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BCO 2015: 'Too many buildings are designed to be only one thing'

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Paul Sandilands, Luke Schuberth and Ben Adams on what they, and the 450 other delegates, learned at this year’s BCO Conference in Chicago - the birthplace of the modern office

Paul Sandilands of Lifschutz Davison Sandilands:

Paul Sandilands

I initially came away from Chicago with a disconcerting feeling that I just hadn’t ‘got’ what this year’s BCO Conference was all about. Perhaps my head had been turned by this modern age architectural mecca, once a vision of the future that might now be just as easily categorised as a place set in the past.

The opening plenary session The State of the Nations started with some simple reasons why the UK shouldn’t leave the EU and closed with increasingly pessimistic talk of low interest rates, poor productivity and the slowest UK recovery since the Black Death. The Liveable City brought better news: urban revival, the (claimed) death of the business park, new ways of working, the continued rise of the service industry, and reassurance that both the US and Europe remain major industrial forces.

On day two, [PLP Architecture president] Lee Polisano’s well-compered session The Intelligent City brought to the stage the entertaining academic Thimon de Jong and some delicious data maps from James Cheshire’s book London: The Information Capital (a must read).

Despite being allowed just a glimpse of Peter Ellis and his thoughts on the new city, he raised some thought provoking points: in particular that cities are responsive, but not nimble.  Ellis made an example of the City of London, which took 15 years to respond to Canary Wharf, to illustrate that cities are ‘dumb organisms that grow in a cancerous way’. The closing session on ‘Work Smart’ reassuringly confirmed that people will continue to work together, despite the shifts which have seen individuals increasingly working on their own.

Cities are responsive, but not nimble

Over the course of the plenary sessions, there was an increasing sense that the economy is doomed and that the technological revolution will create a Huxley-esque world where the over 35s are excluded because they just don’t understand it, with any remaining ‘obsoletes’ living as zombies in a one dimensional world. Among this pessimism, big data was presented as the light that would help us make sense of the uncertainty we found. An unwavering optimism seemed to centre on this new revolution and any potential ethical issues were in the main cheerfully dismissed. What’s more, when school was out and we hit the streets we found nothing had changed during those few hours; Mies was still Mies, and a bit of sunshine brightened everyone up.

The future workplaces that were talked about are not new, they have passed in and out of fashion ever since large numbers of clerical workers came together in the 19th century. But too many buildings and places have been designed to be only one thing at one time.

The big data revolution offers massive potential to detect change and respond. However, there is a danger of this leading to increasingly specific and deterministic solutions where buildings become focussed consumer products: things that can, or have to be, discarded having being used once. The challenge faced by the architectural profession is to harness these technological changes and to embrace greater responsiveness and diversity in the future by designing for change and adaptability.

The challenge for architects is to design for change

The conference saw in the current revival of Chicago, as in many other cities, increasing numbers of examples of desirable, adaptable, flexible buildings in appropriate locations acting as part of great places. However, with a few exceptions, these are not new buildings, nor new places, but ones that already exist.

The future of existing cities such as Chicago, therefore, does not lie in a search for new radical solutions, but in continual planning to keep the best of the old, supplemented by investment in place making and robust, loose-fit, long-life building stock that will face the test of time according to the mantra of ‘one building, many lives’.

  • Key learning point: places and spaces are a long term investment
  • Best speaker: Thimon De Jong, director of Whetstone/Strategic Foresight
  • Best quote: Peter Ellis, of Peter Ellis New Cities, describing of cities ‘dumb organisms that grow in a cancerous way’
  • Best building visited: Chicago Federal Center (Mies van der Rohe) 1959-74

Chicago - BCO Conference 2015: Mies van der Rohe's Chicago Federal Centre

Chicago - BCO Conference 2015: Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago Federal Centre

Luke Schuberth, Aukett Swanke:

Luke Schuberth of Aukett Swanke

Marking the 25th anniversary of the BCO with a trip to Chicago, a world city where the skyscraper was born and the first air-conditioned office was built, makes complete sense. The city is overwhelming in its optimism and desire to create better buildings in better places for a highly flexible, highly motivated workforce.

The opening drinks reception collected the delegates into the bar of the Sheraton Chicago hotel and towers, where the conference took place over two days, and tales of long haul flights were soon forgotten as people dispersed to dinners located in some of the highest points in the city. Courtesy of Aecom, I found myself at the River Room in the Everest Restaurant looking west at the Willis building (formerly Sears Tower) and south at an endless street grid vanishing into the distance, full of light occasionally spliced by major railway lines. Among the spectacle we could see the home of the Chicago White Socks, a new residential tower, an empty rectangular plot, and a sudden drop from high-rise downtown to urban sprawl that continued into the distance of a very flat Illinois.

Each day of the conference was split into plenary sessions in the mornings, containing a host of speakers, and tours in the afternoons. In these morning sessions we debated the current stability of our economic environment and the attention on productivity, as well as the slow rate of the recovery – the 3rd slowest in 650 years, just behind the Black Death.

Key on the agenda was the nature of a new mobile workforce that rejects the traditional corporate structure and fabled nine-to-five office hours. This mobility allows a more fluid, blended work-life balance and the technology that supports it is critical and ever-changing. The younger generation sees the economy as a risky adventure, a boss-less working society where even a failed start up business idea is a badge of honour.

Standing on the 78th floor of the AON building, built in 1973, the few floors left vacant amounted to 32,500m² and the sheer size of these buildings became apparent. The Chicago development of offices depends on pre-let tenants as the demand is relatively constant, with around $40-50 sq ft rents, so building speculatively is reserved for residential projects. The floor plates are large, the lifts are powerful and smooth, and the views are spectacular.

It is these views that ultimately separate this space from what we see in the UK, not just the height but the neighbouring skyscrapers that provide the context of a city in the sky. Lower grade, larger warehouse space near the universities countered the skyscraper to accommodate the new workforce, ‘the creative class’, where an entrepreneurial spirit overrode the need for naturally lit, well-conditioned cellular offices.

  • Key Learning point: That getting the city right is the first step in providing a great office environment. The infrastructure, both physical and digital, the culture of a happy workforce, and the underlying economics all need to be in place.
  • Best speaker: Thimon De Jong - he spoke of finding a digital balance in our lives, showing us today’s digital zombies and digital drooling.
  • Best quote: ‘Architects are rockstars here’ said by Stephen Bridges, the UK consul general in Chicago. He was referring to the civic pride that the people of Chicago have in their built environment.
  • Best Building: Chicago Federal Center (Mies van der Rohe) 1959-74

Ben Adams of Ben Adams Architects:

My first visit to Chicago has the BCO conference as its raison d’etre and begins on a Monday evening before the conference programme kicks off. The choice of Chicago has been criticised by some for the distance and expense involved, and yet it is such a magnificent city with a rich architectural history, and particulaly in office design, that it makes sense to hold it here.

We begin with dinner at Soho House in the recently gentrified West Loop. Sitting just to the west of the centre of the city, this neighborhood is lo-rise, hip and full of new restaurants and new ideas. Dinner with Simon Allford, Matt Yeoman, Glenn Howells and other dignitaries, set the scene for the conference proper to unfold. 

A boat trip along the Chicago River the following day provides decent background on the development of the city centre, and an illustration of changing attitudes to the river. This includes a new building piled out into the river channel and sited directly in front of an existing residential building ‘there are no protected views on the river’ intones our docent and yes, the inhabitants of the residential building are less than amused.

‘Older’ buildings that line the river turn their back on the river channel as it used to be as polluted and disease ridden as any other urban waterway. This has changed recently, and newer buildings open out onto a public riverside walk that is now a requirement of any new development that affects the river banks. Trump tower sits alongside the wonderful Marina City buildings by Bertrand Goldberg whose corn-cob form is perhaps less interesting than the city section they represent: Marina at river level gives way to public walk way, 18 levels of parking above, and then apartments above that.

The opening conference speech remained a high water mark as speakers Richard Kauntz, David Blanchflower, Robert Guest and Roy March ran through their State of the Nations address to tell us what to expect in the next few years from an economic, political and business perspective. Fascinating to hear insights from inside the monetary policy committee at the Bank of England (Blanchflower) and from US editor of The Economist (Guest). Richard Kauntz told good jokes and moved things along at a decent pace, and we learned that the UK economy will probably be okay for the next five years, although the proposed scale of budget cuts might need to be looked at.

We came away vaguely reassured, and hungry for Mies

We came away vaguely reassured, and hungry for Mies, the architect whose works define this city as surely as its complex section and rigorous urban grid. Mies designed tens of buildings in Chicago and the office buildings in the centre are those that resonate most strongly. They hit the ground in such an open, generous way with transparency at ground level that shows exactly where the lift core is, and offers views through the city. Less convincing to our modern eyes is the lack of other uses at the ground storey. These buildings come alive at 8am and 5pm, but in between they are rather quiet for a city centre, and more modern towers include shops and restaurants as you might expect.

A second boat ride later that evening included a trip out to Lake Michigan, from which late evening skyline of Chicago can be properly appreciated. It is a city that is relaxed, confident, hip but not intimidating and provides the perfect setting for the conference in these austere times.

  • Key learning point: The Chicago City Section
  • Best speaker: Robert Guest, the America Editor for The Economist
  • Best quote: ‘Every Mies building is so different’ by Michel Mossessian
  • Best building: IIT College of Architecture (Mies van der Rohe) 1956

    ITT Crown Hall in Chicago by Mies van der Rohe

    Source: Joe Ravi

    ITT Crown Hall in Chicago by Mies van der Rohe


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