Good architecture exists because there are good clients. Entertaining architecture, which may also be good, exists for the same reason. The new Cellular Operations hq in Swindon is the first major building by Richard Hywel Evans. It cost around £6 million and was built in 18 months; phases two and three are under way, so the project is going well. While run on a design and build contract, much of the fit-out work was carried out by shopfitters, ensuring a high level of quality. The budget for the building was established by using standard components; but the architect was allowed to suggest alternatives within the given budget.
My only knowledge of Swindon was the distant memory that a Foster building, the Renault Centre, was built in the area. Indeed, it sits only five minutes away from Cellular Operations, gleaming silver and yellow, a great High- Tech shed. On finally arriving in Swindon, it was striking that the comparison between the two buildings represents the critical distance travelled over the past 20 years by architects and clients alike. The Foster building is deeply rational, working on a grid, while the Evans building is designed from a narrative perspective where there is no logic to speak of. The spectacle and personal interaction with the building is more important than formal architectural preoccupations.
The commission came about following a competition the practice won for another site owned by the same client. It had been asked to design a 'communications centre', otherwise known as a call centre. The reputation of such 'offices' is very poor. They tend to be stuck on cheap out-of-town sites, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the kind of shed that sells diy products. They also have a very high turnover of staff who, on average, stay for only six months in a job often associated with a grim working environment. The chairman of Cellular Communications wanted to challenge these perceptions, and when Evans came up with a possible location, they worked together to create a new typology.
The site overlooks a small artificial lake with a view across to new estate housing and a curious Chinese restaurant that looks like a pagoda. There is a large car park along the south elevation tempered by planting, bark chippings and discreet lighting. The building itself is conceived of as an extrusion of two elements. There is a linear horizontal block, which is clad in black insulating sheet material holding huge sheets of solar-shading capillary glass. These are punctuated with a series of horizontal and vertical windows-within-windows that allow the users a glimpse out. By contrast the south elevation is a complex curvilinear glass armature which snakes along the waterfront elevation, wrapping around to form a nose which functions as the main entrance.
To enter the building, one passes through a landscape of rough-hewn rocks and along a timber boardwalk. Two huge sheets of sliding glass open, projecting out over the landscape. They make a 'tshhh' sound because they are hydraulic, but it is no coincidence that the architect describes them as 'Star Trek' doors. At this point visitors becomes aware that they are not simply entering a building, but participating in an experience. Once inside, the nose is constructed from a complex series of structural tubes that take planar glazing fixings. The construction of this part was the result of a close collaboration between the architect and Pilkingtons; many of the three- dimensional geometries and tolerances were developed by computers and one-to-one castings were made by the architect.
The language of the curve is carried through to the reception desk that is a collage of stainless steel 'scales'. On turning the corner the desk becomes a coffee bar with a neon sign above spelling out 'Rick's' - the name of the client and also the name of one of the most memorable cafes in cinema.
Within the body of the space the regular layout of work stations sits perpendicular to the black-box facade, while the clear-glazed enclosure creates a meandering break-out zone. The law dictates that people who work at vdus should have regular breaks though so far very few offices have provided anywhere for people to go. Here an eclectic mix of furniture, from Eames to One-Foot-Taller, is scattered along the waterside view, as is the tea trolley which has been restyled to look like a small robot from Logan's Run. There seems to be a theme emerging.
The second floor of the building steps back along the south elevation in section revealing a double-curved concrete soffit which has a clear- glazed handrail embedded into the nib. The connection between the two floors, described by the architect as a 'feature stair', is a curious cast-concrete spine that has the quality of a prehistoric skeleton. It is neither delicate nor anatomically accurate, but nonetheless the glass treads, which are underlit, provide the possibility of an interesting ascent. Once on the second level there are more flexible, demountable glass meeting rooms which are simply held by an angle to the floor and slide between a shadow gap in the ceiling grid; another architect-led special detail.
Internally the building is divided by escape stairs, wc blocks and glazed meeting rooms. One-third of the building has a third floor that contains the boardroom, the table of which sits on the cantilevered slab edge overlooking the office below. Within the stair core the architect is delighted by the wc cubicles; 'each one is different so you can decide which one you want to visit'. Some are clad in marble; others, called the Swimming Pool, in blue mosaic; another block is entirely stainless steel and there is even a set of wcs where all the detailing is timber, including the washbasins.
It is the sense in which the architecture is playful that accounts for its success. This building has a lifespan of perhaps 15 years and therefore does not have to be painstakingly detailed or aspire to become a monument of the twenty-second century. Rather the premise was to create an environment that made the workforcee feel good. The references to popular culture, to the kind of bars, nightclubs and shops that many of the young workers visit, reinforces the belief that a building can be more than just a place to work. The architect has used the premise to design and rethink as many standard components as possible. As with any experiment, some of these work better than others. The delicate shading devices to the glazed elevations are particularly fine, whereas some of the glazing details fit into the category of approximate technology. The result is a buzzy office environment which is highly activated. The use of theming is borrowed from other work the practice has completed, such as the Crussh juice bars (aj 27.5.99) or the Nike shops (aj 22.7.99). It is not apologetic nor flimsy. The cinematic understanding of space, the use of a wide palette of materials and the importance of lighting have been key in the orchestration of the parts. The building is used on a 24-hour cycle. So far the client is delighted, staff turnover has been drastically reduced and, with the prospect of a new separate cafe building and phase two, business is booming.
The question of whether architecture can exist in an environment that owes so much to theming and collaging is as pertinent here as at the Dome. There it was hoped that, through creating a series of playful installations with the dubious agenda of 'edutainment', the public would be delighted. However, what is at stake is any sense of purpose. At Cellular Operations, creating a context and landscape that juxtaposed the ordinary working experience with the extraordinary experience of the building has resulted in a synthesis of function and form. It is a different kind of architecture which is comfortable with its furry edges. If you came to Swindon to visit the Renault Centre and found this you might be in for a shock; however, if you got lost on the way to the Dome and arrived at the glass torpedo, you would be in for a pleasant surprise.