A dramatic curtain wall sweeps through a cavernous atrium, its layered strips of timber evoking the strata of the earth’s crust. Carved out by Dutch architects Group A, it’s a reference to the work of their client, BP: this 9,000sq m office in The Netherlands pulls together previously disparate elements of the company into one gargantuan HQ.
Despite hitting the headlines for an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and a subsequent tongue-lashing from President Obama, BP is expanding. At its Rotterdam refinery, it left the overspill holed up in temporary buildings across the site. Feeling it was time for more coherence, in 2006/7 the company invited three practices to compete to design its new home. Group A trumped the competition with its C-shaped building, and so impressed was BP with the architects’ base build that it commissioned the practice to carry out the interior too. “It was a cool thing to do one total design,” says project architect Folkert van Hagen, but the architect found himself overseeing two teams as well as liaising with the client. “For me it was a heavy job for four years.”
High on the agenda was a new, more transparent working style – a standard request, but the brief also included some peculiarities. BP hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2005 when an explosion at the Texas City Refinery left 15 workers dead and scores injured. “BP said this should never happen again,” says project architect Folkert van Hagen, “so the major concern was that it should be blastproof.” This is more apparent when viewing the building from the outside. Covered in turf, it rises from the ground, curving to form a protective shield. “It’s a very heavy structure, particularly with the earth on top,” says van Hagen. The curved shape helps enormously with stability as does the reinforced concrete frame, while the facade bends and shifts to absorb the force of any blast.
Group A was presented with an extraordinary site to build on. Located on the cusp between the largest port in the world and grassy wetlands, it would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast. Folkert and his team attempted to celebrate this by creating an exchange between heavy industry and nature. “They should really blend together. When you’re in the building you see all the drums of BP on one side, and the other direction, a nice green Dutch landscape.” The glassy east facade contains the main entrance, and moving north the building tapers down, melting into the landscape. The facade is protected from the sun by a series of horizontal louvres, and BP’s logo goes almost unnoticed in the top corner (Group A felt a giant billboard announcing the company’s arrival was overkill. BP agreed).
The workforce, in typically Dutch fashion, cycles between the refinery to the west and their new office, its entrance signposted by a concrete Pythagorean quiff. The building then opens up into its dynamic atrium, its most cinematic moment. Above is a glass roof flooding the huge space with natural light, with office spaces lining either side, stretching for 100m and connected by two bridges. “We felt it shouldn’t be a straight atrium that only delivers light: it should be more like a cave, bringing the idea of the hill inside,” says van Hagen. To achieve this Group A sourced hundreds upon thousands of pieces of cheap Dutch wood, painting them three colours to create the striated effect. The architects chose granite for the floor and added a handful of soft seats that look like pebbles sitting on a black sand beach. While they soften the aesthetic a little, this is clearly not an office space for noodle-armed creative types. “We thought it should be rough,” continues van Hagen. “We used blue steel and wood, and the carpets on the office floors look like young grass coming up through the mud.”
It took two years to convince BP of the merits of open-plan working. Noise was a big concern. In the end Group A ferried a selection of BPs staff to a previous office the architect had completed to prove the acoustics could work. “If you want people to understand acoustics they have to listen to it,” says van Hagen. Of course, much unwanted noise is absorbed by the timber wall, but the architects also used acoustic ceilings to quieten things down.
Protruding into the atrium are large “meeting boxes”, eight on the ground floor and one for every floor above. “When you are in one of these the whole company opens up to you. You can see other people in meetings and you are transparent to the whole organisation. This is like the open heart of the company,” says Van Hagen. Initially this idea was met with scepticism: multinationals that are super-relaxed are a rarity, and no department wants to display nosediving performance figures to all and sundry. In any event, no one at BP has taken Group A’s offer to seal them off just yet.
Improved communication was another important feature of the brief, so the architects arranged the breakout areas and the central staircase around these meeting rooms. “All movement is around these bridges,” says van Hagen. “When you are searching for somebody, you only have to stand there for two minutes and there they are. It’s a cool thing.” With the ground floor of the building given over to shower and locker rooms, Group A put the office canteen on the first floor, further increasing the community feel.
Lasting four years, the design of the project was exhaustive, with the architects discussing every last detail from the signage to the number of coat hooks in the changing rooms. “It was nice, because you get so much feedback,” says van Hagen, who has high hopes of an award for Group A’s effort. “This is the first piece of architecture in this harbour area; everything else is just square technical buildings. But we are still people, and architecture is important.”