Architecture's perfect storm…

Monday 15 Aug 2011

Dismay for British Architecture as Foster defends London Icon: "Gherkin was not a disaster..."

UK architecture came under fire on UK TV this week when Norman Foster was asked by Channel 4 presenter, Tom Dyckhoff to explain why the innovative ideas he had pioneered in the Willis Building (Ipswich 1975) seemed to have been lost in London's Gherkin some thirty years on. If a picture can paint a thousand words, Lord Foster's expression on being asked this question in front of the TV cameras seemed to generate at least a thousand expletives.

It was a perfect twist in the long running saga of the ownership battle for the credit of London's flagship tower, between Foster whose firm designed the building and team member Ken Shuttleworth who produced the original concepts and subsequently left the firm in 2003. The feud was re-ignited in 2004 when the building was awarded the Stirling Prize, the UK's most prestigious architectural prize.

For nearly a decade, both parties had been claiming the accolades, when out of the blue the jewel in London's architectural crown came under fire for having a bland and unimaginative working environment, it landed squarely back in Lord Fosters' lap. Clearly caught on the hop, he defended the interior space with a, "well it's not a disaster..."

They say it's tough at the top and when you have built an empire as successful as Foster and Partners, detractors can be found on every street corner and many of these would have relished at seeing Lord Foster taking the heat on mainstream TV.

It was a killer question, both hugely important in the wider context of effective office environments but also grossly unfair for at least two reasons, one, it assumed today's architect has free reign over their designs and commercially driven clients and two, the Willis Building was designed for one client whereas the Gherkin was multi-tenancy.

Dyckhoff's charge was that architects today are only interested in glamorous exteriors and ignore the internal working environment. Both are true to some extent but for good reason; the remit behind most new office buildings today are not developed to create a productive environment, the brief is all about maximising floor space, value engineering, commercial returns... creating an icon increases a building's value. Fact. The interior is ultimately expressed in square metres.

Dyckhoff's dismay was evident when he mused: "If the likes of Norman Foster cannot influence the direction of office design, what hope anyone else?"

Who better to ask than Make? Katy Ghahremani and Tracey Wiles, Partners at Make; " There is a growing awareness within the UK design community of the development of the role of the workplace in our society, moving away from the monotone, one-size fits all trend of the early 90s towards more inspiring, task-oriented ‘club' type environments where users are provided with a diversity of spaces which support their specific tasks. Educating clients in this new thinking is a key part of the designer's role. However, this relies on the designer working with the end-user rather than with a speculative developer. How can we create environments to support key activities when we don't know who the users are and what those activities might be?"

But if architects' hands are tied and clients are not motivated to push the boundaries (show me the money) who is? Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive, British Council for Offices gave his reaction to WAN: "In recent years we've seen a growing trend for organisations to reconfigure the functionality of their work spaces.

"One of the BCO's primary objectives is to define excellence in office space, which we do through our annual Awards programme. Through this we have a clear snapshot of how office fit-outs in the UK are constantly evolving to provide tangible benefits in terms of the well-being and productivity of the workforce. Past winners such as PwC's fit-out in Glasgow, Microsoft Building 5 in Reading, or Kings Place in London, have all demonstrated innovation in delivering workplaces which have in some cases transformed the way these occupiers do business."

What is increasingly apparent is that buildings have a direct influence on the humans who live and work in them, and maybe architects have instinctively understood this relationship but just as an engineer must know the breaking point of steel to design a cost effective structure, so the modern architect should be armed with quantifiable data on the effects of spacial changes, human interaction, clustering, light, colour, acoustics and so on to be able to design an effective working space.

Striving towards this end, Gensler created a Workplace Performance Index to help their clients understand specifically what comprises space effectiveness in their workplaces so that design solutions can be highly targeted. (read full article)

The irony of this issue is that creating a more effective workplace may not actually cost any more to construct and would certainly add to a building's value if a standard method of measurement could be adopted.

What is extraordinary is that in this world dominated by offices, you are probably reading this in one, this connected world of data overload and real-time analysis there is no central repository of evidence readily available to architects from which they can build on.

Michael Hammond

Editor in Chief at WAN

Key Facts:

United Kingdom

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