Our view of disability has changed immeasurably over the centuries. In medieval times, it was regarded as divine retribution for some heinous transgression. Later, the Victorians deemed the afflicted dangerous, the safest course of action being to lock people in asylums. (There were a few enlightened exceptions – at the Normansfield Hospital, Victorian founder Dr John Langdon proposed education and activity as treatment rather than restraint and castigation, even building a theatre for his patients.) It was not until after the second world war, when wounded or traumatised soldiers demanded better pensions, that society at large began to try to understand and accommodate disability, rather than hiding it away. Today, fringe groups or minorities are far more likely to be absorbed into mainstream society.
And so to VMX Architects’ new headquarters for Combiwerk, a private training company where the physically and mentally impaired work – in packing, or assembly, for example – and are coached for entering the job market. The building, a shiny steel skate-ramp on the outskirts of Delft, is quietly sculptural, featuring a scalloped roof curving gently to meet precise rectangular facades. “It was our intention to show a glamorous building,” says says VMX’s Leon Teunissen, the project architect. He adds that Combiwerk’s trainees “can have an inferiority complex, so it was important to have somewhere they could be proud of.”
To describe it as glamorous might be stretching it a little, but the steel framed and clad building is certainly well-thought-out – housing a contrasting blend of factory, offices, training and job centre. It is generous, too, with an abundance of natural light thanks to a pair of skylights. At the building’s heart are two indoor gardens that allow the occupants to take a break from daily tasks and relax in privacy.
Three floors of offices populate the building’s northern elevation while storage and deliveries are contained at the opposing end, judiciously dividing people and trucks. The result is an expansive open-plan floor for the workers. Showing commendable forethought, VMX drafted in interior designers i29 at the project’s construction stage to ensure that the building was workable from the inside out. The collaboration proved successful, with i29’s designers immediately grasping the need for an inspirational but serious workplace that avoided speaking down to its prospective occupants. “We wanted to put together something of quality and maybe even to be able to empower maybe, to add some brilliance to it,” explains Jasper Jansen, one of i29’s two directors. In contrast to its previous work, the monochrome Office 03 (onoffice 58), the studio created rhomboid, coloured zones dotted across the ground floor space demarcating the various activities that take place within. The different areas appear as colourful islands in a grey ocean of floor, ceilings and walls. It not only gives the space clear navigation, but (just) prevents it from sailing into the realms of playgroup.
The zones feature different hues within the same palette, adding a certain nuance to the look and feel of the place. “It is a reference to people being pigeonholed or boxed-in, in an abstract way,” says Jansen. The office begins with exclamatory deep-red splashes in each of the two reception areas. Some workers get around on mobility scooters, so the architects constructed a miniature car park, made from rectangular blocks of high-pressure laminate (HPL). The building’s soul is the central atrium where the restaurant (the green zone), the career square (the blue zone) and the reception are located with more formal offices (the orange zone) on the first floor.
Dividing and defining the space is custom-made furniture (storage, walls and desks) designed by i29. The grid-like structures separate the zones in a more physical sense and dissolve the scale of the 4,000sq m floorplate. A key element of Combiwerk’s remit is to unlock the world of work for their clients, and so, by way of encouragement, those that “make it” are displayed on a grid in the job forum zone.
Jansen reckons that going down the bespoke route shaved a few digits from the bill: “When you buy furniture for a property you have all the layers in between. Sometimes with larger projects it can be financially better get things custom-made because you go straight to the factory.” Although the designs were unique, the raw materials were off the shelf, which Jansen concedes made it trickier to achieve the right colour spectrum, adding that it would also have been inappropriate to be too flashy: “On one hand we wanted a special place that we wanted to show off, but on the other it had to be modest. It isn’t about ‘look at us; we’re spending a lot of money.’”
The architects found themselves doubling as behavioural psychologists, conducting a series of interviews with Combiwerk which revealed that its clients were upset by change. Searching for a sense of stability, i29 retained some of the furniture from the firm’s previous office, which were restored by Weder, another company specialising in working with disabled people. A further 250 wooden chairs – an eclectic mix picked up on eBay and at second-hand shops – were also restored by Weder, their individuality meant as an analogy for the unique characters found at Combiwerk. Each chair has been stripped down to its original untreated state so as not to compete with the colourful islands. “The funny thing is we were a little bit afraid it was getting too much, but a lot of this neutrality absorbs that colour,” says Janesen. “ You wouldn’t think it but it turned out to be very peaceful in a way. It has balance.”
“We have known each other for a very long time and worked on many projects together,” says Joost Ector, partner at Ector Hoogstad, about his latest client, Rotterdam engineering firm IMd. So it must have felt a little like business as usual when IMd asked the practice to design its new office. In a way it was almost the repaying a favour – the engineers had acted as consultants for Ector Hoogstad’s own office revamp, and, impressed with the results, it asked the architects to work similar magic for its new headquarters.
On first inspection the derelict former steelworks appeared to be a pretty unremarkable brick pile, in an equally unremarkable place. Located on Piekstraat, a small peninsula in the river, it’s in an area that been largely been forgotten. On the surface it might seem an unusual choice for a company keen to put itself on the map, but it was arguably better than the generic office block that IMd had formerly inhabited.
Windowless, the structure hid within its brickwork an elegant steel lattice, with its industrial pulleys and hooks still in place. “Originally, there were no openings in the facade, only these skylights that would not do for daylight,” says Ector. “Also, the building is right next to the river so you have these very interesting views.” To capitalise on the scenery, Ector opened up the building by turning the entrance into double-height glazed portal and inserting large windows into the brickwork. Aside from the odd interior wall and a pile of rubble there wasn’t much going on inside, but the decision to keep the steelwork – the building’s soul – meant the practice had to create a first floor that folded around it. Linked by a combination of bridges, staircases and underpasses, it’s all part of what Ector calls a “playground concept”. He says that “the fun of working there is moving about this space, going up and down and seeing the changing perspective of this steel construction whenever you walk around the building.”
This would have been impossible for a larger company, but with only 40 employees in a 2,014sq m building, IMd had space to play with. With the steelwork dominating the central space, the obvious spot for the offices was along the shorter east and west facades in air-conditioned glass pavilions thereby allowing the central hall to be naturally ventilated. “It would have been impossible to insulate the existing building skin. With this concept there was no need to do that.”
The building’s heart is its ground-floor, hall, which features a multi-purpose space designed for lectures, exhibitions and parties. On the perimeter are private meetings, work areas and storage. More susceptible to changing weather, due to the skylights above and lack of air conditioning, the space was not perfectly suited for conventional offices. “It’s more for entertainment or relaxation or whatever. We could have a little fun with those spaces,” says Ector. Blurring the boundaries between inside and outside the architects plonked picnic tables onto a carpet adorned with grass and yellow flowers. The effect is emboldened by large potted plants dotted about the space (although not quite the tree-sized vegetation Ector hoped for). Dangling above the picnic area and throughout the building are large single light bulbs suspended on yellow cables: more for atmosphere, the bulbs appear as stars in the night sky once the sun goes down, Ector explains.
Yellow is used throughout as a unifying aesthetic. Its industrial connotations chime well with the materials used, which were chosen specifically to not betray the building’s heritage: roughly hewn wood for the stairs, clear glass and opaque plastic sheeting for the walls, which diffuses the sunlight from the skylight. “It has a dreamlike quality, like it’s not really there,” says Ector. “We wanted to use materials that were obviously new-looking, but on the other hand we didn’t want to make a very big contrast in atmosphere.”
Examining the project plans, it is striking how many different types of workspace have been included. Solitary, group, multifunctional and open-plan areas are detailed in the drawings. It’s the design language of an architect who understands the importance of flexibility. “Do you put together the people who do the same job on different projects, or vice versa? This office layout does not dictate either,” says Ector.
The project was a sprint: going from initial sketches to finished product took a year. Although working in the architects’ favour was a good understanding of their client, their ability to quickly find solutions to design problems was negated by red tape. Converting a structure not designed for office work meant protracted negotiations and careful planning, and the subsequent loss of momentum meant that IMd staff shared sections of their new home with the builders for a few weeks. “They had to put up with a little noise, but they survived,” says Ector.
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.”
Nestled in a patch of parkland in Groningen, the Netherlands, sits a new office building that has been touted as one of the greenest in Europe. It’s certainly one of the most flamboyant. The 92m-tall tower, designed for the city’s Education Executive Agency and Tax Office, has the sort of aerodynamic expression generally reserved for pavilions, museums or modern churches – not sensible offices built during straightened times. The structure’s undulating curves, accented by horizontal fins flowing across the facade, do their bit to liven up Groningen’s skyline, no doubt. But there is a lot more going on here than a pretty series of shapes.
Commissioned by the national buildings service as part of an expansive public-private partnership initiative, the complex provides 31,000sq m of office space for a whopping 2,500 employees as well as parking facilities for 1,500 bicycles and 675 cars, and a public garden. “It’s more about the organisation of the building than the form,” clarifies architect Ben van Berkel, co-founder of UNStudio, the prolific Dutch practice that has delivered contemporary classics like the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart and the Galleria Centrecity in Korea. “Who cares about whether it’s a box or a blob?” he asks. Well, arguably it would be easier to ignore if it was just another box. According to the press materials, part of the idea was to soften the image of the two institutions housed within the building, to make them appear more “human”. But even though some of van Berkel’s work echoes the fluidity of Zaha Hadid, his portfolio of buildings is not so obviously connected by one architectural language. A lot of it is sculptural but there isn’t a visual brand, so to speak.“You can find it in the work,” he says. “When I say ‘who cares about the box or the blob’, it’s because it’s the transformative aspect of the architecture that is much more fascinating. It’s not minimalist or highly expressionist or organic, it’s playing with connection.”
Van Berkel is on the phone from New York – he’s there for the public opening of UNStudio’s New Amsterdam Plein & Pavilion, another sculptural number, albeit on a much smaller scale. “Of course in Groningen we wanted to make a less square-y office building, but it was the elements we used for technical and sustainability reasons that granted us the opportunity to make a softer building,” he explains.
For example, the exterior fins – a defining feature of the design – provide shade during the summer and then bounce light back inside during darker months. They also stop the wind from free-flowing down the building and damaging the surrounding woodland. But the overall softness of the design is down to the asymmetrical base, which echoes the landscape with its subtle twisting and turning. Van Berkel says the challenge was to create some sort of connection to other high-rises in the heart of Groningen at the same time as being sensitive to the natural surroundings on the site. “I wouldn’t like to say it’s a natural form, but it’s picking up some of the principles of the aerodynamics of the wind in its natural context and its urban context, so it’s a lot of things coming together,” he says. A number of design innovations inside the building have helped to lower energy costs and material consumption, which, along with flexibility, was the foundation of the brief (and is also at the heart of UNStudio’s general design ethos). For a start, the floor-to-ceiling height has been compacted from 3.6m to 3.0m (meaning a total reduction of 7.5m on the entire building) – made possible by ditching the typical raised floor, suspended ceiling set-up; instead, services are embedded in the concrete core, teamed with underground long-term energy storage. Light sensors respond to daylight, and natural ventilation is circulated via a high-pressure system. “We learned from hospital design that this is a much healthier way of circulating air. It’s not person-to-person but floor-to-ceiling, so it’s very clean,” says van Berkel. The fact that the building accommodates two different agencies meant there was also scope for a bulk of shared common space at the junction between the two – another advantage in terms of reducing materials and construction costs. But what really stands out about this project is that it’s flexible enough to be adapted into housing with hardly any structural change - stairs and lifts have been carefully thought out and a structural grid of 1.2m (versus the usual 1.8m for offices) has been used. It’s a building model more developers should consider, says van Berkel. “It’s been a concern in Holland over the last five years. We have millions of empty offices. UNStudio has been involved in rethinking existing office buildings but it’s almost impossible to do,” he says. “The regulations around fire escapes are so badly organised in the way they’re connected to housing that it becomes cheaper to demolish the whole building than to renovate.”
Still, despite so many green victories achieved with the EEA & Tax building, van Berkel is reticent to label it “sustainable architecture”. “Sustainable architecture has been fragmented. There might be a green roof or a green facade, but we wanted a fully integrated, intelligent system,” he explains, siting the ventilation system as an example of what he means. “It isn’t solely driven by energy reduction. It shows how the intelligence of nature, healthy strategies and the economics of the energy cost can be combined in a full system. That is where the key to the design is to be found.”In some respects, the industry needs more research before “sustainable architecture” becomes a completely redundant phrase. “Right now, I find it difficult to convince a client that it’s more economical to be sustainable,” says van Berkel, “but I can prove that if you bring down floor height by 30 per cent, you will lower costs by about 20 per cent,” he enthuses. “There needs to be a full understanding of the technological possibilities, otherwise you can’t make sustainable architecture work.”
Van Berkel, 52, has been honing his approach to buildings since he started his Amsterdam-based architecture practice in 1988 with colleague Caroline Bos (they met while both studying in London). Since then the firm has grown to more than a hundred people (after changing its name to United Network Studio in 1998 as a celebration of what could be achieved with computer technology) and has developed an architectural language all of its own, although van Berkel might call it more of a philosophy that keeps shifting and changing.“I’ve always wanted to create an architecture that fascinates, that you want to come back to, so it’s difficult to give it a style or a language,” he says. “If you look at the development of our work, there is a phase where we used colour; there was a phase we were geometrical or mathematical; now it is a more operative and technologically innovative phase celebrating science and art. Its very difficult to put your finger on it, funnily enough,” he chuckles.
This is evident in the diversity of UNStudio’s portfolio – from museums, bridges, houses, office buildings, masterplans and theatres through to furniture and exhibitions. The philosophy running through them all, says the architect, is innovation, as well as an equal dose of pragmatics and intuition. “In the modernist era, we said functionality and aesthetics make good architecture. Today it is more technology and utilities that make the architecture connect to the new. It can also flirt with art and production design and fashion, science and philosophy. We can extend the profession so much more because of the new tools and techniques we have,” he says. “The turnover of what we produce is high,” van Berkel continues. “But often architects don’t take the responsibility to communicate, and architecture needs to communicate. Take the Mercedes Benz building – people love to stay there and they love to come back. It means communication and interaction,” he asserts. “Architecture needs to make social public constructs, it needs that to be successful.”