Words by Helen PartonLondon-based practice GMW Architects has overseen a consolidation of three locations into one for British American Tobacco, with a controversial move from cellular to open plan.I had a rather romantic image of smoke-filled rooms with people puffing insouciantly on Lucky Strikes, but of course post-smoking ban, that was never going to be the case. I doubt it was before to be honest – British American Tobacco’s offices don’t seem to be that kind of environment, certainly judging by the persuasion it took to let me in there in the first place. “It’s quite hierarchical and still is to a certain degree,” admits Tim Hardingham, partner with GMW Architects. The practice has been working with BAT for over seven years and garnered a British Council for Offices award for its work on BAT’s offices in Cannon St in 2001. The practice began developing concepts for this current project – at Globe House in Temple Place, just off London’s Embankment – in 2006. Entitled Project SEA, it was to be a test bed for design ideas to be rolled out across the rest of Globe House. Senior staff had been relocated from three different buildings to consolidate BAT’s European-wide operation into a single location, and as a result they have had to make the switch from cellular office space to a far more open-plan option. I get the impression this wasn’t easy in terms of physical reorganisation or employees’ prevailing attitudes towards having their own individual offices. “The brief was to get everybody together and reflect the values of growth and responsibility,” says Hardingham. He goes on to explain how GMW came up with the idea of “grown up open plan” to make the senior managers more accessible, while still acknowledging their status and encouraging interaction between the company’s various European functions (which previously hadn’t been the case). The solution GMW came up with consisted of making a serene atmosphere as opposed to a buzzy one, with plenty of informal meeting space and not skimping in terms of quality furniture – if those senior staff were going to give up their individual offices, they had to be compensated for that somehow, the thinking went.As we walk around the floor to compare the new elements with another part of the office, which hasn’t undergone the makeover, the lack of colour and comfy informal space of this “before” area are all too apparent. In the “after” part, primary shades have been used on the workstation partitioning to give the space a more playful feel. Bench style seating positioned in a staggered layout has also been introduced to maximise the opportunities for people from different teams to interact. The standout part of this project though is the break-out areas, with their collection of suspension lights from Artemide plus easy chairs, bar stools and sofas from Vitra and Ergonom – they are light, bright and contrast well with the rest of the office. Apart from the long, white, gondola-shaped solid surface material featuring striped upholstery, which may be a radical design step too far for the employees here, the rest of this more informal space seems to be well used. Indeed it may be a victim of its own success. I’m visiting this project at quite an interesting time, as the results of a feedback questionnaire are just in. While there has been demonstrably better communication and socialisation with the introduction of open plan, and staff have praised the break-out space, those for whom these areas were originally provided are now territorial over other departments using them. It seems you can physically remove the idea of cellular office space, but the idea of who is supposed to be sitting where is not shed so easily. GMW has also introduced a series of circular meeting pods, located in the middle of the floor for more impromptu meetings and, judging by the scribbles on the walls, they have proved a fruitful place for BAT staff to gather for brainstorming. Again there has been a positive response to the pods from those surveyed, particularly from senior staff. But in terms of developing the design, they will, in the future, be treated acoustically to prevent the floor from becoming too noisy. Other new elements developed for this interior in the long-standing relationship between BAT and GMW include phone booths and talk rooms, designed to deal with the perceived problem of a lack of privacy.
Words by Gareth Gardner
East London-based practice IDE-Architecture was charged with fitting out fledgeling creative agency Work Club’s first office, avoiding the pitfalls of over-branding and wow for wow’s sake Pity the poor creative agency. The pressure to occupy a workspace that makes you stand out from the crowd must feel overwhelming. Indoor lawn? Seen that. Caravan as meeting room? Been there. Brand messages emblazoned over the walls? Don’t even waste my time buying the T-shirt.Far braver is the agency that eschews these gimmicks in favour of a Ronseal work environment. Work Club’s office was designed by IDE-Architecture as a space that first and foremost works as an office. While there are a couple of features that might be seen as attention-grabbing shticks – such as bleacher seating more commonly found at Junior League baseball matches or as a backdrop in Grease – they have been carefully chosen to support the company’s working practices.Founded only six months ago, Work Club specialises in digital campaigns for blue-chip clients including Coca-Cola – a fast-growing sector. The location of its first office was important, both in terms of making a statement about the company and attracting new staff. “We spent a long time looking at where we wanted to be,” says Work Club founder Martin Brooks. “We liked Borough Market because it feels like proper London. It’s also very central with great transport links.”There’s a chronic digital skills shortage in the advertising industry, which means the office plays a key role in attracting new staff members. “This industry is a young person’s industry,” explains Brooks. “And they can only afford to live in south or east London. This made Borough the best location.” The workplace needed to be “somewhere cool that people would turn up to and enjoy every day”.It’s a particularly vital issue because Work Club is expanding fast. Already it has grown from the three founding partners to 15. The space needed to be able to accommodate a rapid rise in numbers – potentially up to 50 – but not feel like an empty wilderness at the start. Size matters, says Brooks, “because you need to look big and credible as quickly as possible.” It’s also better to take a space to grow into, rather than relocating every time more staff are employed. “I know from experience how massively disrupting it is to keep moving everybody.” Brooks adds that it was also imperative to “get somewhere cheap and make it ours”. Work Club eventually settled on the 372sq m top floor of a former warehouse building, tucked away in a hidden courtyard off Borough High Street. “When we found this space, it was all subdivided up and pretty horrendous. But we liked the high ceiling and workshop feel,” he recalls.The tight budget of £145,000 has helped drive the project’s priorities: lavish money on furniture that will last and keep the budget for the fit out itself as low as possible. “The life span of the office is seen as being three years,” says John Nordon, director of IDE-A. This explains the high-spec furniture such as Vitra’s Joyn desking system, which will hopefully be reused at the company’s future offices.One of IDE-A’s main aims was to avoid those aforementioned ad agency gimmicks. “We said instead of creating a branded space, or using metaphor, why not just create a very good office,” recalls Nordon. “We showed them all this metaphor stuff at a meeting and shoved it in the bin.” He adds that it meant “we didn’t have to spend all our time trying to be clever”.Rather than recreate the ambience of Borough inside the office, IDE-A has encouraged Work Club to think of the neighbourhood as an extension of the workspace. “We wanted to create somewhere that is just a good office to work in,” says Nordon. “If you want an art gallery then use Tate Modern or the Jerwood Space. It’s all nearby, just use it.”The space itself has been planned simply. In a coup de théâtre, a narrow enclosed staircase leads up to the office, terminating with expansive views right across the open-plan workplace. “It’s completely unexpected when you come into the space,” says Nordon. The only punctuations are three Joyn workstations – which sit well in the large space and support communal working – and a flexible presentation area.With numbers likely to grow rapidly, efficient use of space was imperative. “They wanted somewhere to show presentations to 40 people,” explains Nordon. Rather than build an auditorium that would sit empty most of the time, bleacher seating was specified, imported from the US. It can be stored against the wall and pulled out when needed – its steps can also be used as an informal meeting area. “We wanted to put a forum in the centre of the agency, as the main presentation and communication space,” Brooks says. “We wanted to be able to enjoy things in the round.” The building itself set its own design challenges. Nordon explains that its listed status meant that a raised floor couldn’t be installed, while the deep plan and small windows result in low natural light levels. IDE-A looked above its heads for a combined lighting, power and data solution. A square-section channel carrying all the cabling has been installed around the perimeter of the space, threaded through the timber roof structure. Attached to it are uplighters creating a “floating halo of light,” says Nordon. “The perimeter ring of lighting gives the space a nice light feel, when it’s actually quite dark.” Bespoke ducts, rather like drainage downpipes, supply power and data to the Joyn workstations below.With the landlord insisting on the space being carpeted, there was an urge to resist a standard spec grey carpet, which would have deadened the space. “All astroturf moves were out of the window, as we had rejected the metaphor approach,” says Nordon. Extensive and effective use of Milliken Dash carpet tiles, arranged in broad stripes of vibrant colour, helps to break up the enormous space. “The bands of colour create semi-distinct zones within which the desks sit,” he adds. Along one wall is a suite of meeting rooms, retained from the building’s previous fit out. Their facade has been covered in blackboard paint, turning them into a giant canvas that can be covered in chalk drawings and messages. In the distance lurks a large kitchen/dining area, which acts as a social hub. With limited funds, the kitchen units came from Ikea, tarted up with slinky LG Hi-Macs work surfaces and bamboo flooring. The two island units and dining table make it a place where all employees can congregate or parties be catered for. “Creating great social areas was really important,” says Brooks. “We want to use our office for parties, events, even film nights.” While it’s still early days, there are signs that the combined ambitions of Work Club and IDE-A to create a buzzy workspace with a great social atmosphere have been fulfilled. Apparently someone even wants to book it for their wedding reception.
Architect Jürgen Mayer is making waves internationally and in his native Germany, and his latest office project, ADA 1, is an arresting new addition to the city of Hamburg inspired by the maritime locationIn Hamburg’s conservative inner-city lake district, a distinctive office new build by Germany’s rising starchitect Jürgen Mayer, of Berlin-based practice Jürgen Mayer H, shows how the fusion of innovative office design with the surrounding landscape can boost a country’s design confidence. Rounded windows pop out of the facade, which Mayer describes as “eyes” overlooking the surrounding area and letting the charm of the city into the office. The shape of these windows echoes the maritime flair of the harbour city like waves and drops of water, each glass module flooding the inner corridors with natural light. “It sits there like a big ocean liner on its way out to sea,” says Mayer of his ADA 1 building, named after its address, An der Alster 1. Alster is Hamburg’s beautiful lake, whose shore houses celebrities from Jil Sander to Wolfgang Joop in traditional white stucco houses. The point at which the new building stands is where the rich Alster area meets St Georg, in the seedy, rundown Hauptbahnhof district, which is experiencing a wave of regeneration not least due to ADA 1. “The fact that it’s constructed on the crucial border between these two diverse areas may be one of the reasons why the new build fits into the context so well,” says Jan Prätzel, sales director at the KNSK advertising agency that moved in to ADA 1 last month and occupies three and a half of the building’s six storeys. “Even though the style is unmatched in Hamburg it somehow fits.” Like the Gherkin’s presence on the London skyline, Hamburg feels it is entering a new era of architecture with this striking project. Germany’s leading news magazine Spiegel says Mayer has the “courage to break with convention” and the power to wake the nation’s architecture out of its recent lethargy. He certainly has the talent to create eye-catching buildings with a unique, almost flamboyant style. And while his shapes may suggest parallels to the fluidity of Zaha Hadid or the sculptural blocks of Rem Koolhaas, Mayer’s projects tend to revive a location rather than dominate it. ADA 1 is a perfect example of how a building has unified and upgraded an area while remaining true to its natural and urban environment.I meet Mayer in his studio, an old West Berlin townhouse with high ceilings and white stucco walls. We sit on Konstantin Grcic’s Magis chairs, although he quickly passes me a cushion, saying how he loves the chairs but “they do get cold in winter”. He has a black Paul Smith scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and is dressed in the understated fashion typical of architects. The wall behind him is covered in prints of his extrovert designs, colliding with his personal air of Teutonic pragmatism. “ADA 1 is structured horizontally,” says Mayer, “aesthetically picking up on the city’s maritime identity. The characteristic protruding oval eyes are also found in the ventilation gutters and the green landscaping features outside the main building.” He modestly adds, “The project’s success is very much down to the property developer, Andreas Barke of Cogiton, who is from Hamburg and had high aspirations. For him it was all about consistency, from the exterior right down to the details of the interior.” The property developer didn’t stop there though. To achieve complete consistency he made a deal with the city council to take on the design of the public ground in front of the building to create a green park, which mirrors the building’s distinctive design elements.The interior of ADA 1 is exclusively white and grey, lending it a certain sterility, but Prätzel assured me that with time KNSK will automatically add some colour. Despite being a creative ad agency, KNSK has split the floors into two-people offices rather than leaving it open plan, which adds to the contained atmosphere. On the other hand, cubicles are common in Germany and Mayer tells me that he has been witnessing a strong trend back to boxed offices. “Some companies like Pixel Park here in Berlin experimented with open plan, but like most firms they are currently shifting back to individual workspaces. It’s just better in terms of sound and concentration.” If ADA 1 is anything to go by, they certainly have the space to do so. The corridors seem empty in comparison to London offices, where we’re all squashed up like sardines. The lobby area is stylish with generous free space and a few Fritz Hansen chairs dotted around (the classic Swan in the lounge and Oxford in the meeting rooms) – all in white and grey of course. Tobias Grau’s Go XT lighting panels fit in with the clean interior, and the meeting room table is custom-made with one large continuous corian surface that cleverly incorporates a structural column, along the lines of “what you can’t hide you highlight”. The most prominent feature is the coffered concrete ceiling, which is cut in the same oval shape as the building’s external eyes. The consistent design motif aside, the ceiling functions as a cooling system, making air-conditioning obsolete. “The building has a double facade consisting of two glass layers,” explains Mayer. “In summer the windows can be left open to cool down the rooms and the heavy concrete mass of the ceiling absorbs the cool air and emits it during the day.” There is also a system similar to heated flooring in reverse, with water pipes in the ceiling that cool the rooms throughout the day.It is no surprise that the property developer has already commissioned Mayer for two further Hamburg projects: another office new build, resembling a waterfall, in the Speicherstadt warehouse district and a charity project for deprived children.These commissions may place the architect, still a national newcomer at the age of 41, firmly on the map, but his practice has been on the nation’s radar ever since winning the Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2003 for the Stadthaus Scharnhauser Park in Ostfildern. Here his team demonstrated their ability to think outside the box by questioning the traditional use of a town hall in a digital age. The result is a mixed use public building with galleries, a library, a gym and music school combined, encouraging citizens to come to the new town hall to revive a feeling of community.“I generally find the multipurpose approach to certain workspaces very interesting – although it can be more difficult to find an investor in mixed-use than in retail or office,” says Mayer. “In the Stadthaus we pushed to break up the convention of mono-functional space and I think re-using a space in its ‘off-time’, turning it into an ‘on-time’ for another facility, makes perfect sense, especially in overcrowded urban areas. At the same time we have experienced territorial thinking, and security can be an issue. But with good planning and space management the overlapping of public and office space usage could hold potential for the future.” After winning the prestigious van der Rohe award, a number of pioneering concept designs followed, including the science park Danfoss Universe in Denmark and the arresting Mensa Karlsruhe for the Karlsruhe University in Germany. Each project has a landmark value and it is Mayer’s ability to surprise that gives each building its particular energy. Germany is glad to finally have a high-ranking name in architecture again, although Mayer wouldn’t brand himself as a German architect: “Nowadays, we all study abroad and gain global influence – it’s impossible to stamp a national mark on a particular design.” Just this month the University of Toronto appointed Mayer as the Frank Gehry International Visiting Chair for 2008, making him the first European-based architect to hold the chair. “I’ll be popping over every two weeks for two days. But I’ve been teaching abroad for almost eight years now, mainly at Colombia. I’ve always felt it’s important to keep an ongoing dialogue with students about what architecture could be. It enables you to research and inquire in a way you simply can’t in the office.”Even though the core of Mayer’s practice is architecture, his studio has always worked in an interdisciplinary fashion across art, installations and especially product design. Just recently Rolf Fehlbaum invited Mayer to participate in the Vitra Edition exhibition (running at London’s Design Museum from 13 Dec to 31 January), listing him among the likes of Frank Gehry, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, the Bouroullecs and more. Mayer’s Lo Glo is a seat made of piled-up disks that glow in the dark, highlighting where you sat. “The concept of active sitting and leaving your mark is particularly topical in our times of increased use of biometrics for security purposes,” he says. “There is no such thing as a naive or innocent surface – everything we touch could become an information carrier. So we played with this idea and used luminous paint for the Vitra stool so that when you get up from the chair it continues to glow until the next person comes to make their mark. It’s personalised, heat and time sensitive design.” Mayer has always been interested in the haptic experiences of materials. He experimented with thermo-sensitive surfaces as early as 2000, when he designed a bench for the Pixel Park office that highlights where you sit and the Heat Seat exhibited at San Franscisco’s MoMA in 2001.So where is Mayer heading next? “I’d be interested in designing a skyscraper simply because there are many interesting aspects that come with height and its relationship to the city and the landscape beyond. I must say I’ve also found speculative office build very intriguing, although your options are always dependent on good, innovative property developers.” Finally Mayer talks me through the printouts of his recent projects on the wall, including competition entries that never made it or plans that were choked by bureaucracy like the Speicherstadt in Potsdam this year. He highlights projects where the design clearly outshone the brief, including a fabulous beach project for a Spanish island. “We will always push the boundaries to create something special – I’m not interested in designing something standard.” Jürgen Mayer H is quickly becoming a name associated with uncompromised and aspirational design. At this stage what sets Mayer’s style apart from the notorious ego-designers is that he isn’t out to shock, but aims to uplift without alienating the context. It’s a fine line, and at present he is still dependent on the mercy of investors to push for this kind of progressive design in Germany. It’s good to see that it was an office build that got the ball rolling. We can only hope that one fine day a wise UK investor will bring Jürgen Mayer H to our shores too.
Two law firms, one development, one architect, one interior architect – two different results.Norton Rose
In 1929, the (frequently impractical) German architect Bruno Taut wrote: “Beauty originates from the direct relationship between building and purpose. If everything is founded on sound efficiency, the efficiency itself, or rather its utility, will form its own aesthetic law.” Sometimes the solution to an architectural problem is so elegant that it becomes a main part of the building’s interest, whether it be the never-ending gallery wall space in New York’s Guggenheim, which created the snail shell form, or the flying buttresses of the larger gothic churches. The towering form of the skyscraper is, apart from anything else, an attempt to fit a lot into a small plot.
International law firm Norton Rose had just such a problem – a lack of direct client access due to an incredible riverfront location in the private Foster + Partners designed development, More London. The building – sleek as a pair of Oakleys, with a fascinating colonnade along the side of the ninth floor – is popular with staff, as well it might be; residents’ balcony-hosted cocktail parties promise to be memorable, with views over the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. And the absence of clutter on the river allows the front of the office spaces to remain spankingly clean and gives the public the freedom to use the slate paving in front of the sleek skinned buildings as an esplanade.
However, for the law firm the prospect of corporate clients arriving at the less-becoming Tooley Street and having to walk around the side was alarming. In the hands of master architect Ken Shuttleworth, the firm’s drawback has been turned into a poem about access; an instant progression right into the luxury heart of the building – a private taxi tunnel, replete with computer-controlled LED light tubes and Norton motorcycles – which curves beneath the building. It’s how Batman would arrive, given the choice.
The arrival is the start of a memorable walk through. After getting out of their car or cab, visitors ascend a tapering staircase that leads them into a cavernous glass atrium, replete with dangling cathedral-like lamps. They will not linger here, but instead board an elevator with one button – straight to the ninth floor – and ascend the crystal cliff face dropping them off in a serene and sublime waiting area with views over an outsize, bonsai-inspired terrace facing two World Heritage Sites. Without the alteration to the space, the arrival procedure would have been elegant but no apotheosis.
Norton Rose was lucky – or wise – to be able to have Foster make changes to the building as it was going up. The two-fingered building has floors 19.5m across – the ideal size for the typical modern law firm configuration of two rows of double-occupancy offices, a row of meeting rooms and administrative support. The wings are slightly splayed to maximise riverfront views and to draw people to the front of the office. The curtain walling in the atrium, which originally dropped to ground floor level, was lifted to allow for the introduction of shops and cafes and to prevent a totally cliff-like feel.
Local firm MCM was behind that touch and the rest of the interior build. Project architect Jon Race says that a key part of his work on any interiors project is to create a seamless join between the exterior and the interior. “While they will always be different, since the base build is the envelope and the fit out is the contents – and we are different architects – we often feel the join is less than successful and we always try and meld the two things together,” he says.
Using this design principle, Race drew upon the curvilinear nature of the exterior to create the curving pods that can be found deep within the building core on the client floor. Holding the areas of the space that don’t require so much light, they are covered with Page Lacquer in an Armani-esque coffee colour and help set the scene for the hotel-like floor. The sporadic fluorescent lights pick up on the verticality of the frame while drawing attention to the shape of the pod over its reflective properties. Around the pod are arranged meeting rooms of various sizes faced in what appears to be a highly exotic wood but is, in fact, just satin walnut with the sap left in – creating, once arranged symmetrically on some surfaces, fascinating patterns.
“Some people who came to an open day thought it was an endangered tropical species,” says Race. In fact, since the whole trunk was used in the creation of the build, more than half the number of trees were needed and the colourful patterns – which also fill the Terrace Room and the private business room – are more rather than less environmentally friendly. The variegation in tone helps add interest and warmth to areas that might otherwise be rather bland. Neutrality can be boring; the flames of walnut ensure that these browns work together with warmth.
Elsewhere, the business areas feature two types of moleanos limestone, rough and machined for the business lounge and smooth and dark for the reception area. The stone was chosen for the large amount of fossils visible.
Further variegated neutral tones are used functionally in the client meeting rooms – a sophisticated tri-coloured banding on corridor-facing walls, from beige opaque at the bottom to semi-transparent brown to clearer glass at the top. The opaque at the bottom allows for the introduction of a credenza next to the door so that catering staff can drop food or drink off without coming all the way into the room, while the shape of the credenza and any wires trailing from it are not seen outside. Light is still able to enter and leave the meeting room. The device – cream to clear in bands – is echoed in the private telephone rooms, this time in sound-proofing suede.
Separate from the meeting rooms are dining areas each with different lights, chairs and tables, and credenzas at the side, although having the same frame, are faced in different woods. “We spent a long time sitting in chairs and in lighting emporia,” says Norton Rose finance director Kevin Mortell, who headed up the relocation task force. Instead of blinds on windows, the firm has installed fritting that waxes and wanes depending on the position of the window relative to the sun. Nothing appears to have been left to chance by Norton Rose or the client.
Appearances are not, on this occasion, deceptive. The planning of the office sounds legal in its precision, with client-architect meetings every Thursday for nearly two years. “We built three fee-earning offices before we decided which way the veneer should go,” says Race. “We tested coat hooks and went through six to eight mock-ups before we chose. The steering group really put in an investment of time.”
He has nothing but admiration for Norton Rose. “Sometimes what you have asked for isn’t what you want. You need to interrogate it a bit further, otherwise someone spills red wine at the opening party and suddenly you discover your carpet is crap.” Instead, the building is a triumph.LG
Meanwhile, Norton Rose’s direct neighbour at More London is fellow law firm LG. The interior architect for its Foster-designed building? MCM. And they beat Norton Rose to the punch, choosing the firm when only Ernst & Young were on the site. LG – a company with several centuries of experience behind it – was seeking a very different look from Norton Rose, according to managing partner Penny Francis, who says straight out: “It was an opportunity to start afresh. It was important to the partnership because it was also moving south of the river and moving away from the historic legal land.”
They chose a fresh site over which they also had a say with Fosters because it offered a chance to “grasp the nettle and inform change”. But what changes? Visitors to the old building – a 1950s “monstrosity” – had to walk up the final flight of steps to the last floor.
Project architect Sally Stead says that the firm wanted sharp lines, colour and an absence of stuffiness and leather. The office most definitely veers away from the hotel-like finishes of next door and meeting rooms are stepped back to allow for views through the river-facing picture windows. A wide staircase poetically connects the two meeting floors and delicately decorates the view of the City and Tower of London upon entering the headquarters. The colour shows itself in bright greens, magentas and reds in the facing of the meeting areas, which read as a connecting internal space from More London’s river side through the skin of the building. It is also in evidence in kitchens, postal areas and, most notably, in the cafe with its jewel-like seam of tiles on the floor cleverly demarcating what could be a rather blank floor space.
Like Norton Rose, LG has also allowed light to flood into areas more traditionally reserved for a dimmer atmosphere, such as the medium-sized auditorium. The firm chose dedicated dining areas as opposed to “eating in meeting rooms”, which Francis says she “can’t stand”. She also can’t stand furniture being out of line, which leads to bolted-down chairs in the auditorium and her straightening all the rest of the furniture during my tour.
A more minimalist environment, LG is notably less luxuriant than Norton Rose. A major change is that Francis chose the art all at once for LG (“no committees”) while Norton Rose is taking its time. That shows in the quality and variety of what Norton Rose has on show so far – and its training facility is the most dedicated I have yet seen in a corporate environment.
But I have no doubt, having looked into Francis’ intense blue eyes, that this is what she had planned for LG. Neither budgetary constraint nor anything else would have got in the way of her creating a workplace exactly how she wanted it to be. While the Norton Raose move was led by an empowered, five-person steering committee, I gather that – following the requisite staff surveys – Francis led this project strongly and successfully on her own.
She wouldn’t change a thing, she tells me. And neither would Norton Rose.
Helen Parton is flabbergasted at the European ability to turn potential real estate caterpillars into butterflies.
Damn those Europeans on the Continent! I don’t know what it is, but they can make what seems the most undesirable location into somewhere quite aspirational, from the seediest pavement cafe in Paris to the draughtiest warehouse in Berlin. And it’s the same with Modular’s new building, designed by architects Coussée & Goris, which is slap bang next to a motorway – the E403 Brugge to Kortijk to be exact. Think cool Mitteleuropean road trips soundtracked by Kraftwerk rather than grim Little Chefs and traffic jams, though my host for the day from Modular, Tom Samyn, assures me that they do have plenty of the latter too.
The brief the architects responded to was “speed and dynamism”, explains Ralf Coussée. “The question was how to connect with people driving past at 120km per hour, so we decided to make one very long building. We really wanted to make a big gesture, and with a continuous window we keep the attention along the entire length of the building.”
Modular’s new HQ is divided into three zones: one for storage, one for production and processing, and one for the public area, administration and reception, with logistics residing at the back of the building. Before the move, employees were divided into three separate buildings, so there is an attempt to now provide a shared visual connection. Coussée adds: “There are clusters of people working together – sales, finance, marketing, and they never see each other. We had the idea of creating lateral facades, terraces and a long corridor with vertical columns so that people can see one another, creating a society.”
Modular being something of a pioneer in energy efficient products, it was only fitting that the lighting achieves a seamless lux level through strategic natural daylight combined with a system that measures it and delivers additional artificial light when necessary.
The materials used on the exterior are somewhat spartan: concrete with wooden beams plus either glazed facades or black steel plating, and this is continued in the reception area with the addition of some custom-built furniture and backlighting behind the reception desk. From there, I was immediately ushered into the Light Club lounge: a great big Quality Street box of a space compared to the strict dietary regime of the outside, with organically moulded walls, moody lighting, surround sound and a predominantly pink and red colour scheme, designed by architect Marnix Verstraeten. Along with the adjoining showroom, which is more sci-fi than hard sell in terms of appearance, the lounge is designed with entertaining architects, technicians and other visitors in mind. The Light Education centre, meanwhile, gets down to the nitty gritty science bit of installation, light control, use of colour and other wizardry.
One of the most striking elements of the building is the 40sq m video wall, consisting of 60 television screens. “Here we wanted to express something about the company,” says Coussée, “but we didn’t want it to be lost in a metaphor, nor include too much detail, so in the end we chose something quite simple.” There were a number of restrictions on what could be displayed here – certainly nothing that was too distracting for motorists. The space, also conceived as marking the entrance to Modular’s hometown of Roeselare, will now be given over to the work of emerging video artists over the next three years. The video wall is part of the light tower, at the top of the building: a concrete framework with a skin of polycarbonate plates, between which some 4,000 LEDs have been attached to form a constantly colour-changing surface. You certainly wouldn’t find anything similar next to the M6 or M25 and more’s the pity.
Words by Michael Willoughby Michael Willoughby met Despina Katsikakis of DEGW to discuss her policies on new builds and the future of architectureWhen I read that Despina Katsikakis, chairperson of leading corporate architecture firm DEGW, had announced to a shocked MIPIM that she thought architects should only build new office space as a last resort, I knew I was going to have to ask her about it. Even Steven Harding, the diplomatic head of public affairs at the RIBA, said it was “naive to expect a ban on new buildings”. So how was I expecting the conversation to go? Had Greek-born, Chicago raised and trained Katsikakis woken up one day, looked at the destruction all around and donned the sackcloth and ashes? I certainly wasn’t expecting to be thrust into the middle of an MBA seminar with post-graduate architectural leanings. Her speech veered between the threadbare marketing – “knowledge transfer”, “benchmark”, “business critical” – and the wordy academic, producing phrases such as “husbandry”, “engagement arena”, and “concentrative”. So unready was I for this flow that at one point during a run of the latter I found myself asking Katsikakis, “Death of architecture?!” as though I was suddenly expostulating an urgent question on a late night arts show of the 1980s. “No,” she replied; au contraire, basically. Critics of Katsikakis might offer the rejoinder that she doesn’t build anything anyway. She hasn’t sat in front of a drawing board or a CAD programme for many years. Instead, she, along with senior DEGW colleague Frank Duffy, is a pioneering researcher. For instance, her team won the contract to redesign Boots’ HQ in Nottingham (which included a purpose-built Grade II listed SOM-designed block) with a blob and some arrows. On the other hand, Katsikakis found her first experiences of actual building – large office fit outs in Chicago – “less satisfying”.“I discovered that you use standard floor plates and detailing and you redesign the skin and top and that’s it,” she says. “So building was really just a shell with no real integration of what it was about.” It’s a recurrent theme: the fact that, contrary to what many designers and architects feel, design for design’s sake and building for building’s sake just won’t do. It’s not enough for Katsikakis. Instead, she found job satisfaction in London in the early 1980s, when working with Duffy as he investigated the changes in the City, which would lead to the development of Rosehaugh Stanhope’s controversial Broadgate Complex (now owned by British Land). This office development, replete with Rockefeller-style skating rink, was the largest in London until the advent of Canary Wharf, and it was Katsikakis’ first important “build”, she tells me. “I started working here on what I thought was going to be a summer looking at the impact the change in organisational demands and technology [following deregulation] would bring to the City of London,” says Katsikakis. “It was a completely eye-opening experience looking at architecture from the inside out in a different way from what anyone in the States was doing at the time. It has been a very long summer job!” Katsikakis assures me that what she and Duffy were doing in the 80s was absolutely pioneering – things like working out a building as specific layers of time – 60 to 80 years for the fabric, 20 years for the services, etc. Instead of examining a building as a static object, they looked at it as an evolving one. “It’s interesting, now we think of sustainability from a specification standpoint,” she says. “But all that thinking was about how you drive buildings harder; how you make the building shell adapt to multiple uses, over time. It’s about sustainability, because you don’t have to rebuild.” But, to return to “the death of architecture”, what can Katsikakis mean by all this, exactly, if not the death of the project, the end of history the abandonment of the dream of universal progress expressed through construction? First up, there can be no doubt that she thinks there is a moral imperative to reduce resources, recycle and refurbish. She talks about the importance of not “using up more of the planet” than is necessary. She lives by that example. DEGW is situated in a converted 19th-century warehouse, Porters Yard, in soon-to-be-trendy Kings Cross.However, I believe Katsikakis’ injunction comes directly from her and DEGW’s aforementioned and unique approach as a research-based organisation. It is the figures combined with the fear of what might be if things carry on the way they have been that prompted her to speak out. “We have never looked at a company that used its office space more than 40 to 45 per cent. Never,” she says, with quiet conviction. “That’s already half of the work day, the environment isn’t used. But if you extrapolate that across the year that means we are using office buildings for 10 per cent of the total time and 90 per cent all the power is on standby. And we are talking about sustainability! It’s a very scary piece of data if you really begin to think about it. If you take educational buildings, it’s even less.”What seems to scare Katsikakis, then, is as much the damnable inefficiency of it all as much as ensuing natural disaster. Like many sustainability wonks, she can sense an opportunity to tidy things up a bit; to do a bit of rational spring-cleaning. The type of planning she’s talking about – building recycling, I guess you could call it – has been successfully carried out. She points to Waterloo’s Oxo Tower as an example of a standout development in her terms. “It maintains part of the existing envelope,” says Katsikakis. “It rethinks the functions. It engages the community. It creates some spaces for living, some for working and some for entertaining, and it’s a landmark building. That’s a much more sustainable answer than producing a brand new building just for the sake of it. I’m not saying that there’s no valid room for new buildings, but it should be the last option having explored what we do with the space we have.”Beneath the radical embargo on new building, this is a pretty workaday argument. But for Katsikakis, it goes deeper: “If you look at the world today with more and more mobility, more and more interaction, I think the challenges for design are bigger than they have ever been before, because if you can choose to go anywhere or stay at home, you would only choose to go places that provide very special experiences.” In other words, we continue to build humdrum office space at our peril, or in denial, because the drivers for home working – carbon footprint control, rising oil prices, growing corporate responsibility awareness – are growing stronger. And space sharing is gaining credibility in some arenas. Work she did to help Shell build a training centre resulted in the idea that all the signage should change at the weekend and Holiday Inn would install a golf hotel. Apparently, this ended up with the foundation of a wildly successful cabaret – and some puzzled looks on the faces of bored Shell executives finding pink feathers and glitter on the floor, one presumes. Katsikakis says she doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t work from home at least some of the time (unwittingly saying something about her circle of friends – no wage slaves, there) and I tell her that I often end up writing on the sofa. She laughs, and says, “We design homes as we did 100 years ago. But at your office you have an incredibly over-designed ergonomic chair that is assuming you are working on it nine to five. It’s a complete contradiction.”Katsikakis says that she thinks design will become more - not less - important as more people work from home and office space becomes less prevalent. “It’s almost the more virtual we become the greater the importance of the physical space in order to be able to create special, memorable experiences.”Which is all very well for the DEGWs of the world, but rather alarming news for the commoditised end of the market – the fit-out firms, the furniture makers, the jobbing architects and builders: but her prediction does not contradict any trends. What else can she say about what’s to come? “There are three things [that we know] about the future: that there will be more mobility, that buildings need to become simpler, so they can accommodate a variety of functions over time and therefore be more sustainable and usable. And at the city scale, they need to become more complex. Mobility, simplicity and complexity are the three things. The role of design is at a fantastic place. Design is the enabler for the future.”I ask her whether the architects at DEGW ever struggle with the very corporate way the firm does things, or whether they know what they are letting themselves in for.“Architects here feel more empowered than in a conventional firm, because as I said before, the data, the research background thinking allows them to validate their design decisions. It’s very empowering for designers to get up and not only have a concept that comes from very strong design sensibility, but also a concept that is defensible on so many different levels. I see it as much more of a liberating thing.” And as we carry on into a world where, perhaps, it will become increasingly hard to build as freely as in the past, that kind of defensibility will, one imagines, become increasingly comforting. Katsikakis says that a branding firm once did an audit of DEGW. “They said that the one thing that distinguished DEGW in the whole design landscape is that it has consistently predicted and delivered the future.” With her charts and surveys, her friends in high places and her obvious intelligence and charm, I don’t suppose that Katsikakis will be wrong on this front either.
Words by Monique Nelson eOffice in Birmingham is the latest in a series of serviced workspaces for hire, fitted out by London-based design practice Assemblyroom. Monique Nelson reportsImagine you have recently started your own business and, in need of a city centre address, you seek out some office space. Or perhaps your company requires a number of satellite offices in various major cities. Imagine you want a serviced office, with conference and meeting facilities and out-of-hours access. Would you rather work in a closed environment where you don’t know your neighbour or an open atmosphere with designer furniture and a mix of businesses to interact with?
The first eOffice opened about five years ago in Soho, central London, and success has brought the concept to Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. I met with eOffice CEO Pier Paolo Mucelli and his architect Peter Wall of Assemblyroom to discuss eOffice Birmingham.
“eOffice is a provider of readymade offices and meeting and conference facilities, combining a very contemporary environment with the latest technology; and providing flexible office solutions primarily to the SME market,” explains Mucelli, soon after we’ve taken our seats in one of the interview rooms. Clients are able to rent desk space whether as individuals or small businesses and come and go as they please from 8am to 6.30pm, Monday to Friday. Full time members have key cards for access outside of office hours.
Assemblyroom’s concept has developed as each office is approached, says Wall: “Although the office is quite bright and visual, we’ve kept the palette minimal. We probably use three to four finishes and try to stick to that where possible. It creates control within the space, it doesn’t make it cluttered, and it’s quite calm.” In terms of office layout, services were added as the team learnt lessons about the market: “Soho was the original one (designed by Squaredot), so it was the first attempt at seeing how it would work. It’s very successful,” says Wall. “From that we went to Manchester. Because outside London it’s a slightly different market we were unaware of how it was going to work; the cellular element came in to link the space. So we introduced a third as open plan, a third as cellular, a third as offices and also the conference facility. I think Pier had done his market research, looked around and realised there was an opportunity there as well.” The market for cellular offices extended from Manchester to Birmingham, where they border the workspace.
“Location is quite key to the eOffice philosophy,” adds Wall. “It’s city centre, close to infrastructure – a train station, shops, bars, restaurants – and it’s normally ground or first floor so it has some kind of presence value, a connection with the street.”
eOffice Birmingham is situated near New Street station and the Bullring on the ground floor of a renovated Grade A building. Structural work was carried out by Workspace Design and Build (whose Midlands base is in the same building), working around the restrictions of the space, adding flooring and lighting to suit the rooms.
The spacious reception lounge is filled with light, as a large wall of windows stands adjacent to the main desk and lounge seating. Assemblyroom endeavours to keep a relationship with the immediate neighbourhood in each eOffice, to which end the firm employed graphic designer Ed Ashley-Carter to capture key features of the locale and distort the images to apply to interior walls; thus the shopping centre bull stares at you in the reception lounge and also in the boardroom. The coloured-square company branding is also highly visible, though not in an ostentatious way – across the wall behind the reception, in the artwork and Nava wall clocks, and on the frosted meeting room doors numbered “e.1”, “e.2” and so on.
“I think the attention to detail is quite unique,” Wall says. “We like to think it is kind of like a hotel – somebody leaves a chocolate on your pillow, folds your towel.” For example, meeting rooms are equipped with phone and audio conferencing materials, flipchart and pens, TV screen, WiFi and drinks – “good coffee, good tea, great water,” says Wall. “Illy coffee,” Mucelli hastens to add.
“You feel like you’re being looked after. I don’t think any other service office offers that,” says Mucelli. You are also well looked after as a virtual office client. The set up is such that as well as having a central business address, dedicated phone number, answering service and mail forwarding, virtual office clients are able to pay as they go for further services, such as a hotdesk. A team of four customer care managers all work from the large reception desk, meeting and greeting and managing conference and meeting facilities.
Wall knows Mucelli from his time as a contractor for Squaredot and says the Italian entrepreneur is “very passionate about design and understands the importance of it within an office.” Design is all over this office: Mucelli handed me the most recent edition of onoffice as I arrived, I’m sitting in front of piles of international design magazines and as we three stroll around the space he tells me about the custom-made aquariums, the pair of mannequins decorated by a make-up artist and the limited-edition silhouette mirrors by Afroditi Krassa. I had thought it might be difficult to concentrate in such a visually stimulating environment, surrounded by various types of business and with a flow of new people to meet perhaps weekly, but as I’m led through the carpeted workspaces, people barely move except to see us standing behind them chatting. I can’t say all the desks were occupied, but that is the flexibility of the office – clients come in when they need to use the facilities, whether it is desks, video conferencing, meeting rooms or just the broadband connection. Flexibility was also an important factor in furniture choice. Those clients who choose to rent in the open-plan office sit in the centre at Herman Miller Resolve workstations, which include screens that can be lowered for communication or raised for privacy. In the meeting and boardrooms, furniture was specified from Kristalia – stackable chairs and tables on castors. The 100-seat conference room has similar benefits, with an adjoining “ante-room” for uses such as catering for a large conference.
Encouraging networking was part of the plan, Wall explains. “The office breaks down into cellular, open plan, meeting space and conference space. What brings them together is the shared facilities – a reception lounge, tea point and touchdown area, for quick use of equipment like printers – and these are all vehicles for people to mix and network in.” The desks are numbered and mixed, bringing full-time members and transient hotdeskers together, but clients can also network in areas such as the bright yellow shared kitchen located centrally to the office. You don’t know who you’ll end up talking to and perhaps doing business with.
Both Wall and Mucelli acknowledge that trust is an implied factor in renting a space in a serviced office, but Assemblyroom has catered for security, supplying lockers in the lobby and ensuring cell rooms are lockable. However, Mucelli adds, today’s office is essentially mobile: “All the most important things are now portable – your iPod, digital camera, mobile phone and laptop. That’s what you really have to be worried about.” So security is largely up to the client? “Yes: I mean they bring their own computers and their own printers in some cases, quite often actually, and all their documents, but anything to do with furniture is ours and we maintain it.” In five years of operation, Mucelli says, there have been no incidents of property theft, even with the key card scheme, so there is no need for additional security on site.
The success of eOffice is shown in the figures, clients and expansion. Large blue-chip companies are hiring the conference facilities – Marks & Spencer, Puma and Ticketmaster have all been in – the facilities are booked for some time to come and further opportunities for growth are sought after. Mucelli feels confident that if more eOffices were opened, the people would come.
Words by Helen Parton BDGworkfutures’ fit out for the new Grey Advertising HQ in Clerkenwell is a subtle, wood- and glass-filled space with theatrical touches. Helen Parton went to take a lookEver wanted to punch Kate Thornton? Beat up Anna Friel? Thought Fay Ripley had it coming? The (fictional) results of these and other celebrities taking a good beating, blown up to near billboard size is the first thing that hits you when entering the interiors of Grey Advertising’s new Clerkenwell HQ, designed by BDG Workfutures and located within the Johnson Building.
They’re part of a campaign by Grey on behalf of charity Women’s Aid to raise awareness of domestic violence. Their impact is not diminished one iota by the brand spanking new interior, which is just how the client wanted it, explains BDG Workfutures senior designer Scott Compton. “One of the things we were asked was not to make it anything that overwhelming, as it was more to do with making a gallery space,” he says. Some of the materials on the ground floor are of a distinctly industrial bent – the pillars for instance have been stripped back to their original building render so they resemble concrete and the flooring is a simple European oak. “We went through a process of considering concrete and stone for the floor,” Compton says, “but in the end we went for wood as the underfloor air-conditioning required a material that we could easily access.” Otherwise, the other main material in this part of the project is glass, which provides that shop window effect on the front of the building so beloved of the advertising industry, and indeed how Grey’s previous home of 30 years on Great Portland Street looked. “What we did was keep the floorplate of Great Portland Street, but continue it on a bigger scale with the double height space so what you’ve got is just one step up,” explains Compton.
Glass is also used on the balustrading at the entrance and on the new staircase to the mezzanine level – great thick slabs of it, the foie gras of the glazing world. Understandably, this glass was one of the last elements to be added to the scheme, which was on site for a total of four months. Combined with the brushed stainless steel of the handrails and the oak underfoot, it feels understated yet with a quality of finish. “Often when you bring clients though to the lift areas, it almost feels like you’re taking them round the back, so with the staircase we wanted to make the experience a bit more theatrical,” Compton adds. This set up replaces the staircase that was previously located on the other side of the floor, and during the project BDG also stripped back the balustrading on the mezzanine level.We are joined at our chunky wooden table by facilities manager Lorraine Waller in the meeting area on the ground floor. Compton continues, “The main brief was how the staff use the canteen and the reception.” The constant flow of advertising types meeting and greeting clients, or maybe just lured by the breakfast pastries that are on display in the kitchen area, demonstrates the significance of this part of the project. While the Wagamama-style seating lends itself to several informal gatherings at one time, it also performs another important function. “There isn’t anywhere that can hold 60 to 80 people and they really wanted a space that can hold that many for a talk or presentation,” explains Compton, to which Waller interjects, “The space is really uplifting, really bright and clean, and for a big presentation we simply move the tables and the benches neatly fit away underneath them.” A large black curtain can be drawn across to close the space off and Waller explains that this can happen as often as a couple of times a week. If need be, the whole floor can be locked to external visitors, who can use the Johnson Building’s main reception instead. The plasma screens, which as we speak beam out satellite TV, along with the serious-looking sound equipment station means they have the audio-visual expertise to underpin the space’s formal meeting capability.
We walk across the ground floor, past the subtle orange lettering on the outside of the building, which unless you were looking out for it you might miss when strolling past. “They didn’t want to have a lot of graphics in the window,” explains Compton. The orange accent colour is continued in the oversize planter near to the cluster of designer chairs in the small waiting area. It is also visible in a strip of perspex along the length of the bar counter, which is made from Durat so you can’t see any of the joins as well as being one of the most sustainable materials around. There’s an identical orange strip along the reception desk. “We found this supplier who constructs boats out of fibreglass and he made us this desk that has completely moulded curves,” enthuses Compton. “The lights underneath the desk are made of special LEDs. They’re in one long strip, kind of like fairy lights, but more modern to give a more consistent look.”
Ascending that custom-built staircase to the mezzanine, there is a curved wall where more of Grey’s work will eventually be displayed on a large scale. Moving along the corridor, there’s a series of black-and-white photographs from other campaigns, and here some of the lighting is recessed under the half-a-metre-thick wall instead of the ceiling, which again emphasises that sense of theatre. Leading off the corridor is a series of colour-themed meeting rooms, which look out over the reception area. These range from formal meeting space through to totally relaxing lounge areas and all the shades in between. There is the white room with its Paul Smith striped task chairs, which splits into two, the blue room with high tables and bar-stool style seating for short impromptu catch ups, and the green room – the most used according to Waller – which has moodily lit low seating.
In common with many areas of the building, Compton is keen to emphasise what has been tackled here in terms of the air-conditioning. “The Johnson Building’s main air-conditioning system is tailored for an open-plan environment. Therefore building enclosed rooms presented a challenge to the design scheme. We overcame this by introducing bespoke air grills to the doors and ceilings.”
Grey occupies half of the ground, first and fourth floors, plus the whole of the fifth and the sixth, the latter of which consists of larger meeting rooms. The finance team takes up half of the lower ground floor. The building’s construction – a 1930s building that has been reconstructed and extended by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, with a glazed, full-height atrium – means that you can easily see other firms working there and it can’t have been easy to stamp a sense of continuing and dramatic statement into the scheme. Instead BDG has introduced subtle features such as the coloured sphere manifestations on the 14 offices of the creative team on the fifth floor, which are meant to resemble a ball bouncing along the floor. They are in keeping with the spherical grids found elsewhere in the building, and as Waller quite rightly points out, “work especially well given that everywhere else is so neutral in colour.”
For this area, explains Compton, “The creatives are two to a room and they wanted a place where they can say the most ridiculous things to each other and not be embarrassed, somewhere to concentrate and where they can still see out.” This is, after all, a client who lives by the maxim “Ideas are everything. Didactism doesn’t work.
Conversations do” and is responsible for such quirky gems as the Lenor advert where the girl deliberately stashes some stray knickers in her boyfriend’s car to get the duvet to herself. Waller also explains how eventually the space outside the individual offices on this floor will be used for breaking out and brainstorming. “This kind of space is not about hierarchy, as you can see with the manager’s offices, which although bigger than the creatives’ double up as six person meeting rooms.”
Below, on the fourth floor, is home to the firm’s knowledge library and also a series of perspex working spaces by Beyon, custom designed by BDG. This is where the account teams sits and houses a mixture of workstation space with plenty of room for inspirational objets trouvés and reference material. The moveable office system is designed to balance both teamworking and the need for privacy. Elsewhere the workstations’ generously proportioned pedestals and provision of locker space mean some serious thought has also been given to storage. Adding some more colour to proceedings, the partitions between the desks are either black, silver or orange depending on department.
There’s a refreshing lack of pretension in this scheme given that the client is an advertising agency – there are no superfluous gimmicks or over-the-top statement pieces. It almost seems – whisper it – like a normal office full of normal working people. Albeit one with some very scary-looking ladies in the window.
German interior designer Yasmine Mahmoudieh is a visionary who goes beyond vision. She experiments with colour, scent and touch, merging psychology with design. Kerstin Zumstein went to meet her in her colourful work/live space in LondonYasmine Mahmoudieh is developing a scent machine. Being the strongest carrier of memory, a sense of smell is crucial to the perception of a space. The machine will enable a controlled and subtle emission of certain fragrances aimed at wellbeing. For Mahmoudieh, achieving wellbeing is what interior guests than workers and addressing scent in the office as a part of workplace design.Mahmoudieh’s main office is based in Berlin, but she regularly does business in London and bought an apartment near Old Street in 1999 that functions as her work-cum-living space whenever she is in town. We go to meet her on the only sunny day of this grim English summer and find a space converted into a glass loft that heats up like a green house. She ripped the entire flat out and re-did the place in a minimalist fashion: orange walls, wooden stairs, no cupboards nor handles, nothing but clean surfaces. Well, nothing apart from the toys and balls and chalkboards her two children have scattered around the place. Mahmoudieh’s five-year-old daughter Fariba opens the door to me. Upstairs the grandmother is getting the designer’s 13-month-old son ready to take for a walk for the duration of the interview. It all feels perfectly natural, like everything Mahmoudieh does. With her kids running around and the heat of the sun warming the space, we touch on the Five+ Sensotel strategy again and this time it feels a little more real. The idea was to create a traditional and familiar feeling in hotels despite the modern design. Mahmoudieh explains: “For humans all five senses form part of how we perceive a room. Design, however, focuses exclusively on the visual.” Mahmoudieh’s concepts take the buzzword “holistic” to a whole new level.Every material she chose for the project was aimed at familiarising your sense of touch. I remember the cutaneous sensation of the wallpaper, taking off my shoes and feeling the warm soft carpet under my feet that let off a subtle scent when I walked across the room. The touch panels in this original concept room were intuitive to use, with clear icons allowing you to select different light modes for your particular mood. The auditory experience was channelled through music options in the control panels, creating a desired atmosphere and linked to the mood setting for the lighting. The only sense I felt let down by was taste. Mahmoudieh had provided tablets, each representing a meal such as spicy chicken or muesli salad, but I couldn’t quite see how the taste of Cajun spices in my mouth would enhance my hotel stay.“The idea was to push the boundaries of what is provided in hotel minibars. It’s always the same – nuts and chocolate. Most people nowadays want something fresh, something healthy, especially when travelling. The same counts for what you offer in a business meeting at the office. We go for fresh fruits rather than dusty biscuits.” Mahmoudieh simply doesn’t see the point in working on things that end up being the same as that which already exists. Not that she wants to be different for the sake of it, but only experimentation will move things forward. “Design influences people’s lives and in a way interior designers function like psychiatrists, aiming to make people feel good in their surroundings.” But how does a sensory influence deal with subjectivity? Will all people find the same scent soothing? “We only use very subtle fragrances and I’m working closely with IFF [International Flavor and Fragrance Inc] in New York, who are the market leaders with decades of experience in creating consumer-centred scents and tastes,” says Mahmoudieh. “On testing certain scents deemed pleasant, not one test person disliked the odour. It’s like the smell of coffee, everyone likes that. Together with IFF I am currently working on a scent for the office.”Mahmoudieh confirms that furniture manufacturer Beyon has already expressed an interest. The fragrance is meant to enhance efficiency and concentration by making people feel fresh and awake. “I think quality of air and lighting are the most important elements in an office to ensure efficiency. We plan to infuse aromatic fragrances through the scent machine we’re currently developing. The fragrances are anti-allergic – and I’m the best test person as I suffer from many allergies.” Beside the effect on productivity, Mahmoudieh envisages this to be the dawning of a new level of corporate identity.“Corporate identity is already vital in our current brand society and will become even more so in the future, even for smaller companies. At present, it seldom goes beyond a company logo. A recognisable smell, possibly only noted subconsciously, is far more powerful.” For a moment I wonder if that isn’t a bit too scary. The idea of controlling senses bears a little too much resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But then again no one would accuse you of manipulating the subconscious when designing a space that triggers emotions. This multi-sensory approach may just be a perfectly natural extension of human-centred design, a logical move forward from the visual overkill we have become so used to. Colour is the most prevalent attribute to Mahmoudieh’s designs because it is the easiest way to achieve a sense of wellbeing. The concentration on further senses, however, is what makes her designs so unique.
The integration of psychology into Mahmoudieh’s design concepts is something she picked up at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied architecture and design. The Hamburg-born designer previously attended an art history course in Florence, then studied architecture in Geneva, design in San Francisco and finished her degree in LA, opening her own office there fresh from university in 1986. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of confidence, something without which Mahmoudieh would not be where she is now. Her healthy assurance seems to eradicate self-doubt. “That definitely stems from studying in California. It’s no coincidence that most young entrepreneurial enterprises like Apple, Google etc come from that state. It’s because you are given this belief in yourself that anything is possible if you work at it, and that has stuck with me ever since. I never thought I could fail.” Among Mahmoudieh’s teachers were the likes of Frank Gehry and Charles Moore, which I’m sure contributed to her faith in success.When Mahmoudieh returned to Germany in 1993 it wasn’t easy to get the same respect as in the States. “Europe is caught up in hierarchies and traditions, and some people thought I was too young to be doing such high-profile projects.” But Mahmoudieh is not the type of person to be put off by suspicions. In a way, she seems to need that challenge. “I’m not interested in building another building, I’m only interested in developing a new way of building,” she tells me. Her recent concept for the Flyotel in Dubai, a collaboration with Kas Oosterhuis from Rotterdam-based practice ONL, is a prime example. The design is based on parametric and mathematical formulae, and I must admit she lost me somewhere in a web of technicalities, but the project is being pushed by investors not least because if this building method had been used to build the Burj Al Arab, it would have cost a third less than it did. Arup is involved in developing a distinctive engineering tool – a parametric tool to enable a geometrically complex building to be modelled, loaded, analysed and optimised all in one. The diagrid primary structure of the building (similar to that of the Swiss Re tower) acts as vertical trusses. The architectural scripts are digitally designed and sent directly to the steel manufacturer, leaving out a number of costly steps. ONL’s WEB of North Holland is the first example of how the method can work, albeit a horizontal model of what the vertical will be like. “In general, European developers are more conservative – that is probably one of the reasons why we do more work in Russia and Turkey and the Eastern countries. These emerging economies have this undying love for speed. They feel they need to catch up and charge forward while Old Europe still looks back. The East Block has less preconceived ideas so it’s easier to lead and initiate forward-thinking projects. In a way you are educating them about possibilities and they are eager to learn,” says Mahmoudieh.She talks me through her masterplan for Bodrum in Turkey. The enterprise goes beyond a design solution for a Turkish town – she has been brought on board to turn the town into a tourism magnet, putting it on the map by providing architecture that in itself will become a destination. Out-of-season buildings will become artists’ workspaces and the design language will incorporate ornaments from the Ottoman reign to reflect cultural identity. That the project is green and in sync with it ecological environment goes without saying. Mahmoudieh’s ideas are tremendously progressive and she takes an ambitious approach, but one can’t help be stunned by her comparison to “what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao”. She is not shy about speaking of revolutionary effects of her concepts. But there is something refreshing in her convinced demeanour. It’s neither show nor image nor arrogance, just an intriguing designer who believes in making a difference. Her projects vary from small-scale (a boutique hotel in Verbier, Switzerland) to a multi-million dollar project in Moscow, Russia’s biggest public construction.Mahmoudieh has fitted out many offices such as Garbe and Listmann’s workplace and is getting more and more into architecture, but ultimately her innovation is led by necessity. Whenever she comes to a point in a project where something is missing she looks into how to solve it. Her research with the famous Fraunhofer Institute for instance makes her knowledge particularly attractive to clients seeking something out of the ordinary. For the Airbus A380, Mahmoudieh was brought on board to develop a new concept for the use of materials. She is now thinking of using an acoustic membrane material for screens in offices. Her interdisciplinary way of thinking has led her to import her knowledge from the hospitality sector into the office.Mahmoudieh is also interested in chemistry. “Acrylics have a lot of potential. And then there are materials like 100 per cent decomposable potato starch, which is already being used in Japan.” The material is still expensive but at a time when everyone claims to aim at environmentally friendly practice, these materials should be pioneered. “The problem is to find a company that is willing to be the first to use it. It’s a risk not many are prepared to take. But if we don’t trial material how can we improve?” Her current favourite is the basketball material that is more durable and stronger than leather. “At Milan and Cologne 90 per cent of the exhibited products are crap. Pure repetitions. It’s the pressure from the industry to come up with something more to sell.” At last years Orgatec, Mahmoudieh wanted to encourage imagination and collaborated with other experts, including Thomas Willemeit of architecture practice Graft (onoffice 03) on a project called the “ultima office 2030”, the office of the future, sponsored by Bene.The key results were that the office of the future will be a flexible space. Booking systems will be introduced to use space more efficiently. “Offices won’t mainly be in mayor cites anymore but can be anywhere, with city office space rented or booked like a hotel room,” says Mahmoudieh. “Thinking rooms will increase, which will need a good coffee machine more than a workstation. The home and office will melt together just like our work-live rhythm is already merging.” Video conferencing will be done via mobile phone. “I personally see two things coming up. Firstly, the spa will become an integral element of an office, with massage and relaxation rooms. Stress is increasing so a counterbalance is vital. The rise of wellness and spa treatments generally is an indication for this trend and companies will pick up on this. I truly believe offices and spas will melt together. Secondly, workspaces will become networking space, with synergies of profession being exploited efficiently. Lobbies will become important networking areas, reinforcing some humility rather than the current model of the reception as a transitional space. Office design will increasingly fight anonymity and formality.”So what is workplace design currently missing? “Human resources still aren’t being considered enough – our human needs aren’t being incorporated the way they could. Also in terms of corporate identity there is still a way to go. Hierarchies need to come down, people need to work more as a team than in hierarchical groups. In America there is this saying – ‘There is no one you can’t learn something from, even a dumb person!’ Sharing knowledge is key to the future of work. Regarding demographics it’s essential that we become more family friendly. Without creches and other family-friendly solutions and tax advantages, Europe’s declining birth rate can’t recover.”Another movement Mahmoudieh foresees is the rise in mixed-use projects. “Interconnecting buildings like hotels and offices would allow workplaces to facilitate the hotel’s catering service for instance, as hotels never make enough money with their restaurants anyway. But the important thing is that it’s done tastefully, not like those depressing malls.”Mahmoudieh has collaborations with Vitra lined up, so it sounds like there are some office products on the way. It’s not often I end up thinking, ‘I wonder what they will smell like?’