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Driven by design

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bdp’s design for Opel’s new hq in Russelsheim, Germany, overcame the tradition of German working hierarchies to create an egalitarian workspace with a twist of individuality

When Opel wanted to create a new headquarters building in Russelsheim, just outside Frankfurt, Germany, its requirements were simple. The building should both become a non-hierarchical workplace and it should use openness and light to create a showpiece for the organisation. The resulting building achieves this within the limitations of common German office practice - the fact that the office suites of top management are only slightly larger than those of middle management is seen as pretty revolutionary. And there is no question that those top managers should have to follow the circulation route of the rest of the staff - their private car parking is underneath the building, from where lifts whiz straight to the office floors without the need to pass through the usual security measures.


bdp as architect, working initially for Opel and then for developer Roland Ernst, has fulfilled this brief, although it is clear it has encountered some internal resistance. As one walks through the offices in the building, ranged on either side of an uplifting atrium, one can sense a tension between the way the architect and the client envisaged the space and the users’ desire to create defensible space.


But these problems lie in the detail of aggressively arranged and inconsistent furniture partitioning. Overall, bdp has pulled off its trick successfully, with an atrium that creates the required wow factor yet with enough warm materials not to feel threatening, and an increased feeling of intimacy as one progresses upwards.


Although the headquarters building is fully occupied, there are some senses in which it is still difficult to judge, since it forms part of a complex of still-uncompleted buildings and neither the circulation pattern not the formality of the setting will become entirely apparent until they are finished.


The underlying principle of the building is simplicity itself. Two 15m- wide blocks of offices (1.5 m wider than the German spec standard and hence more flexible) run either side of the atrium. The western end of the southern block kicks out at an angle of 45degrees to create one side of the apparent entrance to the campus. ‘Apparent’ because few in fact will arrive this way, but part of the rationale is to give a distinctive and contemporary edge to the vast Opel campus, whose buildings were constructed over a number of decades and in many cases put functionality well above aesthetics.


As the campus shifts in balance from manufacturing towards design and technical development, it is also developing a more open public face. Hence the building adjoining the new office, also designed by bdp and nearing completion, will include a visitor attraction and act as the starting point for a trail through the works. The front part of that building will form the matching entrance pavilion to the ‘kick leg’ of the hq, but the main part of the building is circular. It includes an auditorium and a massive cafe, with a cut-out segment forming an outdoor amphitheatre. This combination of uses has allowed the architect to be playful with the sections, unlike the hq where rationality has to prevail in order to fit in a staff of 1250, albeit with generous space allocations.


The headquarters building has a 7.5m structural grid, with a fit-out grid of 1.5m. The structure comprises in-situ concrete columns with precast beams and 60mm-thick precast slabs acting as permanent formwork for the floors. There is a raised floor along certain strips, with the rest adopting the cheaper solution of a concrete slab above a cavity. This is cheaper than creating a true raised floor, while reducing flexibility. The rationale is that it is often simpler, in such an ordered building, to move people rather than desks.


One method of creating interaction is through the use of escalators rather than lifts to link the floors. The main entrance will in fact be at first- floor level, across a bridge that links to the visitor building. Staff will reach that building via another footbridge from a car park on the other side of the main road. In another break with traditional hierarchy, they will take the same route as the public going to the visitor centre until they peel off within the visitors’ building. Users on different routes will have glimpses into one another’s worlds, a far cry from the conventional segregation of work and leisure.


Nor will there be any doubt about the nature of the product from which Opel earns its money. The latest models of cars are on display in the atrium and two more sit on square islands which have broken off from the granite paving in front of the building into the lake. This gives both a meaning to what might otherwise have seemed a slightly arbitrary gesture (it adds a measure of security) while leaving the visitor intrigued - how did they get the cars there?


The landscaping is excellent - well considered and designed as much to be seen from above as from the ground. So, for example, the shallow lake has a bottom of beautifully round stones, barely perceptible from the ground but easily seen from the building and especially from the escape terraces which double as attractively designed relaxation spaces.


At some point all year round there will be yellow flowers in the landscaping, reflecting the fact that yellow is the accent colour in Opel’s logo. The other colours are grey and white, which of course sit comfortably with the standard cool modern palette, but bdp has managed not to let this become chilly by judicious use of maple and oak flooring and of limestone. For instance, the visitor arriving by the standard route will then come down the escalators to the reception desk, stepping on to a more homely island of oak.


The architect has used the same materials - black and grey granite, sandstone and profiled metal - both externally and internally. This has the desired effect of tying the building to its surroundings, although the toughness of the profiled metal is a little harsh indoors, and the 15mm gaps between the limestone blocks are too great when seen from close to.


All colour within the offices comes from users’ coats and knick-knacks, whereas a little has been allowed to sneak into the less-ordered visitors’ building, in the form of citrus-coloured chairs in the cafe and one mauve- coloured wall in the visitor centre.


The car park will double as another showcase for Opel’s products, with a glazed front facade which will be illuminated at night. Two projecting bays can be used to display the latest models of cars. Whatever its belief in egalitarianism, Opel is determined that only the very best will go on show. bdp has served it admirably, with only a trifle of heaviness on the cladding at the far end of the building. Otherwise, like the businesswear after which the Opel top executive should aspire, it has created a well- tailored classic with a twist of individuality.

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