Edinburgh Park is Scotland's answer to Heathrow's Stockley Park: office buildings of a certain ambition set in a greensward near an international airport. The Scottish version is, however, considerably younger than Stockley, and its masterplan by Richard Meier is much more formal. Indeed Meier - who, oddly, never got to contribute a building there himself, and is no longer involved - had always seen it as a kind of late-twentieth-century equivalent of Edinburgh's New Town, where the achievement is in the ensemble effect, created through a rigorous plan, rather than through individual competing 'signature' buildings.
The first phase of the development, adhering reasonably closely to Meier's precepts, is now virtually built out with the completion of Bennetts Associates' Alexander Graham Bell House for bt. The practice, of course, has a long pedigree in this type of work: when working with Arup Associates in the 1980s, Rab Bennetts was closely involved with the early buildings of Stockley Park (his partner and wife Denise Bennetts worked for Casson Conder). Since going independent, the Bennetts' practice has developed a distinctive strand of work in high-quality, relatively low-energy headquarters buildings for big-name clients, among them PowerGen in Coventry and (immediately prior to the bt commission) John Menzies in Edinburgh Park. The pair trained in Edinburgh and run an office both there and in London.
While PowerGen made a strong impact, the Menzies building was perhaps unduly modest and seemed to lack character and presence - evidence perhaps of Bennetts' respect for the Meier philosophy. Alexander Graham Bell House, in contrast, is considerably showier. It commands the entrance to the site, standing at the head of the sequence of buildings placed either side of Meier's carpark-free green space with its succession of landscaped 'lochans' or little lakes. Indeed it extends the Meier plan a little by adding its own lochan to the sequence. It is three times the size of the Menzies block, and organised completely differently. Insofar as such a thing is allowed at Edinburgh Park, this is a landmark building.
Clarity of planning is very evident. Most of the office functions are contained within the long three-storey rectangular box of the main building, while the social functions - restaurant and cafe - are pulled out into a distinctive linked structure sitting in the lochan. Designed as a red cube within a silver cylinder (a device particularly effective when lit at night) it is strategically sited for maximum effect: from here you can see Edinburgh Castle one way, the Pentland Hills another, the Forth Bridge another. Contrariwise, it can be seen from the high points of the city centre. Small wonder the managing director's office and the bt boardroom are also located in the drum, on the upper levels. But the views are almost as good from the main office floors behind. As usual in such exercises, staff here have been amalgamated from a number of smaller, inadequate office buildings scattered elsewhere around the city. The improvement in the quality of working life must be huge.
Outside, the proportion of glazed to solid aluminium modular panels varies between the 'public' eastern facade and the 'private' entrance facade on the sunnier west, which relates to the car parking. Despite the presence of strongly articulated service towers flanking the canopied entrance on the west, there is something of a back-door feel to the way in. This is because the building's big visual tricks are on the other side, where the rotunda suggests an entrance that is denied by the virtual moat of the lochan. Indeed a small link bridge was considered at this point but rejected for security reasons.
Once through the doors, however, the scale of the entrance atrium is appropriate for what is, after all, a big operation. It also works well as an orientation point: a bank of hydraulic lifts, rather than straddling the space as a screen, is set to one side so as to allow clear views through to the rotunda ahead. Since this is on axis with the atrium, the casual visitor tends to gravitate there first. What strikes you immediately is the quality of fit-out. How many staff canteens are equipped with genuine Eames chairs by Vitra - the rarely encountered and costly all-plywood dcw chairs for the restaurant, and the commoner but still desirable metal- frame dcw chairs for the cafe? It turns out that the building came in around a million pounds under budget, whereupon the client, in a saintly gesture, invited the architects to say where they would like to see some of the surplus spent. The chairs, the quality of zen-like landscaping in the garden atrium, and even a modest aesthetic redesign and replacement of some of the cladding to the rotunda, were funded in this way. This is all the more remarkable in that the project was a design-and-construct type: but the architects managed to retain both power of supervision and a balance of responsibility to client as well as contractor.
The long rectangle of the main building is sliced up by five atrium slots running across its width: this is by no means a conventional doughnut- atrium plan, rather a succession of six relatively narrow-floorplate structures connected via a triple-decker 'street' with fully-glazed meeting rooms running behind the eastern frontage. The two wider atria - the entrance and the garden court - are glazed-in: the three narrower ones are left open, and people working at their edges are almost close enough to talk to each other. Dividing up the building in this way creates a rhythm to the long views through the interior. The aesthetic is tough, almost industrial. Glass balustrades are bolted through to the sides of the floorslabs rather than set in slots. Handrails are timber - indeed timber details recur throughout.
Continuing the slightly 1930s, Owen Williams feel, the roofs to the atria are not the usual glazed vaults (plenty of light enters through the ends) but butterfly-roofed clerestories. These are fine from the inside but a little clumsy on the outside where they rise above the cornice line.
Generally speaking, however, the level of detailing is high for a project of this kind, and far higher than the equivalent speculative office block would be. Clearly the architects have benefited both from the potential of the site and from an engaged and intelligent client. What you see at Alexander Graham Bell House is a building that succeeds in a more than merely functional sense. Refined but not slick, it shows that its architects can now step confidently outside the brief to play a rewarding tectonic game.