From its beginnings at Team 4 with Reliance Controls Factory, in Foster’s career there has been a clear understanding of workspaces as a place of both leisure and productivity. Foster’s philosophy of integrating working classes under the same roof has represented a social and political manifesto through architecture that has been matured through his different practices. This collection shows various examples and strategies of such philosophy.
Placing ourselves in 1960s Britain, social class division was rooted in workplaces, it was the time Reliance Controls was built, presenting itself as a bold confrontment to such politics. Team 4 conceived it as a statement, taking a stand against the situation and suggesting a more egalitarian, democratic and flexible distribution. In Foster’s words ‘Reliance Controls challenged the idea of the management box and the worker’s shed, the distinctions between “we and they”, “posh and scruffy”, “clean and dirty”, “back and front”, and suggested a more egalitarian, more flexible, more appropriate response’.
Only the toilets, kitchen and plant rooms were fixed structures, accordingly, the rest of the enclosed space could be easily reconfigured, allowing the client to adapt their layout to adapt to production peaks. However, the most revolutionary aspect about its distribution, besides the open plan, was that both management and employees shared a single entrance and restaurant, something unheard at the time.
Reliance Control employed factory-like prefabricated metallic elements to create an elegant yet cheap and fast to assemble building, that only took ten and a half months to be both designed and built.
In 1970 the tech company IBM was looking to extend their facilities and create both permanent and temporary accommodation. The redistribution was planned so that it used peripheral areas of the building to redistribute the circulations, and meeting places worked as adjacent islands. It was, again, a social reinterpretation and integration of the traditional office space, where the managers’ offices would have a privileged situation, closest to the windows. At IBM these “prime” spaces were located more towards the centre of the building, with no apparent advantages. This modification clearly indicates a derogation of status within the office space.
Reliance, IBM, and Fred Olsen projects were pioneer in tackling the pending subjects of social integration and office innovation. However, Willis Faber & Dumas followed and further developed both the ideas of integration, previously explored in IBM, and the and workers amenities presented at Fred Olsen. This time it was pushed beyond, marking a milestone in the idea of ‘lifestyle’ and ‘wealthness’ in the workplace. From the earliest stage of the project the brief included a wide range of facilities that included amongst others, restaurant, coffee-shop and swimming pool, stating that recreation should be a capital part of any working environment.
On the search of light and quality of life, the building disposition was organised around an inner patio where two escalators rose, framing a single entrance and allowing a visual relation of all the different floors. There was no compartimentation, leaving a flexible open plan office that was interrelated through the different floors. Other amenities included a swimming pool that was actually the only enclosed space in the building, framing the entrance, and that was opened for workers and workers relatives. Coronating the core and the building, is the cantine, a place of congregation overlooked the city and was open to all the members in the office. Surrounding the terraced cantine was a roof garden with a running court on its perimeter introducing, together with the swimming pool, concepts of wealthness that are still being pursued and applied in new-builds.
Social-hubs were placed around the building, the coffee shop placed between the escalators and the swimming pool. Such strategies generated a sense of belonging amongst the different workers, regardless of their status within the company.
The same search of light, embodied in a central core with escalators can be appreciated in the HSBC bank. The displacement of all the structure to the perimeter allowed for an open plan distribution, which was also organized around a central atrium.
Foster has pursued this principles later in his career and such social integration has been key in his projects. One of the best examples regarding light and nature in workspaces is Commerzbank. With a triangular plan and a full-height internal atrium, it interlocks volumes and nature, creating a permeable building. It visually relates not only internally through the atrium, but its configuration connects all the different pieces with the outer world, giving each work-station a view of Frankfurt. The atrium and vegetation create an enjoyable space while creating airflows and natural ventilation, making the Commerzbank the first ‘ecological office tower’. So it happens with Swiss Re. This building sits in a wind intersection. Taking advantage of the wind and using aerodynamic principles, each floor is configured creating wells that spiral around the perimeter allowing for natural ventilation and vertical and diagonal connection between the different floors, allowing natural light to get the maximum area of the office floors.