Some ten years ago, Sevil Peach redesigned Vitra’s offices on its Weil am Rhein campus, in the process changing the rules of the game for good. Until then, corporate office space wasn’t thought of as interesting or creative or, God forbid, sexy.
The story back then has become a familiar one. Vitra’s staff had been trapped in an anti-social, cubicle-stricken space the size of a football pitch; a ludicrous rolling ceiling gobbled up the former showroom’s high ceilings, amplifying the sense of claustrophobia. Peach ensured that the last vestiges of Taylorism were vanquished in tasteful fashion just in time for the new century. She ripped everything out, exposing the concrete beams, opening up the layout and creating a variety of work and social areas. This was way back in 1998, and when the project was finished in 2000, it was such a success that the office receives an estimated 30,000 visitors a year hoping to inject some dynamism into their own workplaces.
Since then Weil am Rhein has undergone a series of mainly cosmetic makeovers to reinvigorate the space and to provide a promotional vehicle for the company’s new products. It wasn’t until summer last year that more serious interventions were called for. The arrival of an architecture department meant a densification of desk-space in an area that was formerly a mixture of library and informal meeting space. Housing extra manpower, however, was a small segment of a wider brief. Many areas had originally been devoted to post, photocopying and large archives, but in Vitra’s quest to become that most mythical of beasts, the paperless office, the majority of these functions had been rendered obsolete. More relevant now was space for quiet individual work areas, contrasting informal meeting and project spaces, plus a media room.
Because of the original plan’s far-sightedness, the new changes proved to be deceptively straightforward. When Peach was initially approached in 1998, it was made clear that the building, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, should be left unmolested. Her solution was to pre-fabricate a birch plywood platform and simply drop it into the space, hardly touching the building at all. The benefits of this system are threefold: firstly it meant the inhabitants could stroll around the workspace perimeter, animating the office with its own streetlife; secondly, the raised platform acts as a plenium; and thirdly, any further work need not involve sledgehammering through partition walls.
To fulfil her new brief, Peach reconfigured the central section of the floor, rearranging the original cafe and introducing a greater number of informal spaces to create a communal heart for the office known as the ‘club’. A bank of mailboxes was done away with, replaced by banquette seating, and the ‘strategic purchasing quality management’ department became the aforementioned meeting and project areas. Meanwhile, private workrooms were converted into a constellation of plywood boxes lined with coloured felt. “They wanted other types of concentration spaces to do individual work, so we created these boxes with different coloured acoustic fabrics inside,” Peach explains.
“We wanted to eliminate visual noise as well as acoustic.” Architecturally, they equate a do-not-disturb sign and, according to Peach, have proved very popular. Opposite is a lounge area raised on a platform occupying what was previously a large photocopying area. And at the far end is the boardroom-style project room, which has been twisted 90 degrees to free up space so that the library can now become part of the new club area.
Around the perimeter of Peach’s original pre-fabricated platform, further changes have taken place. An archive area has been freed up for work and meeting “boxes”, which explore the same themes as the individually coloured workstations. Here, they’re sized up to create colour-saturated, felt-lined rooms.
The larger alcoves hold up to four people, while a yellow single person box encourages more solitary pursuits. Finally, an additional meeting room in one corner has been converted into a multimedia facility, while another redundant archive is now a high-bench working area.
Elsewhere more enduring details have wisely been kept. Canvas-wrapped wall panels dangling from the concrete beams are still being used to create intimacy in the otherwise expansive layout, and coffee points are abundant. The two patio areas from the pre-2000 layout are still here, albeit with extra seating. Indeed, the quantity of original detailing is a strong testament to project’s flexibility. In particular, the building’s longevity again queries the wisdom and validity of Cat A suspended ceilings: given that a project’s sustainability hinges on its ability to adapt, fitting suspended ceilings as a default only to have them ripped out by a new occupier makes little environmental or financial sense. Fitting then, given her well-documented disdain for them, that Peach and her team’s greatest contribution to their industry was to popularise the exposed method. Perhaps one day the suspended ceiling will go the same way as Taylorism.
The Vitra Office shows what a workplace could be, given some thought and some moments of inspiration, and no doubt it will evolve further in the years to come. The project stirs fond memories for Peach, cementing a relationship with Vitra that continues today, mainly thanks to the adaptability of that first plan.“Its been an amazing journey really,” she says. “Because of the way the architectural armature was conceived it will remain the base platform from which ideas can be added or subtracted. Maybe in five years time there will be another intervention.” No prizes for guessing who will seize that commission.