If you haven’t heard of international architecture firm HASSELL yet, that is about to change. Founded in Australia some 70 years ago, it has more than 900 staff and 14 offices in Australia, China, south-east Asia and, as of a few months ago, the UK too. It designs hotels, airports, research facilities, bridges, parks, rail stations and offices, among other things. In China alone the company has 300 staff, working on mega-projects like the masterplanning of sustainable cities for 100,000 people. And in Australia it currently has two AU$1.2bn hospitals on the way to completion, says Tony Grist, who is head of architecture at HASSELL and heads up the new London office. “We are also designing a number of major research facilities as well. That keeps us in a knowledge leadership position not just in Australia but internationally.”
At the core of HASSELL’s success is a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach, and an ability to work holistically on a project from masterplan right through to architecture, interiors and the public realm. Its non-hierarchical respect for all disciplines is shown in the backgrounds of its leaders, who are landscape architects or interior designers, as well as architects, by training. At HASSELL’s new studio in Clerkenwell, Grist tells me about the practice’s workplace design philosophies. A great illustration, he says, is the ANZ Centre, the 85,000sq m HQ designed with global property developer Lend Lease for one of Australia’s main banks, located in Melbourne’s Docklands area. “The three main conceptual ideas behind ANZ were permeability, diversity and sustainability,” says Grist. The ground floor, with its cafes, public art, a visitor centre, a daycare centre and a gym “is more like an extension of the city into the building,” he says, adding that this level of public accessibility has rarely, if ever, been seen before in a global banking HQ. “It says a lot about how ANZ wants to interact with its customers and be more transparent.”
The project, for which HASSELL worked on the architecture and the fit-out, has been showered with awards. It is the largest and greenest commercial office building in the country (having been awarded the six-star Green Star Office Design rating by the Australian Green Building Council). Water consumption is 60% less than the industry average and the building’s green roof and exterior shading help to reduce heat gain and loss. Though it houses a workforce of 7,000, no staff member sits more than 11m from natural light. It uses ideas taken from urban design, with a concept of a town square with a main street – or an urban campus, as Grist puts it.
In this urban campus, putting an emphasis on how you move through a building is key, says Grist. That means putting in stairs instead of lifts where possible, and bridges so you can see people moving around, “creating a village on a number of levels,” he says. “Psychologically, if you’re in a building and you’re going up and down in the lift you’re not as connected,” he says. “It’s a bit like using the tube versus using a bus. If you travel by bus in London you get a better idea of the city.” But it’s more than that. If you’re stuck in a lift you are cut off from the incidental interactions and connections during which important innovations and ideas are often born.
It may sound straightforward but the ANZ building, like most HASSELL workplace projects, was the result of an “iterative and collaborative approach to concept design”. HASSELL took the client to see roughly 15 projects around the world, “analysing what was good and bad about each one and what the client did and didn’t like”. Research into workplace behaviour was done with global workplace design consultancy DEGW, identifying things like the fact that senior people are at their desks the least, meaning less need for a private office or permanent space. “This translates into a 30-40% floorplate saving over a traditional building,” says Grist. The design focused on 44 individual hub spaces spread out over the building’s 13 storeys. “Wherever you are in the building, you’re IT-facilitated,” says Grist, “and you’re never more than a few steps away from a power point and a coffee machine.” Creating zones and nodes, meeting spaces, breakout areas and collaboration spaces is how you create communities, even in very large footprints, he explains.
Another recurring theme for HASSELL is how the workplace and education sectors are increasingly crossing over as the former becomes more flexible and mobile through new technologies. “The workplace is increasingly seen as a learning environment to develop people professionally on the job, a collaborative and interactive place where ideas are realised,” says Grist. “As new generations of technologically savvy workers arrive from university, their expectations of a workplace designed to offer a choice of settings for different work styles is having a great impact.” The flipside is that tertiary institutions are realising they need to make better connections with the corporate world, and that increasingly they will have to compete for students by providing state-of-the-art facilities, “so the education space is in turn taking cues from the corporate world in the design of their buildings.”
Combining the concepts of interaction and learning with play was central to the design of dtac House, the Bangkok HQ for one of Thailand’s leading telecommunications providers, completed by HASSELL in 2009. Formal meeting rooms are balanced by informal meeting spaces; locally sourced solid timbers and locally made cotton and silk fabrics are used throughout the fit-out. Similar to a hotel, an entire floor is dedicated to staff recreational facilities including a gym, a running track, indoor soccer, a band stage, karaoke and two large outdoor terraces overlooking the Bangkok skyline. It’s the sort of office you wouldn’t resent spending time in, and that’s the point. Staff wellbeing, environmental sustainability and “social sustainability” as Grist puts it, are at the core of the design.
Before I leave Grist shows me photos of HASSELL’s own studios around the world. Those in Shanghai and Brisbane are located in a former motorbike and bread factory respectively, and are striking examples of HASSELL’s workplace philosophies in practice. What that means is a lot of communal spaces, places to gather formally and informally (many of which are outdoors in the Brisbane office, taking advantage of the balmy climate) and open access for their clients. “It’s about enhancing the ideas of communication,” says Grist. In a lot of offices you come to a wall and don’t know what’s going on behind it. When the client comes in they don’t understand how you’re spending their money. “We like to involve our clients and bring them right into the centre of what we’re doing.” With this client-centred approach and their expertise in so many different project types and areas, the arrival of HASSELL in the UK and Europe is a breath of fresh air – can-do Australian air, at that. When I ask if they have any projects afoot in the UK and Europe already, Grist smiles and says, “We are already working on a number of projects. All I can say is there are plenty of opportunities.”
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Operating under the moniker OfficeLifting, architects at Berlin-based practice raumteam:92 are responding to that infamous “efficient” German stereotype in kind.Since the 1990s Germany’s capital city has undergone a structural renovation the likes of which no other European city has seen since the end of World War Two. Berlin’s buildings have received enviable architectural treatment at the hands of international talent (in 1999 Sir Norman Foster had converted the former Reichstag into the new German Parliament; it’s glass cupola has since been hailed the “hallmark” of the city) and via more indigenous means.Stephan Braunfels, Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, Von Gerkan Marg and Partners, Hans Kollhoff, Josef Paul Kleihues and now raumteam:92 – the subject of this story – have each left a mark on the “new look” Berlin and, arguably, as inhabitants of the city these architects have proved best placed to reshape their home. There is a reason for this: like Germans on the whole, Berliners are internationally renowned for their skills in engineering and design. But unlike their countrymen, Berlin’s avant-garde have had reason to safeguard their city’s identity more than most. In the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city’s occupants began a salvage mission; they set about regaining a collective sense of identity. It’s had a profound affect on all Berliners’ ways of working, but raumteam:92 has perhaps epitomised the approach with its innovative form of interior architecture, OfficeLifting. Angelika Zwingel, a project leader at raumteam:92, says the firm coined the phrase to describe its bit-part approach to interior architecture (“you could call it interior design, but we think that’s too generic a term”), a self-styled “integrative design strategy which, with careful means, is aimed simultaneously at designing the spatial company identity and at structural improvements in the actual work environment”. The term was borrowed from the practice of plastic surgery, as recipients of such treatment receive a nip here and a tuck there – just enough to revive weary elements, but not a whole new face. But OfficeLifting is about much more than just semantics. A fundamental aspect of the approach is the use of design to harmonise the formulation of external company branding with internal authenticity – bearing great resemblance to the citywide effort to secure a new identity for Berliners without losing any more of the old one. “During my time in England and the States I encountered a much more developed awareness towards the intrinsic qualities of an intentionally formed space (as opposed to mere ‘hip design’),” says Zwingel, “and there was a greater openness there to provide a reasonable budget to achieve it. Berlin is a great place to watch all sorts of recycling, tuning and the recharching of spaces and objects on a highly individual level, but in the end it all comes down to money and Berlin, or perhaps Germany in general, has certainly not been a place where money was found on the streets and available to spend easily.” Thankfully, expense isn’t an issue when it comes to OfficeLifting. All improvements are bespoke and tailored to budget, and despite the outlay being joyfully inexpensive, it’s clear from raumteam:92’s past projects that the results clients can expect are quite outstanding. In the case of Schröder+Schömbs, a public relations company based in Berlin Mitte, utilising textile partitions enabled the firm flexibility in terms of spatial division. The makeshift walls play confidently with the building’s depth and lighting conditions too, offering a sense of identity to a design that had previously been defined by clutter. Likewise, at Zucker PR, also located in Berlin Mitte, working with a budget Zwingel describes as “minute” proved inspiration on the project rather than the hindrance it might typically have been. The team enjoyed much success through the simple and subtle implementation of plants; the architects hung flower boxes with the help of a carpenter, and stencilled plant-like visuals on the walls, which wove an energising green thread through the Zucker office to “revitalise” its staff. “It is probably not surprising that the two OfficeLiftings we think have been most exceptional were designed for PR agencies,” says Zwingel. “The best clients we’ve worked with have understood the influence of a carefully conceived finish and did not hesitate to invest in thought rather than shiny surfaces. Working with people who are open to experimenting with their space in order to find a strong theme is fundamental in achieving more than a pretty arrangement of elements.”It’s not the first time during our interview that Zwingel has sworn by the benefits of client interaction. She is quick to stress the importance of input from employees too, even citing examples where OfficeLifting projects had failed due to a lack of input from those sources. “We have had projects that didn’t work because we felt that we weren’t able to really incorporate the ideas of the employees,” says Zwingel. “This was either because there weren’t many or the client would tell us what he or she thought employees needed, but that doesn’t work because the client has different needs to the employee. It can be hard work convincing the client that it’s important for us to talk to their employees.” But judging by the results, this collaborative approach has proved invaluable.