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beyond broadgate

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people; Vincent Wang has seen the construction industry from all angles and is now taking a new look at the way it provides office space. After Laings and Stanhope, he is enjoying his role as a building operator in the City by kenneth powell. photograph b

'It's typical of the buildings that Broadgate made obsolete,' says Vincent Wang of Number 1, Cornhill, a magnificently ornate 1900s block standing close to the Bank of England, Royal Exchange and Mansion House at the heart of the City of London. The whole ensemble of historic buildings, at the core of Europe's leading financial centre, seems, to some, not only incongruous but sinister. The City's legacy of history and tradition and the controls imposed by listed building and conservation area legislation are, it is argued, a burden, preventing the Square Mile from competing effectively with Docklands (and, potentially, Southwark) and weakening the City's international competitiveness. What the City needs, such critics argue, is a new generation of large-footprint office buildings, like those currently being completed for Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. Wang does not agree - and this is why his company, Nexus Estates, has converted Number 1 Cornhill, the headquarters Royal Insurance for more than a century, into The Corporate Nexus, 'a business centre for business leaders'.

'Big institutions like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs will be employing large numbers of people in the City for many years to come', says Wang, 'but there are lots of other companies who don't want or need the ball and chain of an 80 page lease. The City is changing fast. The days when the insurance companies and banks effectively dominate the City have gone. We've yet to see what impact the recent takeover of NatWest will have, for example - how many buildings will be emptied out?'

The prime engine of change is, of course, the electronic revolution. It means that staff do not need to be located in, or even close to, the City - even 'core' staff could be mainly based elsewhere. 'But the more work is done online', Wang argues, 'the more you need to meet people face- to-face - hence the idea of an office club.' The Corporate Nexus is 'a place to work, but not just an office'. Clients can rent space for as long or as short a period as they choose - there are no leases, just a service agreement. Wang points out that only 3 per cent of British companies employ over 20 people, yet small firms these days can be hugely profitable. The Corporate Nexus's tenants include a lot of new-style dot.com companies, run by people who wear jeans rather than pinstripes. There are also major banks, which want space to 'out-house' teams, but don't want to take on leases. They want flexibility, above all. At Number 1 Cornhill, they can move in instantly to highly serviced, state-of-the-art space - everything is provided, including photocopiers, a coffee service, luxurious wcs, and a gym. The radical reconstruction of the building designed by architect orms provides a wide variety of scenarios, from plug-in workspaces for one person, plus laptop computer, to spaces large enough for a team of twenty. Conference rooms, including the former boardroom on the top floor, with splendid views over the Bank junction, can be booked. The building is an exhilarating mix of new design, incorporating bold colours, top- quality modern furnishings and fittings, and inspired restoration. The ground floor, a period showpiece rich in marble and elaborate plasterwork, has been recast by Anthony Collett as a club room, a place for informal meetings and the 'interaction' which, according to workplace gurus like Francis Duffy, is central to modern business. 'We wanted something less stuffy than the Reform Club, but classier than the Institute of Directors,' says Wang.

Vincent Wang trained as an architect at the Bartlett in the days of Llewellyn- Davies and Banham - City planning supremo Peter Rees was in the same year. After a few years in practice, he became disenchanted. 'I asked myself: why did it all cost so much?' he says. 'jct 80 architecture, which we did in those days, seemed to imply a pitched battle with contractors and clients.' Wang moved on to work for Laings, developing the new construction management approach. 'I began to see architects as builders see them - and it wasn't a pretty sight', he recalls.

The old ways were finally laid to rest by a new generation of property developers led by Stuart Lipton, who was inspired by American techniques of fast-track con-struction. Wang joined Lipton's Stanhope empire in 1979 and stayed on until 1994 (when Stanhope was sold to British Land), occupying a key role in the development of Broadgate and Stockley Park. 'I never want to do another Broadgate,' he says. He now admits that quite a lot about Broadgate, good as it is, is unsatisfactory - 'the waste of ground floor spaces, for instance, which could have housed retailing and animated the whole place.' Wang likes the fact that the City is now a place of bars, eating places, even living spaces, and is excited about the prospects of the Royal Exchange, just across Cornhill, being refurbished as a complex of restaurants, bars and shops - 'today, the world of work is being turned upside down - which is why old-style offices don't work. You need an office which is more than a space to work.'

Vincent Wang doesn't see the Corporate Nexus as a simple formula, to be repeated everywhere, but it provides a model, suitably adapted, for similar developments elsewhere in the City, other parts of London and in provincial cities, which would fit well into converted buildings. 'I've been an architect, a construction manager, a developer,' he says, 'and now I'm a building operator, on the receiving end. It makes you well aware of the failings of the construction industry. The certificate of practical completion is a joke - buildings, like ships, need proving trials.' And Wang is increasingly sceptical of the relevance of property industry norms - 'it works in 25 year cycles. A lot of our clients think in terms of seconds - the world is changing and we need to get real about that fact if we're to be relevant to the economy of the future.'

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