RSHP's park ages
Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners may have transplanted its Chiswick Park formula to Seville, but ‘out-of-town’ is already starting to feel out of time
Richard Rogers has been involved in the designs of three notable office parks, and a glance at the figure-ground plans of each expresses a revealing truth about how the model has evolved. The concept — where autonomous blocks are dispersed across a semi-Arcadian landscape — was imported to London from the US by developer Stuart Lipton in the mid-1980s. Stockley Park was the first example and when revisited in these pages this time last year, Ken Powell reflected it had been “as much a mould breaker in the field of workplace design in Britain as Broadgate in the City”.
In west London — with access to the M4 and Heathrow Airport — the 140ha site accommodated a loose arrangement of low-rise, high-tech offices around lakes set within verdant parkland. Within the first five or so years buildings were completed by Arup, Norman Foster, Troughton McAslan, Ian Ritchie, SOM and Eric Parry — the patent omission being Rogers, whose 18,500sq m addition was abandoned as the economy sank into recession at the beginning of the 1990s.
A few years later, however, involvement in such a development was experienced as a change of fortune when Stanhope asked the practice to design the whole of Chiswick Park. Also in west London, the project shared the transport links of its forerunner but, at under a tenth of its size, none of its scale.
With half of the dozen proposed buildings now complete, its lakes and trees suggest a close relationship to its prodigious counterpart. And yet the horseshoe-shaped disposition of the blocks in the masterplan discloses a density and grid alignment half-urban in character.
Denser still is Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners’ most recent office park venture. Officially opened by King Juan Carlos I this September, the new headquarters of Spanish engineer Abengoa emerges as a condensed version of the scheme in Chiswick, with seven blocks arranged around an open space, here on an out-of-town 42,100sq m site in Seville.
The resemblance is no coincidence; won after an invited competition in 2005, the project was run from the Madrid office by Simon Smithson, who relates that: “Abengoa’s president said: ‘I want a campus’ after he visited Chiswick Park.”
But the practice saw problems in transferring this precedent to southern Spain, not least sustaining an irrigated landscape in a climate close to Africa. “We knew we needed to fully urbanise the model,” says Smithson, “so we thought let’s combine it with the country’s typology of courtyards, where planting is often reduced to ceramic pots.”
As the first completed plot in a masterplan for a new business district just outside the city’s inner ring road, the site has no context with which to integrate, with the result that RSHP adopted the notion of the typical Andalucian courtyard house to create an inward-looking campus for 2,200 people.
Founded in 1941 by the current president’s grandfather, Abengoa began as a traditional engineering business in the region of Andalucia, but has grown over the years to become a global enterprise. “As they’ve spread over many continents and expanded through acquisitions and accruals, it lost a sense of being a single company,” says Smithson. With three separate buildings in Seville alone, the intention was to bring people together in one place and establish a common image.
While Abengoa wished for a plaza to become the primary expression of its consolidation, they also wanted to be able to sublet offices to unrelated firms. Recent changes in their requirements have shown this to be an appropriate strategy: of the seven blocks, four were initially assigned to the company, then three, then four again, and now five — ultimately the plan must surely be to inhabit the lot. Though an ideal approach from a commercial perspective, from an architectural one it produced problems for the plaza, which had to perform as a unifying gesture capable also of dividing Abengoa from its tenants.
“At first they were talking about having a two metre fence,” explains Smithson, “and we said: can you really have a plaza with a fence down the middle?”
The practice reconciled this by creating a “fissure” that pulls the public space apart to create two distinct terrains. Although the figure-ground might suggest the site is permeable from all directions, it is enclosed by a defensive perimeter wall with only one point of access to the west. From here the distinction between these two routes is subtly articulated through changes in height: the northern of these, which serves the range occupied by Abengoa, steps up 0.5m between each of the four buildings, while its equivalent descends to the south by the same margin. The ascent of this first path terminates with the presidential block to the east, and the architects have thought carefully about the arrival sequence.
Although the plan looks rectilinear and ordered, the experience is complex and dynamic; whether you are looking outwards across the multi-levelled plaza, or in towards the semi-public areas of the ground floor the spaces are layered, filtered though glazing, planting and wire mesh.
The journey is regularly punctuated by changes in scale when the covered walkway expands from single-height to the full four storeys; at these points, too, the volume extends in a lateral direction with a view between the buildings. What in another context might be tributary access to a main square have here been silted up with trees and, at immediate ground level, a fountain; the soft sound of both of these brings in another sense to accentuate the visual rhythm.
The plaza was also crucial to Abengoa’s ambition to change the Spanish culture of a two-hour lunch break for people to go home to eat. This daily sequence is surely inconceivable in an out-of-town business park, but to make the curtailment more attractive there is a wide provision of amenities in a handful of pavilions around the public space, including restaurants, a gym, nursery, even a doctor’s surgery.
Abengoa’s growing expertise in energy and sustainability issues is manifested in the approach to the site, where the close adjacency and stepping of the blocks has been designed to reduce thermal load, as buildings shade their neighbours. The facade is also expressive of the desire to keep the building cool: continuous around each block, the concrete overhangs provide solar shading, as well as floor-to-floor fire protection. Except on those elevations facing each other, fixed louvres are included, positioned to suit the facade’s orientation. Furthermore, two-thirds of the energy the campus will use will be produced by its own trigeneration facilities, photovoltaic panels, parabolic-trough heliostats and a Stirling disk.
The complex was quick and cheap to build, but the practice’s bold colour palette — inspired by the local tradition of glazed tiles — confidently hides this by providing the campus with a strong, memorable identity. The louvres are a cobalt blue, and although this can only be obliquely perceived from most aspects, it significantly softens the building’s appearance; their reflection in the glazing, along with the lower level transom, helps articulate the facades’ depth. Elsewhere, the external stairs are picked out in an acidic yellow-green — a stark contrast to the grey concrete — and the plaza pavilions in a bright red.
Unusually for RSHP, the practice has done the interior too, which looks crisp and bright — perhaps even a little too bright: it seemed the glazed facades would provide ample daylight and the lights needn’t be on, but having only moved in a matter of weeks ago the occupants are no doubt still getting used to the place. Accustomed to the open-plan democracy of architects’ offices, it looked to me to be a very hierarchical arrangement. But Smithson explains that the reduction of cellular office space to the comparatively tiny figure of 8% is a huge leap for the company, which is in essence — despite its shareholders — a traditional, family-run concern.
Although the courtyard space assuredly created by RSHP evokes an interior world, where the premise of the campus makes sense, when you step outside of it other concerns arise. A walk around the perimeter reveals that, carefully concealed by the plaza, the scheme is sitting on two floors of parking, which at the bottom level pushes out to the site boundary. The complex is currently inaccessible from the city except by car, although a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists is planned for the future. As the architecture’s primary expression is about conserving energy, this sea of vehicles is a jarring juxtaposition.
And yet that’s not really what bothers me (as who knows, perhaps alternative fuel sources will make reliance on petrol irrelevant). It’s that, as this was commissioned in the era of the Blackberry and the iPhone, I find it hard to believe that a future workforce in a knowledge-based economy will want to commute to purpose-built “office parks”. That’s not to say these developments will not be used for decades to come, but even as I walked round the complex, before the buildings are fully occupied, the whole concept already felt like a period piece.
That’s not a criticism of the architecture, but a larger feeling that the future of the office is at the beginning of a critical transition period. With the Spanish lunch break historically spent with your parents so you can keep in touch with your family, I find it easy to conceive of a future where this tradition is reversed and the meal is used to keep in contact with your colleagues.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the masterplan develops over the coming years and whether the city decides it needs more office parks, or something entirely different.