by the front entrance also contributes to creating what Rodenas calls a “friendly relationship with the user”, as do speedily opening automatic doors to the building and acoustically efficient, sound-absorbing elements inside.
For the architects, providing an open-plan space that staff can adapt to their personal needs as time goes on was a central concern: “We want employees to be able to build their workplaces in a highly emotional way,” says Rodenas. “We believe this will create a new office landscape that’s less anodyne, more interesting, more real. “Rehumanising architecture is, as far as we’re concerned, an obligatory step to rethinking workplaces.”
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.
Initially 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.
MVN’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.
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.
“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.
In 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.
The northern Spanish city of Pamplona was a fave of big Ernie Hemingway due to its foolhardy displays of machismo by indigenous and international braggarts during the annual running of the bulls festival. It may be most famous for this ancient and, it has to be said, bonkers tradition, but there’s much more to the city than avoiding death by rampant bull. The urban fabric pits beautiful medieval churches alongside a post-war modernisation that took root in the 1950s and continued unabated throughout the next two decades.
Located somewhere between these contrasting districts is the Oficina Caja de Arquitectos by local practice Pereda Pérez – a bank founded by architects for architects. As part of an expansionist drive, client Arquia Caja de Arquitectos is in the process of setting up a bank in each provincial capital of Spain. As you would expect having architects as clients, replicating the dreariness that characterises most local branches would not come close to cutting the mustard. In order to guard against this type of homogeny, each office is designed by a different architectural practice, and Oficina was no exception.
The site, a former car workshop in Iturralde y Suit street, was in a pretty sorry state. Thankfully, what the practice did have going for it was carte blanche on the design. “We had total freedom because the company trusted in the design,” says Pereda Pérez architect Teresa Gridilla Saavedra – a statement likely to a cause the most battle-worn of architects to drool.
Perhaps surprisingly, the client resisted the urge to throw some of their own ideas into the mix. Stretching back from the road, the elongated building needed to house offices, a meeting room, a rest area and a defining core for management types. To achieve this the practice split the building in two, with workspaces on one floor and an operations centre and hall on the other. Upon entering the building, visitors travel down a long corridor constructed from large square blocks of Spanish Campaspero stone on their right-hand side, while a faceted glass wall runs opposite. Directly behind the reception is a timber-clad informal meeting room, while the business advisors and deputy director sit further back. Lurking near the stairwell at the rear of the building is the director’s lair.
Reception desks can explain a great deal about a company’s ethos, from streamlined, curved affairs representing speedy dynamism to sturdy, old-timey wooden numbers. Made from black steel, Oficina’s is vaguely reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit if some cheeky ape had tipped it on its side. It is simplicity personified, and perhaps a deliberate response to the perceived opulence and greed of banks. This theory is held up by the austere stone blocks and the warmth of the timber-clad office spaces, but it is a conclusion that Saavedra resists: “Maybe it is a response to the greed, but this is our line of design and we try to shun fads.”
Corporate branding was also shunned, kicked into touch by the cool minimalist design. At the building’s rear, a black steel staircase allows access to a mezzanine floor via a small footbridge and concrete floorplate that crosses the reception space below. Here the space is turned over to the more mundane essentials such as washrooms and cleaning facilities, in addition to a large meeting room and break-out lounge hidden behind the faceted glazed wall. Large skylights above both the director’s office and meeting room ensure that despite the building’s great depth there is an abundance of natural light.
The practice had to perform a careful balancing act with this feature. Too much transparency would destroy any notions of privacy, while a repeat of the Campaspero stone would result in a gloomy space. “The use of glass is not only to split the space,” says Saavedra. “We wanted to avoid too opaque a surface. In addition, glass allows light to come in from two skylights sited in the office space.” Notoriously exacting in their profession, architects can be difficult to please – so what does the client make of it? “I think they must appreciate the project because they have used one of the photos of it as the front page of their brochure,” says Saavedra. Well, you can’t say fairer than that.
“What is being sought with this studio is simple: to work under the trees,” goes the blurb accompanying the amazing images of this Spanish architectural practice’s own office. No Photoshop was used in the making of this particular project, we promise. Simply go into the woods to the north west of Madrid, around eight miles from the city centre, and the big surprise is this futuristic workplace, which is home to SelgasCano.
Husband and wife team José Selgas and Lucía Cano, who both graduated from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid in 1992, before starting their professional partnership 15 years ago, had a strong eco-ethos when it came to this project. “We have been working in this office for two years,” explains architect Jose Jaraiz, giving some background. “The old office was a hired place, so we decided to move to another one. It was not very difficult getting planning permission.”
Selgas and Cano had already worked in the forest before, on a house in La Florida in the outskirts of Madrid. Here they built a family home that was inspired in part by Le Corbusier’s 1957 Convent la Tourette in Lyon, where the central cloister was left unlandscaped for vegetation to develop unfettered. Then, as now, for the SelgaScano office, the architects instead gave themselves restrictions: to build only in natural clearings among the pines, laurels and acacias, rather than fell any trees.It almost goes without saying that these architects have a bit of a thing for trees: “It’s about not making a barrier to nature,” explains Selgas.
The design detail really comes into its own courtesy of some very clever use of materials. The north-facing wall is a 20mm-thick curved window, made of transparent plexiglas, thus offering views of the flora and fauna outside. The glass was milled at the edges, so that a film of silicon sealant could be injected to protect the structure from the elements. The opaque south-facing side meanwhile, where the workstations are situated, is constructed from a 110mm-thick ‘sandwich’ comprising fibreglass and polyester with translucent insulation in the middle, which offers shade from direct sunlight. This being Spain and not the dreary UK or sunlight-deprived countries of Scandinavia, during the daytime, there’s no need to supplement the sun, whatever the season. Cano asserts that “Winter or summer, we don’t use artificial light. Never.” This is not strictly true: there is no fixed lighting, but staff simply use task lights when they are meeting those late-night deadlines, working on projects such as congress centres and auditoriums in Badajoz in south-west Spain, Cartegena in the south east and Plascenia in the north east of the country as well 20 villas in Madrid.
Being at one with its surroundings, in the summer the forest’s leafy canopy offers some shade to the office workers from the glare of the Madrid sun while in winter, the fact that there are no leaves on the trees means the building can benefit from as much natural heat from the sun as possible. “It’s the most eco-friendly kind of energy ever used. We barely need heating,” explains Selgas. And what happens when it rains? “When the raindrops hit the plastic, sometimes there is a sound, sometimes you let yourself get carried away.”
They also had to be quite canny about not just what materials they specified, but how they specified them. As Selgas explains, “It was impossible to persuade a company to get involved in such a small building from start to finish, forcing us to contract out the work with a timetable that fitted in with when companies were available.” By way of example, the polyester part of one side of the office is made up of two different sized pieces, one straight, one curved, both more commonly found on the roofs of railway carriages; because the manufacturers usually produce in bulk and the project only required a few metres of each, the architects had to wait until German railways placed a big order before they could get their hands on it. Close cooperation with suppliers was also needed for getting the Plexiglas installed – one firm bent the sheets, while another firm assembled them. Of course, provision of services can’t be neglected either, and to this end, at one side of the building, a hinge on a steel frame can be fully opened using a system of pulleys and counterweights operated by a hand crank for varying degrees of natural ventilation – think a rather more sophisticated version of unzipping the flaps on your tent to let the air circulate while camping. The building’s tubular shape encourages air to flow right through it.
Although it’s pretty hard to miss a 19-metre-long tube in the middle of all this greenery, Selgas and Cano kept part of the building below ground. Concrete steps that cut into the earth lead down into the entrance while a shallow concrete trough forms the building’s foundations. Wooden planks are used for the paving leading outside the building.
Half a dozen staff work in the office and in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic, the space configuration is suitably pared down as well. Everyone hotdesks, Selgas and Cano included, sitting in pairs at a row of white-lacquered work surfaces, cantilevered from the concrete base of one wall. Shelving runs between the desks. Colour comes courtesy of sections of one wall painted a vibrant shade of chartreuse, and in order to divide the front part of the building from the rear, the floorboards have been painted lemon yellow and white respectively.
For all of its plaudits – and reading the architectural blogs, there are plenty of those – this office has its detractors too. “I’d feel like a rat in a test tube if I worked there,” says one forum post; “Reminds me of being on a train,” says another. It certainly makes a bold statement, and working there must be like going on a field trip every day, even if there is no privacy – nowhere to bitch about colleagues, nowhere to have those crucial promotion chats, nowhere to have a quiet word. The potential for claustrophobia must be palpable, but Selgas is having none of it, and he works there after all. He simply states: “It’s like a greenhouse adjusted for people.”
Mario Ruiz is a rarity – a Spanish designer who has broken through to the office furniture market – and he’s a firm believer in the ethos that work is work and home is home. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the office a better place to be... When thinking of Spain, many images spring to mind (I’ll spare you from rattling down the long list of obvious stereotypes), but furniture design is not one of them. And indeed when you speak to Spanish furniture companies – of which there are surprisingly many – they all seem to have a chip on their shoulder, a result of comparing themselves with or being compared to the Italians. Their fellow Mediterraneans have a long design history and a healthy self esteem... occasionally referred to as arrogance. The leading Spanish designer besides Mariscal – well known in the industry – is the gorgeous Patricia Urquiola, but she’s lived, learnt (with Italian maestro Achille Castiglioni) and worked in Milan for so long now that she can hardly count as an example of typical Spanish craftsmanship.Nonetheless in terms of office furniture manufacturers, Spain is experiencing a boom and adopting the Italian model of working with signature designers at that. So in light of the big office furniture exhibition Ofitec, 26-28 February, I went on a voyage to the land of the fighting bulls to investigate where this surge of office products is coming from. I didn’t have to venture far to find the same name popping up again and again: Mario Ruiz. Spain’s answer to Antonio Citterio?One thing is for sure, every Spanish manufacturer from Dynamobel to Bordonabe is working with him, or is at least “meeting for pinchos” – a sure sign in Spain that future collaborations are afoot. But Ruiz doesn’t stop here. He is currently working on products with US biggies such as Haworth and Steelcase, proving that his popularity is spreading internationally and repositioning Spain on the design radar. The majority of the country’s furniture manufacturers, such as Stua, Akaba and Sellex, are based in the Basque region due to its heavy steel industry and large port, but like most Spanish designers Ruiz is based in Barcelona. Unlike most, however, he hasn’t gone down the route of creating eye-catching domestic furniture. Instead Ruiz specialises in office products. And this strict, rigid focus on functional design is largely part of his success.“Office furniture design is complex,” Ruiz tells me, via his translator. “It’s about solving problems, it’s very difficult but somehow this type of design suits the way I am.” Which doesn’t mean that Ruiz is complex and difficult – it’s more that he’s attracted to the challenging engineering side of design. “I feel comfortable in the type of environment where you work closely with the manufacturer.” Ruiz doesn’t have the flamboyance or air of certain celebrity designers, he seems to just want to get on with it – more of an accountant than a prima donna. “If you can design good office equipment you can design anything. It’s the toughest sector of design due to the many variables that need to fit together.”So once you’ve designed a task chair, a sofa is merely a walk in the park? “No, no.” Ruiz slows down his Spanish and expresses division with his hands. “Office furniture and soft seating are two separate worlds! I believe there are two distinct types of design, one being the category of, for instance, office products: rational, involving a lot of logical thinking. The other, like a sofa, is emotional, more about what you feel when you see it, part of a moment.” Ruiz has specialised in what he sees as rational design, developing a product through programming and a high level of intellectual effort.His most popular products include Corner, a family of management tables for offices, for the Citterio Company, and K22 for Haworth, an office system made up of geometrical elements with a variety of coloured panels. Dis for Dynamobel is a stunning task chair, comfortable and classic in design. But Ruiz also has more unconventional products in his portfolio, like the outdoor lounge beds for Gandia Blasco or the Frame light fitting for B.lux, as well as the Panama lighting collection for Metalarte. But his core concern is the office, and for him it’s a conservative place.“In Spain especially people don’t work flexibly, they work at a desk in an office. And to be honest any project I’ve worked on that tried to break with that tradition failed. Either it was cancelled during development or it didn’t make it onto the market. The concept of working from home doesn’t work. The home office is always simply a mini office at home and you shouldn’t work in your private surroundings. So while bringing the office into the home didn’t work, bringing the home into the office did.”We discuss the recent movement of “softening” the workplace by adding home aesthetics like warm colours and soft fabrics. “Sure, the domestic influence in the office has been strong. In the evolution of workplace design, we first had the wave of ergonomics, then the ‘electrification’ took over, focusing on how to connect and wire up all the technology, and then came the approach to make offices more humane and with that the aim for it to feel more domestic.” For Ruiz, this is a natural progression, and like most design disciplines, there is an overlap of influences.“With workplace design the interlinks started a while ago: the home got into the office, the office got into the kitchen, the kitchen got into the bathroom and in the end it’s a mix of environments.” The strongest impact today comes from the kitchen, he says. “There is a common use between storage in the kitchen and the office. Most technical features that are applied in kitchen units are transferred onto office cabinets, such as hinges and soft closing mechanisms. Right now we’re working on an office product for HBF that could easily be placed in a kitchen – the execution of the mechanisms and solutions are all adopted from kitchen designs.”Corian is a good example of a material that was developed for kitchen use and is now found frequently in workplaces – particularly as a material for custom-made furniture due to its highly durable properties. Looking forward, the phase of “domestification” has reached its climax, Ruiz claims. Like past evolutionary stages of workplace design, it takes its place as an automatic addition to the way office furniture is created now. A new era is on the horizon, and according to Ruiz this era is about returning back to basics: designing an office as a place to work. That may sound tautological, but looking at his products – with their technical, clean, almost sterile design – I see his point. “Office furniture is moving back to looking more technical, to clearly distinguish itself from products at home. I strongly believe that in principle the office look, as a public place, should differ from the home. Your private space should convey your personality while an office should represent a company’s values or a team, and with that a very separate set of values from your own four walls.” So what about personalised design, the idea of each individual making their mark on their workstation, that was preached at Neocon and other shows last year? “It’s a misguided assumption that the self should have such weight in the workplace. The office is a place to work, that’s what the design should facilitate. It can still convey a sense of belonging, but that’s separate from feeling like a home. The ideal office equipment should be tailored to the individual, but not their personal characters, rather their individual job tasks. For instance, people may spend eight hours a day in the office, but most of these eight hours are split up into different activities, which require different environments and different equipment. Office furniture will not reach its maximum efficiency until companies realise they need to streamline the products to make the most of people’s interactions while in the office.”So, adaptation rather than one appliance fits all. In reality, this depends on the degree of research manufacturers and employers are willing to invest in the development of specialised furniture. “Once it was about making people work, then making them comfortable – when health and safety and ergonomics hit the headlines – then easy access ruled the day. Now it’s about making the most of people, aiding their skills to maximise the outcome,” says Ruiz.The idea has shades of the Frederick Taylor days, making people work as hard and efficiently as possible – a scenario most managers wouldn’t dare to admit but secretly all push for. But also for employees, worklife could be much better if their environment was streamlined to make their job easier. We’re not talking machines here, but small individualised design adjustments so that equipment is geared towards each job spec rather than person. If job descriptions are moulded to fit individuals’ skill sets, could office furniture do the same? And what would it look like? How does a furniture designer know what I, as an editor of a monthly magazine, need? Ruiz says he’s already working with Steelcase in this direction, a firm that is conducting research around convincing FMs to buy into this multifaceted approach to office gear. “It’s a new phase in the development of workplace design. Time will tell what the effect will be,” says Ruiz.Design is an obvious differentiator to add value to a company, making it stand out from its competitors, and Spain is currently experiencing a high. It can clearly distance itself from the Asian market through quality and design, and it’s more down to earth in its approach to the market than other European countries. It’s common knowledge that the Italian industry focuses predominately on retail, leisure and domestic, leaving a welcome gap for Spain’s office surge. Spanish firm Akaba – once famed for unconventional design, now focusing on contract to survive financially – is rumoured to be talking to Ruiz about a possible collaboration. That’ll be one to watch out for, as will the many launches Ruiz is working on for Milan. But for now we’ll leave you with the very Spanish but very un-Ruiz “mañana” – look out for our Milan and Ofitec coverage in the next issues!