Many corporate lobbies are still modelled on the Miesian format, where impressiveness is prioritised over a sense of interaction with the wider world. The nearly completed Leadenhall Building, however, has a friendlier public face.
Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in Manhattan, completed in 1958, is a favourite architectural icon. The tower is set back from the edge of Park Avenue, and my impression of the open space in front is that it is animated, with people sitting out on the hard landscaping, silhouetted against the minimalist ground-level reception space.
Like the building, the reception is a classic. You feel like Don Draper walking up to the uniformed receptionist and marble desk, all designed to reflect the corporate respectability of the Bronfman family’s business empire. It’s a great image, and was a radical solution of its time.
Right now, though, my number one tower is London’s Leadenhall Building, nearing completion and designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. More than half a century separates the two, and their approach to the street could not be more different. On Leadenhall, the RSH design opens up to deliver a six-storey open atrium and public space that links through to the handful of towers that make up the area designated the Eastern City Cluster.
There is a generosity of space and of spirit that is so often lacking in new commercial buildings which stick religiously to Mies’ classic format. One would expect those towers that were heavily influenced by Mies, such as the late-1960s Aviva Tower on Leadenhall Street, to have Mieseian lobbies, too, but even new buildings are still doing it. I passed by the reception for 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie Talkie) the other day and it does the same thing. It is elegant, stylish, corporate – but gives little to the street.
I got to thinking about the lack of inspiration to be found in reception areas after judging a competition organised by Derwent London for its White Collar Factory in Old Street. Almost every entry that we looked at criticised the current format of reception areas, the unfriendly security mechanisms and the faux-friendly operatives sat behind head-height desks.
The competition was won by Studio Seilern for a design that transformed the reception into an ‘indoor park’. It included meetings rooms, an event space and an indoor garden, and made a positive addition to the street as well as the experience of the user. The building faces on to the Old Street roundabout, which will surely become a much better place with a new building and reception that gives more life to the street than the standard offering.
I went into Bloomberg’s building on Finsbury Circus recently, where the reception space was being transformed as a handful of traders laid out their wares – books, olive oil, sandwiches – to sell to the occupants and visitors passing through. How refreshing!
It does seem odd to me that companies waste so much of their ground-floor space in mimicking Mies’ format. The bases of buildings form the character of streets; how tall buildings hit the ground is an essential part of their design.
I look forward to the opening of the Leadenhall Building atrium and hope that it will change the way that developers and their architects in the future will look at the way they deal with the interface of the public and private domain.