Kate Murphy, the project architect and partner in charge at Foster + Partners on the RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Bloomberg HQ explains why critics should look beyond the £1 billion price tag
Did you think the building would win the Stirling Prize?
I’ve worked on this scheme from the very beginning in 2009, from planning through to its completion last November. And, to be honest, when you’re working on a project like that you don’t think about the prizes. You think about the client and designing the best building you can. You don’t design for prizes. It is really off your radar.
Of course it’s fantastic and we’re thrilled. but it’s not something you target. All of the buildings on the shortlist were of an exceptional standard. I don’t envy the judges because the projects were so diverse, in terms of locations, budgets and scales.
What’s interesting is that the prize is meant to go the design that has really moved architecture forward in the last year. We had so many items of innovation, and that’s what’s so wonderful about Bloomberg as a client – it was really up for challenging how everything has been done before.
We don’t really pick up a piece of a building and replicate it. I think it’s more about learning an approach
I was also really surprised about how good the construction industry was [on this project]. Construction is quite conservative. They like to do things the way they like to do things.
But, early on, we engaged with [others in the] industry to develop some of the projects like the ceiling and the lifts. When you have got that kind of positivity around the project it is like: ‘Oh wow, this is great.’
In terms of new technologies, which evolved even as the project progressed.
Kate murphy foster partners stirling 2018
If you had another brief tomorrow for a similar corporate client, is there one element of the design you would use again?
Foster + Partners don’t really design like that. We don’t really pick up a piece of a building and replicate it. I think it’s more about learning an approach. That’s really the biggest takeaway: how you approach design and problems.
This is a very expensive building. Is it fair the scheme has won the Stirling Prize given the huge budget?
When it comes to money, what was important for Bloomberg as an organisation was value. And I would say yes, we did specified stone and bronze and really beautiful materials.
But the way I would think of it is from the flip side. We live in this culture nowadays that is very throwaway. Everything lasts two years, everybody buys inexpensive furniture which looks horrible after four years. You throw it away you buy something else.
If you buy a beautiful piece of classic 1950s rosewood furniture you are going to keep that for years and hand it down through generations. Yes, we had money to spend but we’ve tried to use it in a way that added value and used it in a way that’s more sustainable.
So the exterior is stone. We are not going to have to repaint it or reclad it.
Bloomberg by Foster Partners 2
Did you have any disagreements on the project?
The notion of project culture is very interesting; how a team of architects, designers, specialists, and professionals come together and everybody has their own perspective. Sometimes it’s a melting pot and people disagree with the design and what’s being done. But it is the skill of everyone to have a good dialogue and work out the problems, to try and understand peoples’ perspectives.
Also, on a project of this scale and complexity, which runs over such a long time, the target can change. especially in workplace design. Even in the evolution of the project, stuff has changed, although, in terms of the interior, Bloomberg [never moved from its goal] of creating a place where its staff could be most comfortable and productive and happy. And this whole notion of openness and ease of collaboration was a huge, huge thing for them.
And another that was great about Mike [Bloomberg] and the whole client body was the culture where we weren’t instructed as an architect as a drafting service. Rather, we were presented with a challenge to create a fluid and dynamic workspace and then allowed to go away and think and be creative. Then we show it to the client and there was this constant dialogue.
Would you have done anything differently?
It’s about looking into a period of time and maybe in 10 years’ time technology will be different. You just don’t really know. It’s all about doing something that is appropriate for that moment and being of its time. And I think that is a good piece of design when something is of its time.
Using materials that age gracefully over time I would do again in a heartbeat
When you look around London, some of the most beautiful buildings are timeless and they’ve made decisions like choosing materials that age gracefully with time. Things like that I would do again in a heartbeat.
And while it may not be apparent [from the outside], the interior is really very flexible. The desking system can be laid out in any way, shape or form.
Comment - the structural engineer’s view
Hanif Kara of AKTII
In congratulating Norman Foster and his incredible team, I would add that it takes great designers to get the best out of their engineers and the collective to then motivate the craftsman to perform at their best, it is not an autonomous process.
The Stirling Prize jury deserves a pat on the back as, though the inequitable budget of the shortlisted schemes is part of the consideration, they have stuck to the real ideals of meritocracy to block out many distractions. The project had many much bigger unprecedented constraints, around which the architects navigated, taking the client and all of us with them. For example, finding over 14,000 Roman artefacts and how to build on 6,000 existing piles from three previous uses of the site.
Given the same budget, how many architects could actually produce such a masterpiece? If, as a profession, architects think low budget is the only way to produce the best design, the profession needs to recalibrate.
I for one would contend this project has defined a new ceiling in design. It’s also reshaped my own discipline in the daily global debates we have about the challenges the next generations face and how great design can steward that.
It would have been easy to give up several times; let’s celebrate the optimistic arc the project sets which without the talent, vigour and rigour of the architect and his client couldn’t be done. Norman Foster’s hand is vividly visible in this project.
Finally the client is very happy, as are all the users. Surely that is important too.