Words by Kerstin Zumstein
Will Alsop’s first UK office project, on London’s South Bank, is now complete. The London Development Agency is the first tenant, occupying two floors fitted out by Sheppard Robson
For the last three years, Londoners have eagerly been watching Will Alsop’s Palestra building emerge among the grey boxes on the South Bank. True to his famously flamboyant style, this £140m project has changed the face of Southwark. And it’s no surprise that the first tenant to move into this landmark building is the London Development Agency. The LDA is the Mayor’s agency for sustainable economic development, and the regeneration of the Southwark area sits high on its agenda. The rest of the office space has been let to London Transport, due to move in by the end of 2007.
Alsop was commissioned to take on this new-build in 1999, but it took a further four years until planning permission was finally granted, allowing construction to start. “There were many long debates with the letting agency, predominantly about the use of colour (its bold use being Alsop’s trademark). Letting agents seem afraid of it,” Alsop remarks. He ascribes this aversion to colour to the fact that agents often lack imagination and will judge a good office block on past successes. “Most commercial builds, like Norman Foster’s, will only show grey and clear surfaces, so they think that’s the winning formula.”
Alsop characteristically splashed on some yellow, formed a pod at the foot of the building, and incorporated a glazed curtain walling system that achieves a distinctive patchwork effect with its random patterns of coloured ceramic frit and solid panels. “There were two main starting points,” he explains. “First of all, to create a perfect floor plate in size and flexibility.” Future occupants could have been anything from creatives working open-plan or perhaps lawyers, with a cellular division of workspace. “Secondly, we were aware that with the Jubilee extension of the new Southwark station, this building would be the first sight en route to Tate Modern. This locational responsibility was an incentive to create that wow factor, that depth in visual attractiveness,” says Alsop.
British architecture practice Sheppard Robson designed the office fit-out, which successfully reflects the LDA’s vision as a responsive, inclusive and ambitious organisation. Lurene Joseph, LDA group director of communications and marketing, says the new offices offer a positive reinforcement of what the LDA does as an agency: “We are right in the middle of a creative and vibrant area of regeneration, with the Palestra building’s coloured glass and wind turbines making a bold new statement against the London skyline.
The reception and visitor pod is eye catching, increasing our profile and inviting greater communication with the public. London as a theme winds throughout the interior of the building while the bright, airy look and the green office policies reflect the open nature of the agency in helping create sustainable economic growth for London.”
“The office space is fresh, airy, with plenty of light, and you get the feeling of space,” adds Simon Grinter, Palestra’s project manager. “Staff have responded well to the open plan floor plates. Prior to the move there had been some concerns about noise and privacy, but on the whole most staff prefer the new layout as it makes for better interaction and awareness of what is happening within the agency.”
Alsop certainly wanted to get away from the standard office space by constructing a distinctive floating block design. “It was an objective to make the floors column-free,” he explains. The 12-storey building is subsequently divided into three separate blocks that look laid into the surroundings like three Lego blocks stacked on top of each other. The three volumes differ in size and proportion, with the lowest slab tilted up towards the cantilevering, six metres higher.
This forms a spectacular entrance to the building, enhanced by the additional retail pod, which has been turned into the LDA’s entrance and information hub for the public.
When exiting Southwark tube station, one is drawn into the spacious pod, which Grinter describes as “a bold ‘shop front’ for our services”. The main entrance is also inviting.
As with most of Alsop’s designs, an artist’s signature cannot be missed. Kate Dineen is the artist behind the colourful round discs dotted on the wall like Smarties. Circular forms are found throughout the building. The lights are large round plates hovering over the reception area and lifts, and colourful circles are embedded in the ceiling at the entrance level.
But besides the use of colour and Alsop’s toy-like forms and shapes, what is so groundbreaking about this new build? “External space at high level, for example,” suggests Alsop. “That is seldom found in commercial space and something I had to fight for. I wouldn’t claim it’s radically different but certain parts are definitely pointing to the future.”
Inside, the usual office features of suspended ceilings and raised floors in a rectangular space leave imagination
and the extension of the exterior’s impact in the hands of the fit-out designers. Sheppard Robson’s Jo Walker, senior designer on the building’s first fit-out for the LDA, says:
“We decided to tie in the outside to create a flow into the interior space.” With two floors (five and six) to fit out, each 88m long and accommodating 450 people, the overriding leitmotif was the river. The reasons are many: the building’s position, the LDA branding, and the Thames generally being central to the LDA’s agenda.
“To create a dramatic entrance,” Walker explains, “we fitted curved screening to divide the lift entrance and work space.” The semi-transparent screen is called river wall with blue waves and water motifs clearly marking the space. Throughout the workspace, this theme continues, forming curved shelters for meeting spaces and break-out areas with stunning views of London’s skyline. “The movement of the river was our theme to introduce an organic flow into this rectangular space,” Walker continues, “with seats and lamps dotted around like pebbles.”
The use of floor space is largely based on the analysis that Sheppard Robson undertook to understand the LDA’s working methods. Its research showed that the agency holds a tremendous number of meetings in groups ranging from two to fifteen people. As a result, meeting areas of all shapes and sizes are dotted all over the floor, from a business break-out lounge to the four separate “quiet rooms”. Equipped with computer and phone, the rooms are intended as “thinking rooms” and block out the office noise to create a welcome retreat for solo brainstorming or private chats with colleagues.
Sheppard Robson located all core facilities, such as printers, photocopiers, recycling bins and filing cabinets in the centre of the floor, tucked away behind screens clearly marked by colour-coding systems. “That way we were able to maximise the daylight,” Walker says. The carpet also functions as an optical divider, breaking down the 88m stretch by using subtle colour schemes. All four outer walls are completely glass from top to bottom, allowing an all-round view of this part of London. The inner walls around the core base have the immediate skyline shining through a vinyl film stuck onto the surfaces. It’s subtle, and may even be missed were it not shown to me.
Grinter points out the innovative use of decor with glazed partitions featuring a large-scale map of London and applied decals showing some of the LDA’s projects and regeneration sites. “It’s a great way to show people where we are working, and on what,” he says. “I think my favourite decorative feature is a multi-dot shadow manifestation on the white corridor walls. This teases the passer-by as the image is only visible from certain angles and gives the appearance of a shadow of the external skyline.”
Tied in with the nature-based river theme, the break-out areas are meant to feel like a park. Regarding the idea behind designing the dining and chillout area, Walker says “We wanted to bring the park to the people.” So Sheppard Robson commissioned a photographer to take images of people in London parks, portraying London’s own mixture of ages, cultures and styles. “London’s about the people.
And on a break, people like to hang out in parks, so this fit-out is an attempt to get the park feeling into the building.”
In the kitchen, the seating is arranged like benches, with seats looking like red berries and made of washable material. Throughout the entire floor space, there are also hedges lining the core walls to convey the “park life” theme. The light fittings used to illuminate these areas are called pod lamps and suggest an outdoor feel.
Beyond a green theme on the surface, the LDA has strong intentions to lead from the front by incorporating
its environmentally friendly premise in its own office space. It was no coincidence that the LDA chose this landmark building to house its office, considering Palestra was the only building evaluated with a “very good” BREEAM
(Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) rating.
That the building is CO2 friendly and uses considerably less energy than most office blocks is something that Alsop knows should be an automatic part of design, and that sets it apart from the surrounding buildings. The LDA also introduced a renewable energy system combining photovoltaic cells, wind turbines with 63kWp of photovoltaic panels and another 14 wind turbines producing 21kW on the roof. The system will reduce CO2 emissions throughout the building’s lifetime by 3300 tonnes. Manny Lewis, LDA chief executive, says “By changing the design to include a renewable energy system, we are setting a positive example for others to follow.” Watch this space.