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Thursday24 July 2014

Platform soul

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In the new HQ for BBC Scotland, David Chipperfield Architects has blended a simple idea and complex programme to stunning effect

Just like his America’s Cup harbourside pavilion in Valencia a series of stacked concrete cantilevered decks linked by ramps David Chipperfield Architects’ new Glasgow headquarters for BBC Scotland at Pacific Quay is a great big, easy-to-read diagram. Step inside the glass box and stand in the entrance foyer, and you’ll instantly “get” it. A cavernous atrium comes into view, filled with steps and platforms. Fashioned from the city’s signature red sandstone, they rise higher and higher, all the way to a restaurant on the top floor at the opposite end of the building.

It’s quite a sight, a genuine architectural money shot, and diagrammatically easy to read. Four storeys of open-plan offices enfold the atrium, accessed from breakout spaces that link to the stairway’s platform landings. Staff use the stairway as one big circulation space that doubles as an informal meeting area. Struck by the grandeur and simplicity of the idea, you’ll wonder why it hasn’t been applied to office design before.

Furthermore, while Valencia’s brief was basic calling for “an iconic viewing platform” Pacific Quay, programmatically, is both more complex and architecturally challenging. With one simple idea, Chipperfield has successfully incorporated three key elements digital broadcasting studios, office space and substantial public areas with real flair.

After this, why would anyone design an empty atrium again?

Black box studios, loading bays and workshops have been tucked under the sandstone steps into a giant “cupboard under the stairs”. These facilities are accessed directly by the public from another internal street, this time at ground level, which runs alongside the stairway and begins in the foyer. It’s such an obvious solution that it kind of blows your mind. After this, why would anyone design an empty atrium again?

Chipperfield’s “building as diagram” proposal slotting complex functions under the stairs and making the stairway such an active social space began life as a simple isometric sketch.

It was clear from the start that DCA had hit on a clever idea that not only organised the programme successfully, but suggested new ways of working. The constant flow of people through this corporate playground would foster informal meetings, which research had shown to be a rich source of creative thinking.

Externally, the glass-clad elevations of the building’s simple box form are as basic as they come, contrasting with the sculpted interior

“We wanted to make a creative environment, not a corporate building,” explains Victoria Jessen-Pike, one of two DCA directors in charge of the project. “That early sketch David did explored this idea of stacking up the black box studios and using the top of them as connecting spaces to the floor levels that wrap around them. It showed the overlapping staircases tumbling down from the top of the biggest studio to link with the plaza beyond the foyer’s front door.”

Explored in more detail using models and lush computer visuals, the early concept diagram basically won the commission for the firm. “It was a huge gesture that addressed how staff could meet and work together in a creative workplace,” says fellow project director Paul Crosby. “The BBC was sold from the start.”

The project had been the subject of an Ojeu notice calling for a 21st century broadcasting centre that would be the most technically advanced in Europe. David Chipperfield Architects was shortlisted along with five others — Richard Rogers Partnership, Wilkinson Eyre, Holland’s Mecanoo and Scottish firms Page & Park, and Allan Murray Architects — by a judging panel that included broadcasting bigwigs such as Alan Yentob and Greg Dyke, as well as architectural experts including Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic.

‘We wanted to make a creative environment, not a corporate building’

After dispatching with the others at stage one, the practice went head-to-head with Mecanoo in a hard-fought contest that involved two technical workshops and countless other meetings. Six months after applying, the firm was appointed to work with the BBC and its delivery partner, Land Securities.

Externally, the glass-clad elevations of the building’s simple box form are as basic as they come, contrasting with the sculpted interior.

If it wasn’t for a taxi rank outside and a colourful but rather bitty looking sculpture by artist Toby Patterson you might not even guess where the modest entrance lies. Chipperfield has called the exterior treatment “tough” and appropriate, but that sounds like someone reaching for a cliché. Yes, the building comes alive when it glows at night. But during the day, I’m with the locals it’s a bore.

‘Our aim was to bring everything together’

Martin Ebert, Former associate director, DCA

Inside, the lofty foyer is lined with the same red sandstone flooring as the stairway, and contains a public coffee shop, a small exhibition space and funky furniture by interior designer Graven Images. A stunning reception desk shaped like supersized I-beam nods to the site’s history as part of Govan Docks, and adds to the sense that you’ve entered a heavyweight, robust environment an industrial facility for the modern media age. A glazed security screen blocks casual access to the stairway, but it still allows for views of the stunning atrium, an experience, Crosby says, that staff and visitors find “wonderful”.

The public street that takes visitors from the foyer to the studios runs alongside the stairway, the entire flank of which has been clad with sandstone, giving the impression that the steps are carved from solid rock. It’s an impressive statement that DCA insisted on making, and apparently survived numerous calls for a painted surface alternative to bring about savings.

Alongside the public street, one of the building’s few corridors leads to the hospitality suites, again designed by Graven Images, which was responsible for specifying all the interior finishing and office workspaces around the building. These are surprisingly modest, both spatially and aesthetically, the only real flourish being the natty wallpaper finish by textile designer Timorous Beasties.

Chipperfield, on the BBC’s advice, scattered meeting rooms and edit suites to encourage chance encounters

The facilities contrast starkly with the staff bar and restaurant on the fifth floor, where the oversized profiles of the giant lampshades sitting over solid oak tables are clearly visible from the entrance. According to Graven Images’ director Ross Hunter, the facilities are “a substitute for the bars and cafés of Byres Road”, the busy street which lay on the doorstep of the old headquarters building.

The office spaces encircle the atrium between the ground level public street and the fifth floor restaurant. Occupying the perimeter of the building’s footprint, they are open plan and spacious, but wholly unremarkable. They have stunning views over the river and city, thanks to the continuous curtain-wall glazing that surrounds them. Chirpy additions by Graven red garden sheds plonked in the middle of the floors, industrial partition screens and acid green furniture are fun, but in the main, these are fairly ordinary spaces. The flooring for example, is a cheap grey carpet tile.

As you’d expect from Chipperfield, the concrete frame has been left exposed. “We don’t like to cover things up,” says Jessen Pike. It’s a rugged aesthetic, compounded by the use of perforated steel panels on parts of the concrete frame, working triply hard as balustrades, acoustic absorbers and covers for ventilation openings. Stainless-steel handrails and glass balustrades on the platforms further add to a sense of mature, sober design. The atrium is confident in appearance, with an elegant simplicity to the spatial composition. It doesn’t demand attention, but does earn it.

Visiting the building, it’s clear that Chipperfield’s isometric diagram works. Standing on the fourth floor landing in front of the newsroom and gazing down across the stairway, staff wander through, upwards and across it. Some are busy, on their way to coffee points, studios, their desks. Some are casual, stopping to chat with colleagues or taking a break from their screens. Chipperfield, on the BBC’s advice, scattered meeting rooms, edit suites and the smaller broadcast rooms across the edges of all the floors to encourage such chance encounters. The result is an animated environment that, even in the two hours I spent there, felt like a great place to work.

After the project reached Stage E, the BBC brought Keppie Design on board to realise and deliver working drawings, although DCA was retained to act in an advisory role. According to DCA, the BBC marginalised the firm over fears concerning budget. Consequently, Crosby is reluctant to claim the project as being 100% its own. “There are things we would have fought harder for if we’d be able to some of the back-of-house stuff we’re not very happy with but we did a lot of technical work and presented an enormous package of information for Bovis Lend Lease to price. We were far more than concept architects.”

Internally, Pacific Quay is a brilliant piece of design. What a shame then, that it barely lifts a finger in working with its context. There’s little sign from the outside that this building is visitor-friendly, and its single-volume, unadorned presence severely limits its capacity to create a sense of place. A landscaped garden or a ground floor public restaurant could have kickstarted the process. Extending the sandstone floor into the open is perhaps the simplest of tricks that should have been performed. Unlike Stirling Prize-nominated Valencia, Pacific Quay’s diagram works only on the inside. Scottish licence fee payers surely deserve more from their box.

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