MVN Architects have transformed a 1920s warehouse into a stunning workspace with timber and glass elements, and loads of natural light for the Botin Foundation
The decline of heavy industry in western Europe has prompted a rise in so-called “white collar factories”. The warehouses these companies inhabit were originally snapped up by artists looking for cheap, rugged space. Unwittingly, these creative trailblazers prepared the ground for the next wave of occupiers, usually start-up businesses.
Today, one only has to examine the Tea Building in Shoreditch – where architects rub shoulders with advertisers – to see how far the typology has come. It is a similar story on the continent.
In the hands of judicious architects, warehouses can make great workplaces. They do not, however, always produce great shops, as Diego Varela from MVN Arquitectos discovered when his practice revamped a brick pile for the Botín Foundation, a charity with a prime focus on cultural development and social change.
Hiding down an alleyway in Madrid, the 1920s building, a former silversmiths, had morphed into the Spanish equivalent of a John Lewis.
“The brickwork was painted black and the skylights were covered over because they didn’t want people looking at the building instead of the goods,” recalls Varela.
In lieu of the completed overhaul, it’s easy to see why people were distracted. Once the architects stripped back the paint, the building’s soulful character revealed itself. As Varela explains, there is always an element of risk when adapting a hundred-year-old building, so it came as a relief when all that was needed structurally was some patch-up work on arches that had been bricked up.
Initially the Botín Foundation, which was consolidating its two Madrid offices into one, seemed happy to leave it at that. “They said, ‘just paint it. We don’t want anything too fancy.’” Varela had other ideas: “We convinced them to go deeper and do more.”
“We wanted to give the building as much natural light as possible”
This began, logically enough, with the entrance. A contributing factor to the shop’s failure was the foreboding alleyway connecting the building to the street.
Seeking a more welcoming feel, the architects planted a green wall that entwines around the Foundation’s blocky red signage and fashioned some top-lit wooden slatted seats on the opposing walls. Resembling decking, these structures set a design language that continues throughout the ground floor.
Once inside the employee (or visitor) is bathed in natural light, coaxed in via a rectangular atrium populated by three trees. The trees are a real-life manifestation of Botín’s arboreal logo as well as a very charming addition to the space.
Hanging above the atrium is a large wooden lantern that directs sunlight downwards and away from the first-floor office space.
Varela explains: “We wanted to give the building as much natural light as possible so we opened two skylights on the roof. One runs the length of the offices and the other shines down on the trees. We used thermal glass for the office, to reduce heat, but we couldn’t do that on the other one because the trees need the ultra-violet light. The timber element protects the rest of the office by focusing the light into the trees.”
The ground floor is a huge open-plan area, but if smaller spaces are needed, the room can be broken down by two movable partitions – one timber, the other glass. The partitions, which are interchangeable, can be configured to create one or two medium-sized meeting rooms at either end of the space or pushed aside to make one big super-studio joining the atrium.
Concerned that too much exposed brick was making this conference room feel like a basement, the architects clad one of the inside walls in the same light oak used for the flooring. Above, oak panelling undulates across the ceiling to hide the ductwork and muffle the sound.
MVN’s most significant architectural intervention was to shift the main staircase (which sat bang in the middle of the old shop) and place it adjacent to the reception. This allows employees access to the first floor offices without wandering through ongoing conferences. The new black and white staircase looks like it is cut from paper and is a simple, atmospheric feature.
“They said ‘just paint it. We don’t want anything too fancy.’ But we convinced them to go further, and do more”
Botín’s management team all reside on the bright first floor, which follows a slightly more rigid pattern.
Near the atrium, an opaque glass wall conceals four private rooms, ranging from boardroom to solitary work pod. The workaday offices are open plan (save for a free-standing glass meeting box) and rely on the clever use of furniture, Vitra Alcoves for example, to demark the space. Nestled discreetly underneath three arched openings are nooks for phone calls or one-to-one conversations.
“They collaborate a lot so we created different kinds of spaces for meetings,” says Varela, “not a conventional closed space, not a meeting room, but ‘soft’ meeting rooms – places for a coffee and to talk.” Continuing the simple material palette, the floor is made from the same light oak, and steel A-frame trusses are painted black to offset against the white acoustic ceiling.
Varela is modest about the project, instead praising the foundation’s general director, Iñigo Sánez de Miera, for his openness to new ideas. The flexibility of the ground floor space alone, which can accommodate up to 200 people, shows what can be achieved with astute design.
It is also refreshing to find an organisation that’s comfortable enough not to fill its HQ with branding or gimmicks. Varela says that “Iñigo was the key to success. It was risky to leave the building as it is, but he really understood what we wanted to do. We wanted to show the history of this building and our interventions are one more layer. Maybe in years to come, someone will renovate and we will become one more part of this.”
Whoever it might be, it’s a tough act to follow.