Words by Helen Parton
Encouraging staff interaction was integral to David Chipperfield’s design for BBC Scotland’s new headquarters, in Glasgow’s West End, which included creating a giant indoor street.
ARCHITECT: DAVID CHIPPERFIELD ARCHITECTS
CLIENT: BBC SCOTLAND
COST: £188.4M (INCLUDING RELOCATION)
START DATE: JULY 2004
COMPLETION: SEPTEMBER 2007
FLOOR SPACE: 3,160SQ M
The prohibitive cost of adapting BBC Scotland’s base on Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow to new technology ensured that the broadcaster would have to find a new home.
“We were trying to find a place where people would be encouraged to meet,” says Victoria Jessen-Pike, director of David Chipperfield Architects. “For the first time, all broadcasting functions, radio, television and internet, were to be brought together, and ways had to be found architecturally to encourage interaction between members of the large staff.”
Chipperfield’s solution was to create Pacific Quay, a stepped sandstone “street” that rises over five levels and has been likened to “stairs in a giant’s house”. To my mind, though, the end result, as viewed from the top floor, is more like the cross-section of an ant hill, albeit one in which the insects favour stylish lounge furniture.
“The idea was also to put all the black boxes in this concentrated solid base of the building,” says Jessen-Pike. Here, in the three broadcasting studios, including the largest in Scotland, begins the start of a tapeless revolution, allowing the workforce to share its content on a highly sophisticated digital server. The building also has 23 editing suites and three dubbing studios for state-of-the-art production.
Red sandstone was selected as the main material for the street – a nod to the building material used in Glasgow’s tenements – and a Dumfriesshire quarry had to reopen to meet the order. Other locally sourced elements included the Scottish oak used for some of the street’s meeting tables, while the reception desk made from girders alludes to the area’s shipbuilding heritage. “The desk lends theatricality,” says Ross Hunter, director at Graven Images, which was charged with the interior design of the project. “This is a broadcast building, not a bank.”
Back on the street, the break-out spaces and informal meeting areas, spread over the various steps‚ further encourage movement, with a wireless network serving the space. The steps can also be used for more formal gatherings and presentations. The open-plan offices that wrap around the street mean there are even more opportunities for cross-departmental encounters.
Exposed concrete and steel finishes provide a workmanlike quality to the interior. “We also wanted to add ceiling panels only where we needed to, and we wanted a workshop aesthetic, rather than a very corporate one, to give a creative atmosphere,” adds Jessen-Pike.
The building’s glazed facade maximises light and affords fantastic views, emphasised by the floor-to-ceiling and, in some cases, double-height, glass construction. “One of the things we wanted to do was to have as much space for the staff as possible, in terms of the number of metres and the height,” says Jessen-Pike.
The architecture of the BBC building is simple in comparison with its neighbours: the futuristic Glasgow Science Centre next door, and the new Clyde Arc bridge and the SECC building across the river, known locally as “the armadillo”. But what it lacks in geometric interest, it makes up for in the practicality of its finishes. The double skin of the glazed facade, for example, with a fixed outer layer and opening inside layer, means that natural ventilation combines with floor-level displacement ventilation. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, as Jessen-Pike explains: “Staff can control their own temperature without having howling gales coming in. It brings in fresh air but not wind, and there is also an automatic venetian blind system.
“We also wanted the building to be transparent, so that people could see the workings of the BBC,” she adds.
The idea of involving the public is one that runs strongly through the project. When visitors enter the reception area, they immediately get a fantastic vista of the sandstone street. “The environment had to be conducive to making great programmes, while accommodating collaboration and new aspects such as public access,” says Hunter. As the new workforce settles in, plans are being drawn up for providing tours of the building, most likely commencing next year.
The circulatory nature of the space means people can be at the heart of the action without disturbing those at work. When I visit, the widescreen television has yet to come to life and the finishing touches are also being put to two sound cones‚ and several booths, which are part of a series of interactive features. “The area [between the BBC building and the Science Centre] can really become a public square – it will start to improve when all the staff are moved in,” adds Jessen-Pike.
As if on cue, as I approach the end of my tour, a group of tourists meanders in and exclaims in wonder: “What is this place?” Balancing this out, however, as I leave, the taxi driver comments, “This place, it’s no’ very accessible, eh?”, potentially ruining all the positive PR work done thus far. But, to be fair, it is early days for Pacific Quay as an area and, hopefully, with an organisation such as the BBC on board, accountable to the licence fee-paying population with a remit of inclusion close to the design brief, it will avoid a repeat of London’s Docklands, where workers spill out of the their glass-and-steel megaliths leaving the deprived local communities wondering where they fit into this hub of employment, entertainment and wealth.
It is hoped that the area will become something of a media city, with Beat FM and Scottish Media Group already located in the vicinity. Pacific Quay’s location in one of Glasgow’s less salubrious areas did nonetheless prompt one wry blogger to quip: “The BBC is off to sunny Govan – and a culture shock.”
Graven Images worked with local artist Toby Paterson, who has been commissioned to provide a work that will eventually sit outside the BBC building. “We had an ‘off Toby Paterson’ palette, if you like,” says Hunter. “There are connections between Toby’s piece and our layers of colour.”
To say Graven Images’ job was to add colour would be to simplify its involvement in the project. Hunter says they started off incorporating shades of dark grey, before moving on to the more dramatic hues such as the fuchsia-coloured break-out spaces and lime-green counter tops in the tea-points.
One of the biggest challenges Graven Images faced was the size of the building, which is more than 100m long. “We had to have elements that were bigger than the desks,” says Hunter. “Flooding the area with furniture would have made it look like a call centre.” To combat this, a series of sub-spaces was created, introducing systems of clear shelving to give a sense of ownership back to the staff, as well as colour-coded telescopic poles and signage.
The most notorious element of the scheme, which has already featured in the Scottish Sun, is the two B&Q potting sheds. “They have taken on a life of their own,” says Hunter. “They are supposed to add a bit of humour, but have serious and non-serious roles. They are effective landmarks, quiet places for thinking, and amidst all the glass, their walls accommodate drawing pins.”
Frequent changes in the size and make-up of teams, depending on the project, were also a workplace issue. “You can’t exactly phone up the facilities manager every time you want to add a desk,” says Hunter. “The team tables had to deliver flexible density, and storage pedestals are on the side so that you can easily fit in an extra person.”
On the top floor, the licensed restaurant is where you sense Graven Images had the most freedom to put its design stamp on the space. “The area where they moved from was full of bars and cafes, and the BBC was conscious that it had to provide something that would replicate that,” says Jessen-Pike.
There is a mix of seating styles, from benches and chunky tables to more delicate dining chairs and tables, as well as an outdoor terrace, to serve BBC employees from breakfast time through to evening. “Byres Road [the location of the bars and cafes] is no longer on the doorstep, so we wanted the canteen to look as good as a city restaurant,” adds Hunter. “It is said to have the best view of any restaurant in Glasgow. We designed it so that the bar is the focus, instead of that whole motorway service station-style of catering, with the canteen and shop, selling emergency items such as tights and aspirins, located behind, so they don’t drain the life from the place when they close.”
In essence, the life of the project will come not from the high-spec furniture, or a quirky shed, or even a giant’s staircase, but, says Hunter, from the mix of people, both the staff and general public, who pass through the doors. “Like a television,” he says, “it has to be turned on.”