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Spirit of the age

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Saga's headquarters by Michael Hopkins & Partners provides a high- quality office wing and an elegant pavilion, bringing two landmark buildings to the south coast

The history of British architecture is peopled with philanthropic businessmen who transform the fortunes of a town, not only by providing employment, but by making a genuine contribution to the public realm. Folkestone has found its modern-day Cadbury in the form of the directors of Saga Group, provider of holidays, financial services and publishing for people aged 50 and over. Admittedly, the decision to commission Michael Hopkins and Partners to design two first-rate buildings - a headquarters building and an adjacent amenity building known as the Pavilion - was primarily commercial. A high-quality working environment is a means of tempting staff to the rather unlikely location of Sandgate, a small village just along the coast from Folkestone. The choice of a big-name architect is a means of shedding any slippers-and-cardigan associations, and signalling to the market that this is a dynamic company with global ambitions. But Saga has assumed a responsibility to the community as well as to the shareholders. It was the main sponsor of the Dover Visitor Centre, recently completed by van Heyningen and Haward (AJ 27.5.97), and in commissioning its own building has demonstrated a willingness to subsidise good design. Rents in Folkestone are low, and the decision to build the Saga building simply doesn't make sense in strict financial terms.

The 11ha wooded site was once home to Enbrook, one of S S Teulon's first major country houses, built for the Earl of Darnley in 1853-5. Between 1924 and 1928 the house was drastically rebuilt in the Cape Dutch style by Edwin Cooper, to create a Star and Garter home for disabled soldiers. When Saga acquired the site, the Teulon-designed parts of the building were Grade II listed, and there was some debate as to whether the Cooper section should be listed as well. Although the Saga/Hopkins team successfully argued that the house was not in a fit state to be preserved, it endeavoured to design a building which would emulate some of the graciousness of an English country house. A key move was to limit the need for parking by providing shuttle buses, and to conceal the required 350 spaces in tree- screened paddocks at the back of the site, leaving buildings which sit in landscaped grounds, rather than in the sea of parking which is the scourge of so many out-of-town sites.

As the public face of the company, the Pavilion is very much open to view. Arranged as a large, fabric-covered central hall orientated towards the sea, with side blocks of accommodation on the east and west elevations, the building is reminiscent if not of a country house, then at least of the marquee which might grace its garden for a special event. The tensioned fabric roof is a development of roofs on earlier Hopkins buildings such as the Schlumberger headquarters in Cambridge (AJ 18.9.85 and 28.10.92), and the Inland Revenue building in Nottingham (AJ 16.6.93 and 16.2.95). At Saga the arches which define the edge of the roof are supported by elegant bicycle-wheel struts (as opposed to the ladder trusses used at Inland Revenue), and, for the first time, the fabric roof is asymmetrical in profile, so that the arched windows which span the width of the hall look towards the sea.

The grand hall acts as a canteen and dining room for the 800 people on site. The podium on which it stands contains the creche and facilities for after-school clubs, and children trot up to the main hall to join their parents for lunch. It also serves as an auditorium space where the management can address up to 900 staff (a figure which means that either the holiday division or the services division can gather together at the same time) and an integral part of Saga's disaster-recovery strategy. Should any of Saga's other offices be out-of-use for any reason, the hall can be wired up to provide it and up to 400 telephones, providing a temporary headquarters. The hall is also conceived as an informal community centre, to be used for functions by various local organisations, and perhaps by the local school, which doesn't have a sufficiently large assembly hall to hold its 8900 pupils. Grounds are open to the public all year.

If the Pavilion is the public face of the company, the office building is rather more introverted. The decision to locate the entrance at the side signals a plea for privacy in contrast to the highly visible central front doors of its more extroverted neighbour. Like the Pavilion, the office building is instantly recognisable as a Hopkins creation. In environmental terms, it embodies the practice's ongoing research into ways of providing naturally ventilated offices with low energy use (see Structure and Services section). Glass-block stair-towers topped by revolving wind turrets are reminiscent of the Inland Revenue building, but the glass blocks are bigger. It may sound like a minor point, but the difference in impact is significant. The smaller blocks at the Inland Revenue let light in, while pragmatically blurring the less-than-picturesque surroundings. At Saga, the bigger blocks give panoramic views of the coast.

The coastal view is the key to the organisation of all internal spaces. Storage and partitions are kept low, and cellular offices and meeting rooms are lined along rear walls so as not to obstruct the views. Even the open-plan telesales area on the ground floor is arranged so that each of the 400 vdu-users can see the English Channel. Staff can also enjoy the view while taking the air. A grass roof terrace is available to all employees, while the top floor, home to senior management, opens onto a timber-decked roof terrace with something of the feel of a seaside pier. Despite the emphasis on the sea view, the building is dual-aspect with a glazed rear wall, and the back view has a charm of its own: there is a grassy bank planted with mature trees, including holm-oaks which date from the days when the country house set brought antiques back from Italy, using oak leaves as packing.

Staff in the five floors of office accommodation stacked up in the rear block overlook an atrium/conservatory space. Enclosed by a south-facing, single-glazed planar glass 'climate wall', this buffer zone allows staff to work with open windows, but still be protected from wind and rain. Steel planters act as cross-bracing to the wall and allow the air to be naturally scented by flowers. Plants have been chosen not only for their fragrance, but also to represent the global nature of Saga's business - arid plants at high levels, semi-tropicals in the middle, and European plants lower down. The plants die down in winter, but the dense foliage provides natural shading in summer.

There are plans to extend the office building, possibly with a second, seven-bay office wing linked to the existing building by a low, central building with a green roof. It will be interesting to see whether Hopkins can complete further phases without disrupting the balance between the two buildings. At present the complex reads as 'public architecture' with the Pavilion as a twenty-first century town hall. The architectural expression of Saga's commitment to the local economy and to the welfare of its staff has been executed with panache, but also with good manners. By separating the two buildings, and by the careful siting and design of both, Hopkins has produced an appropriately dignified composition which recognises the fact that this is not a business park, but a historic site, and an integral part of a quiet village on the English coast.

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