Student of behaviour
The designs of Niels Torp, architect of ba's new hq, are based on a sensitivity to and enjoyment of human behaviour
'She sat there, with her head in his hands.' To Niels Torp, the Norwegian architect of ba's headquarters, this posture of a young couple in a Parisian restaurant 'was so funny' - a response which distances him from his compatriots like Ibsen and Munch, whose views of love and hand- held heads have occasioned little mirth. Torp's enjoyment of people, his belief that 'people are funny . . . their ways of behaving are funny' is fundamental to his architecture. 'It's very important to carry the humour,' he says, and his sunny buildings with myriad meeting points, public spaces and private spots, light nooks and dark crannies, are designed to 'create the scene for any kind of human activity'.
Standing on a a small, curving terrace one floor up from street level in the ba headquarters (shown below), he expands:'Work is such a large part of daily life. The functions you cover during a day include discussing, debating, laughing, crying - you get angry and you get tired . . . You have to cater to all these emotions.' If, instead of his complex shapes, changes of scale and views, 'you had a corridor and lots of offices, it would be a very boring life'. With movement up and down the street, across it along several high-level bridges and by views into the office areas, the building takes on an animation almost like a machine where the cogs and sproggets are deliberately visible. 'We try to use people as part of the interior,' Torp explains.
Looking at the ba building and the sas headquarters outside Stockholm, it might be tempting to believe that Torp has found a formula and repeated it. 'You might be able to recognise the complexity, the tension between forms and the variety of perspectives,' he volunteers. But some buildings demand a different approach. 'Here [at ba], we put people together. At the hospital [a vast scheme in Trondheim], we segregated them. In an office there is no value out of being numerous if you can't construct new teams. In a hospital you have a private disease and want to meet a doctor as soon as possible while avoiding fellow travellers . . . ' Organisation is fundamental to achieve the different effects, it can't just be done with materials or cosmetic adjustments.
To Torp, complex shapes are a blend of function and intuition. 'I am not a very rational man,' he confides. 'We invent forms because we like them.' The shapes come 'from inside . . . you find out one day that the building has to look like that.' He takes inspiration from 'absolutely everything . . . every smell, every view, every meeting - even the smallest thing can be of value'. Torp's father, an architect who 'had a classical education in Copenhagen . . . but became quite modern' under the influence of Nordic functionalism which came to Norway shortly after he opened his practice in 1933, sent him to Rome as a very young man. 'I was like a sponge, as you are at that age' - he was about 17, and living for nine months near the Piazza Navona in the Rome of La Dolce Vita was a formative experience. 'I went round the streets and made drawings.' He particularly enjoyed the 'strange collisions between form and function . . . a church in the middle of rows of ordinary houses.' Then he went back north to study in Trondheim, where his teachers were unmemorable but 'I was very happy, and that's much more important', and, 'some time in the 1970s', he took over this father's practice after ten years of working alongside him. His impressions of Rome remained with him; there, he says, 'your eyes are in a gym', and the impressions of public life there, with its 'strange polarisations between different functions' helped him to formulate his personal appreciation of the relationship between form and activity.
Yet he is also 'absolutely functionalist . . . part of the function [of the ba building] is to create meeting areas'. To Torp, function is a holistic concept, not some narrow mechanical definition of a process. It encompasses emotion and experience and a variety of tasks. And this conception is what makes his kind of architecture so attractive to enlightened corporate clients. His buildings readily lend themselves to changing trends in workplace design - indeed, at the sas building under the influence of then chief executive Jan Carlzon, the man some credit with introducing service-minded business thinking into Sweden, Torp helped to create those norms. It's easy, at ba, to get up from your desk, to walk over a bridge and look out of the building, or to sit down and have a coffee in an intimate or a public place: you might even see Bob Ayling himself wandering around. And the floor plates of the six 'buildings' which make up the scheme are masterpieces of office design. Themselves divisible into half plates, these shapes, whose origins are obscure, are uncannily easy to lay out with a satisfying logic; they make equally well either standard workstations where 100 people might have a desk, or the 'club' format, where 180 people might be based and able to choose their patch.
This is the core of Torp's architectural thinking. Where some architects would use an ability to manipulate form to create the play of solids in light, or however you choose to describe something which creates meaning directly, Torp plays like a puppet master, where the shapes interact with patterns of behaviour, derived from a lifetime of sensitive observation and enjoyment of human foibles.