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Allford: 'What legacy are we leaving with today's offices?'

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The listing of 14 post war offices confirms an important cultural shift in our view of both post-WW2 and contemporary architecture, says AHMM’s Simon Allford

‘Initially, in the brave new world of the healthcare, housing and education programmes commercial offices were seen by clients and architects as having little or no cultural or architectural import. Thus they were left to the ‘commercial’ firms. In this sector the only beacons of architectural hope were the headquarters commissioned directly by the end users: banks and insurance, technology and industrial organisations.

‘This view began to shift in the 70s and within a decade had changed completely. Of course this cultural adjustment was brought about by a shifting political and economic context. By the 80s public sector work was in decline, the once vital and buoyant local authority architect’s departments were all but extinct, mandatory fee scales had been declared illegal and the move from a factory based workforce to an office based one was on its way.

‘Now offices, whether speculative or commissioned, are seen as vital to the successful life of the city. As Ed Vaizey and English Heritage note in their announcements it is usually only the façades, entrance halls, boardrooms and common circulation spaces that are of special mention. So in the future life of these buildings there will be an interesting tension between the accepted need for change in the office spaces and the preservation of the common parts.

‘Interestingly this tension makes something of a nonsense of comments that the listing will ensure we retain a record of ‘our working environment’. The working environment was always seen as the dynamic area of continual change and in fact the listing accepts this.

We need to stop the cycle of endless fit out and rip out

‘Moving ahead, in our world where the working environment is seen to be of vital import to an organisation’s creativity and success, it will be interesting to see come [the next] listing time whether any of the working environments being created now are perceived to possess sufficient architectural quality as of intrinsic interest in themselves. I would certainly hope that would be the case. For we should be designing workspaces - and products that enable creative occupation - where the indulgent cycle of endless fit out and rip out would have ceased.

‘Of course the greatest success of all would be to ensure that the next listings talk of the architectural, commercial and social quality of urban buildings of great merit; gesamkunstwerks, that just happen to have been very successful offices.’

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