In these tough economic times, when it’s hard to know what’s round the corner, many people are understandably reluctant to put down permanent roots in terms of where they work.
At the beginning of 2009, a group of artists known as the Temporary School of Thought hit the headlines when it moved into a £22.5 million grade II listed mansion in Mayfair, declaring they have been using it as a place to run workshops “of mutual learning, leftwing bias and free lectures”. These ideas were gaining currency even before the banking meltdown. In spring last year a squatters estate agent was established to manage takeovers of disused office buildings.
The art world and the temporary structure go hand in hand of course, from Banksy’s Christmas ghetto on Oxford St in December 2006 to Canadian design collective molo’s recent celebration of the city of Anchorage by constructing a series of passageways in concentric circles in the snow leading to a large fire in the middle, which director Todd McAllen describes as “a gathering of different types of interaction – part of a collective feeling, creating an intimate community under the city, combining spirtuality with physicality.” But surely the squatting mentality and the artist sensibility has no place in the corporate world of workplace design you may say?
Tell that to Brussels-based non-profit arts organisation Rotor, who successfully office squatted from December 2006 to February 2008, in a piece of wasteland where a developer planned to build new homes. And with the full backing of the local community no less. “It was a pretty gloomy site to begin with,” says architect Lionel Devlieger, “It was a parking space for a small business. The structure we made included all these bright colours and people were pretty enthralled by that. We built it ourselves with the help of many friends – people living nearby could see the effort we were investing. We had been thinking about how to get office space in the centre of the city without spending much.”
The self proclaimed “cheerful yellow parasite” was built between four concrete buttresses that prop up a blank wall and is composed entirely of industrial waste materials. Old exhibition materials and transparent sailcloth were used for the windows, EVA1 foam as insulation for the roof, plastic van cladding as terrace paving as well as props, struts and formwork beams loaned from local building firms. The whole space is wrapped in translucent plastic film, reclaimed from the parking lot beneath.
Rotor works with artists and designers who are looking for cheap or alternative materials, so this was in effect, a showcase for its work. No application for planning was ever made for the rectangular 65 sq m space while an arrangement was made with the neighbours for connection to water and electricity and a friendly local caff provided toilet facilities. Part of the raison d’etre was also to play host to artists and performers and use the space as a party venue. The only drawback was the lack of heating in the place, says Devlieger and whether it could catch on in other cities, he concludes, “Rome or Madrid would be ideal for vacant lots where something is going to be built.” In Rotor’s new home, also in the centre of the Belgian capital, they have again employed an innovative solution to adding more space, creating a mezzanine level in a 6 metre high premises.
Piers Roberts, co-founder of designersblock who are no strangers to making the most of derelict buildings or those in the earlier stages of developments for their exhibitions agrees we may see more temporary office arrangements, “The fall in value of the commercial end of property is putting an enormous strain on landlords. The other factor is the amount of rates payable on empty buildings. Whereas in the past, an empty building would simply lose them revenue, now it’s costing them directly.” Already he says commercial property provider Workspace is now offering a number of its offices for six months for significant discount, continuing, “Generally speaking the climate is one where landlords have to consider more creative opportunities to make the most of their properties.”
From London, we turn our attention to Mumbai where Serie architects, a practice which has offices in the UK, India and China created the V Office concept. They say, “At present the proliferation of curtain walls in the fast-paced, speculative office buildings has reduced the role of the architect to mere window dressers, confined to a 200mm depth.” Sick of what they describe as ‘endless uninspired permutation and combination of aluminium frames and glazing’, they proposed a ‘modulated skin’ consisting of a series of balconies, storage spaces, sun shades, window cabins and even tiered seating for an auditorium all moulded into one, with the depth measuring anything up to two metres, depending on the position of the facade in relation to the sun, and the building program going on within.
Aside from the physical solutions for the temporary office, there’s always the virtual ones. While we’re not proposing a full scale migration to Second Life just yet – although these days you can create your avatar and visit any number of London offices should you so desire – there are a number of ways you can have an office without the bricks, mortar, watercooler and photocopier. Virtual office solutions provider Davinci provides services such as personalised phone answering service and diary management. Originally based in the US, this year it has its sights on expansion into Europe, setting up a headquarters in west London and with a roll out to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Says CEO Bill Grodnik, “Right now, there are a lot of companies that are looking for ways to decrease their office costs. We find our services are used by everybody from doctors to stockbrokers and mortgage brokers.” Its target market is SMEs and entrepreneurs, which seems timely given today’s labour market, where contract work, home working or freelance work is becoming more commonplace, as businesses reduce their permanent workforce.
Davinci also offers a serviced office package with, for example, a central London address to use on business cards and a serviced office with training rooms and meeting rooms. As Grodnik adds that in terms of competing with larger corporations who may already have the flashy HQs and prestigious addresses, “It levels the playing field and you can make a good first impression, which can make the difference between doing business and not.”