Made to measure
Niels Torp's buildings have always addressed wider contexts than just the formal design he excels in. As the flagship of a major airline and a workplace for 3000 people, this £200 million project is an impressive cultural product which expresses ideas of corporate and social engineering and embodies the latest attitudes towards building, engineering and procurement.
Waterside floats in its location. Hermetically sealed from nearby runway noise, it stands detached in its planning-gain park. It is an introverted building which turns its back on the tawdry airport periphery, focusing instead on its internal street and perimeter gardens. It sits on a huge raft foundation, equal in weight to the earth removed from its subterranean car park, meaning that the surrounding ground forces remain unaltered. With its own shop, bank, sports centre and foodcourts, the project is as self-contained as a space station.
Architect selection was by interview, and the consultant team was identified during subsequent interviews. Architect and structural and environmental engineers were new to each other, and the absence of established teams with their mutual understandings and established power structures may have been beneficial: there is an apparent harmony of inputs and the building is a balanced whole in keeping with the Scandinavian Classicism brought by the architect. The project managers seem to have fended off the pressures of procurement without ironing the design flat in the process.
The huge accommodation requirement (120,000m2) is dispersed into horseshoe and finger blocks plugging on to an elongated atrium variously described as arcade, mall or internal street. This layout has been well-tested in the smaller sas building near Arlanda Airport, Stockholm, and has many advantages: it is completely legible to the visitor; it generates diverse spaces; it allows the huge building to be sublet if necessary; it evokes management innovation and concepts of synergy, empowerment and interaction; and it gives the architect of humdrum office accommodation a good space to work with.
The success of this project turns on the handling of the central street. A picturesqueness has displaced hierarchies of spatial organisation. There is a delicate ordering of spaces: individual workplace, communal area, 'house' etc, but the diversity of elements and effects is not reflected in structural and environmental provisions, which are uniform. The wide mix of construction types which would have made the implied diversity more than skin deep would have been expensive, undermining the company ethos of an optimum approach. For this building is critically defined by corporate conservatism. The architect remarks that the design allows for differing perspectives and outlooks among the 3000 people it houses, but its genesis over eight years has been influenced by a rather smaller group. It is rationally engineered with tried techniques.
A ubiquitous concrete frame structure proved its resilience to design change when the subcontractor substituted a patent system mixing precast, in-situ and steel shutter components without consequence. The only space which deviates from the general construction is the single-storey restaurant area which introduces steel framing elements.
The street's volume seems adequate, verging on pinched, the minimum a psychologist might identify as a common space on a starship. The length of the walk (190 metres - two minutes) is reminiscent of a terminal building: There is unease in this. Working at Waterside, shopping at Lakeside, travelling the airports of the world and relaxing at the Rollerball game one might never leave these microcosms. Glass-topped arcades have been singled out as definitively modern. Something of Benjamin's alienation comes across here, particularly interesting in its juxtaposition to workplace. The individual is enfolded and simultaneously confronted by this demonstration of corporate scale. The invitation to dawdle in a social space comes embedded in a busy work environment.
Company handouts describe the mall as a clever economic device whereby lower internal office wall costs and reduced circulation pay for the central space. Environmentally the sealing of the building prevents the arrangement being exploited for natural ventilation or cooling. The slenderness of the office blocks retains the residual organisation of unconditioned daylit space.
The architect's Classicist consciousness drives the overt referencing to Italian hill towns and urban spaces. Camillo Sitte surfaced in Torp's presentation of the building, although quite how the accretion, defence function and social organisation in Machiavelli's Italy transposes onto a modern corporation was not made clear.
The thresholds of the building are subtle. The office blocks envelop gardens, and the overlooking window sills are lowered to emphasise the link. At street level continuity between inside and out is evoked by flush thresholds and a seamless sweep of granite sets across the glazed endwalls. This ground plane is flitched by a small water rill splashing though a suburban landscape out into the large man-made balancing pond beyond the main restaurant. Aqueduct and fountain symbolise Augustan social engineering. The small cubes, squared and set by hand, lend themselves well to the odd little hills and slopes of the groundplane but conflict with the machine- cut ashlar walls with their flush windows and emphatic arrises, the crisply detailed steel stairs, bridges, and canopy overhead. Small level changes differentiate area uses but without Scharoun's subtle manipulations of movement and vistas.
Fittings in the building invite contact. Details, for making and use, seem effortless in the Scandinavian tradition, a rock-solid fluency reminiscent of Aalto and Pietila.
The development of the central roof canopy and side walls is meticulous. Conceptually a glass meniscus, these elements hold the building together and dissolve to make the building a transitional space. The steel supporting frame is simply detailed, the value engineering meshing neatly with the required understatement. Simple tube and rod trusses with welded nodes support longitudinal purlins, but clarity is compromised by diagonal stays to control uplift.
The height in the central section of the street was constrained by the prescribed roofline, and is resolved by switching the middle section of roof structure from inside to out while maintaining the glazing line. It works inside as the section rises clear to what appears to be a smooth soffit, less successfully on the skyline as seen from the A4.
The glazed wall assemblies are well resolved. Side walls are suspended from eaves frames supported in slender tubular columns. Circulation bridges form giant transoms sustaining wind loads and bracing the slender column supports. At each end the system changes to trussed mullion frames minimising visual interruption and allowing the glass plane to be battered back. The entrance end is inflected by the obligatory over-engineered, poised glass canopy.
The engineering of the glass facade and canopy is technically sophisticated. On the basis that water will always get in and so must be let out, the triple glazing is fully framed on drained sections. Unfortunately the result is that the framing appears heavier than the supporting structure. Fifteen-metre spans produce steel truss booms typically 50mm in diameter. Complex extruded sections carrying full-size sheets of glass cannot get below this dimension, resulting in some visual disparity.
There are none of the sub-aqueous effects of early Hopkins here. The curious absence of sunblinds leaves the natural lighting harsh and as changeable as the weather. The inevitable overheating will mean changes in the future.
A small staff health centre is sited independently of the main mass in one of the enclosed gardens. It sits on the foundations of a projected swimming pool cancelled during large-scale redundancies, an odd residue from which a future archaeologist may reconstruct late twentieth-century mores. A tiny sports centre is shoe-horned below decks, a pale imitation of the club lounges around the adjacent field. Provision for diversity does not apparently extend to smokers, currently huddled on external corners waiting the late procurement of special external canopies. What of those who combine their intellectual effort with the weed?
Besides enforced self-containment, the other defining feature of M25 office villages is an almost incomprehensible car parking requirement, which is potentially utterly disfiguring at surface level. But in this instance the site was an old tip, and the development requirement to excavate and remove a two-storey fill layer meshed well with the obvious but expensive solution: underground parking. Unseen but sophisticated basement structures illustrate the distinctive quality of good engineering design. The resulting displacement foundation avoids differential settlements along the attenuated layout. The two-level underground car park is daylit by huge Piranesian gratings opening into the perimeter garden areas. Ground water from the three rivers on the site is kept out with an encircling clay bund placed economically as part of the preliminary earth-moving requirement. The serious movement problems of huge slab areas of hydrating, warming, cooling and settling concrete are dealt with by a composite of strategies: elliptical columns arranged to suit the parking layout can flex sideways; bearing joints in column heads slide; and a special concrete mix design improves material behaviour.
Recently integrated design has meant full-on technical determination. In this instance appropriateness leapfrogs overwrought confections like the Inland Revenue building to draw from earlier precedents. Company organisation reflected in the built form appeared in Arup's Bedminster Down. Integration of service and structure as well as individuality of work spaces stems from Gateway One, also by Arup Associates. The provision of common space and facilities features in the atria, winter gardens and streets of so many subsequent peripheral and city-centre corporate headquarters - the Hammersmith Ark atrium is picturesque right down to Erskine's reinterpretation of the Cotswold pub.
Will all office buildings be this way one day? Waterside's direct progenitor, the Stockholm sas headquarters, was smaller but perhaps a tighter ship. Scandinavian consciousness encompasses enclosed communities. England is already far enough south to require much wider mental maps. ba's building can't quite achieve this true urban scale and feels oddly isolated and withdrawn adjacent to one of the most ideas-saturated cities in the world. Relating to the outside world will always be the corporate conundrum. This building is very much of its time and place.