Situated at the north entrance to Southwark Bridge, at the bend in the Thames, is European law firm SJ Berwin’s new London residence.
In an office designed for 1,000-plus staff, each of the four levels covers an area of one acre, including a half-acre roof garden. The angle of the terrace (dictated by sight guidelines that ensure the view of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral is never blocked) creates a vantage point that takes in the cityscape as well as a large section of the river.
For the lawyers and their support staff, “who put in long, hard hours, up to seven days a week,” says Seth Stein, interior architect on the project, this landscaped private roof garden is a “tremendous outdoor communal space that helps to keep people fresh”.
When SJ Berwin acquired the existing 1980s building, John Robertson Architects was appointed to carry out the base build, with Seth Stein Architects and HOK International working on the office interior; both came on board at an early stage to influence the base building in keeping with the client body. “It is a building to reflect the calibre of people who work here,” says Stein.
Issues of confidentiality mean that, overall, open plan is not an option in law firms; the top three floors are characterised by a blend of different spaces, ranging from dual offices (for a lawyer and PA, or lawyer and trainee) to break-out spaces and areas for staff to move around and set up in. “It embraces wireless working,” says Stein.
Offices are glass fronted to create a sense of community between small legal teams. “When you are working ten- to 12-hour days, a sense of territory is important,” says Stein. But the building plays an important role in how the firm interfaces. “There are a variety of spaces for people to eat, and meet, or to have absolute privacy,” he adds.
The move from SJ Berwin’s former London premises in Grays Inn Road to the new building was an exciting one, marking the company’s 25-year anniversary, and partners were closely involved in its planning.
Partner John Eldridge, who died last year, was very much motivated by bringing artwork into the building, explains Stein. The entrance floor is focused on a limited-edition computer work by British artist Micheal Craig-Martin. Made up of a computer and a 53cm LCD unit, with vector drawings and bespoke software, the piece hangs on the wall like a small painting and runs a randomised program of a piece based on French painter Seurat’s 19th-century work Bathers at Asnières. The composition and the colour slowly but constantly morph and mutate. The back wall facing you as you stand at the curved reception is a vibrant pink, specific to Craig-Martin’s work and integral to the installation. The artist is also responsible for the light piece on top of Tate Modern, which is situated on the riverbank opposite the offices.
One aspect of the uniquely urban landscape created by SJ Berwin’s roof terrace is the spiral of benches at its centre, with a diagonal cut through it that aligns with the Tate Modern chimney. “It is a principle of Japanese gardens called borrowed scenery, except typically with a tree in the distance,” Stein explains, rather than an industrial, cultural landmark.
The Thames itself is another theme of the building; in the meeting rooms, named after bridges that cross the river, are photographs of a stretch of water immediately opposite the offices, taken by one partner (cum photographer) at different points during the day. In a playful gesture, a webcam in the entrance sends a live link of the river’s moving water outside into the reception area.
Linking the reception to the first floor, or “client” floor, where meeting rooms are situated, is a conventional staircase within what Stein describes as an “extraordinary box”. “I wanted something mysterious, abstract, luminous, that, on a practical level, would transport clients from the entrance,” says Stein.
The white, light-box stairwell can be custom lit to alter the ambience inside. In a similarly abstract gesture, Stein took the initials of the firm, turned them into a cube and suspended them mid-air over softly coloured lights in focal points on the client floor. It’s not subliminal,” he says, just a “less direct” approach to corporate branding.
The overall atrium nature of the building, and helical stairs at either end, are a result of discussions taken part in by all parties (base and interior architects and client). The amount of time, dedication and commitment the partners of the firm gave to the project calls for an analogy with coming to a legal agreement or drawing up a legal document, Stein explains: “Attention goes into every last detail.”
The provisions made for a work ethic that increasingly sees lawyers staying at the office late into the evening and overnight to work on completions follows closely in the Goldman Sachs vein – of on-site health centres and access to medical professionals. A doctors’ clinic twice a week on the ground floor sits alongside an on-site chiropractor and a masseuse.
Next door, sleep pods and shower rooms facilitate late nights, and overnights, in the office. Reception provides employees with towels and shower packs that come complete with razors and show gels, with different packs for men and women. As for laundry, employees’ dry cleaning is regularly collected and delivered from the ground floor.
Bringing the building closer still to a workplace-cum-hotel is a replica sitting room (albeit without that lived-in look) fully kitted with sofa and widescreen television, while downstairs a 200-capacity, Wagamama-like restaurant opens until 10pm. Anyone working post 8pm earns full entitlement to an evening meal, and lunch allowances make food, on the whole, fully subsidised. A grab and go outlet on the first floor fulfils all your Starbucks needs, as does the coffee and cake stand in the entrance.
With perhaps the largest private roof garden in London, complete with grass banks and benches for fresh air and stimulation, there really is little need to leave the building: a 24-hour office environment for a round-the-clock firm.