Situated on a busy intersection between Aldgate High Street and St Botolph Street stands the shell of Aldgate House. From the pavement below it’s a fairly unremarkable sight, but in December 2007, a colourful new tenant moved into the building’s top floor. It now houses the London leg of Gensler’s extensive international remit, and the branch itself was tasked with the design and refurbishment of its new home.
The result is a slick and reflective aesthetic in a paired down black and white palette, strategically designed to act as a neutral backdrop to the work and to the staff. “The intention was that the design should sit back and let the work sing, because we’ve got some fantastic talent,” says Enrico Caruso, one of the firm’s eleven principals. The colour palette comes across most strongly in the client-facing areas to the left of the lobby, where I’m currently sat with Caruso and Gensler associate Alessandra Almeida-Jones. “It’s very London in its look and feel,” says Almeida-Jones. “It reflects all the English trends that we’ve witnessed as a company. We’ve been encouraging our client leadership to sit open plan and to have more common space, but also to have private rooms. I feel we’ve incorporated a lot of that on this project.”
The office is approximately 95 per cent open plan, seating 225 Gensler employees across desks that occupy at least two thirds of the width and length of the space. Privacy is at a minimum, with only a handful of secluded spaces (two boardrooms and a couple of soundproof rooms used for transatlantic conference calls, or as Almeida-Jones succinctly states, “quiet time”). My first impression was one of a structured and regulated workspace, all clean lines and adjacent desks, not a seat out of place. On closer inspection I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The design utilises wall space and freestanding vertical surfaces wherever possible, but without creating clutter, to encourage staff to display work and foster ideas. There are also several relaxed communal areas (complete with Eames-style furniture), which sit between the end of each row of desks and the pane of glass that spans the length of the wall behind them, revealing breathtaking views of the London skyline. The design means that staff can choose where they want to work. The idea is that freedom will increase productivity. The use of space affords a casual yet efficient quality, a veritable feast of communication and collaboration. It’s basically a 2,300sq m think tank.
Gensler London previously occupied 3,250sq m across two floors in Roman House, Woods Street, but the layout was not productive. “We had a floor and a half in that building,” says Caruso, “but it was disjointed. Planning teams and organising staff to deliver a project was a challenge. In this building each of the different disciplines – interiors, retail demographics, architecture and master planning – are all on one floor. Everyone can see each other and know what the other’s doing, we collaborate a lot more closely and it means that we can move staff around and assemble project teams in a much more efficient way.”
It’s quintessential Gensler: not necessarily by design – the company has no specific trademark image – but certainly by concept. Art Gensler, one of the firm’s founding partners, is considered by many to be single-handedly responsible for distinguishing interior architecture as a discipline in its own right. In 1965, when the Gensler brand was first established and other architectural firms concerned themselves only with elegant facades and bold exterior statements, he charged Gensler with a self-made mission to optimise workspace performance using interior design. “Art saw a niche in the market,” says Almeida-Jones. “In the Sixties architects really looked down on space planning. They were really just concerned with the shell of a building, which often meant that they were very inefficient. There wasn’t really anybody planning space strategically, anybody who really saw how to make a building work for an organisation. Now, that attitude is pretty embedded in the Gensler culture; it’s about making the building work for the people who occupy the space.”
“For us, business and creativity are all one in the same thing,” says Caruso. “We’re creative thinkers and we understand our clients’ business and the two have to be married.” In this case the client was Team Gensler, and I was delighted to see how true to its manifesto the firm had been on its own office project. Gensler Architects has fitted out several blue chip offices and interiors around the world, from Seattle media group Cole & Weber to the Ritz-Carlton Dubai. The firm’s work shows an implicit understanding of the psyche of its clients’ staff, ranging from basic demographic differences through to issues of diversity. “The way people work now, regardless of what industry they’re in – or certainly the sort of industries that we deal with – is very different. People don’t want a production line model,” says Caruso. “Our client work reflects that, so this project was really an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. I know that being in this office will cause a shift, culturally and in our output, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself.”
It’s still early days to try and determine just how successful the design will be though – as we go to press the cladding between the building’s internal and external walls is yet to be finished – but I would hazard a guess that Caruso’s beliefs are well founded. I would also say that if there was ever a building indicative of trademark Gensler, this might well be it.