Office values defy the doom-merchants over the future of workspace
8 April 2021, Paul Finch
There has been intense debate in London about the future of the office market, or ‘workspace’ market as some like to call it. Office occupiers are split about whether the ‘normal’ market will ever come back, with worker-drones now accustomed to the joys of non-commuting, and the fluid lifestyle home-working can provide. On the other hand there are plenty of younger people who relish the idea of getting away from cramped, shared residential properties, rediscovering the lifestyle associated with free-wheeling contemporary office environments quite unlike the experience of 20 or even 10 years ago.
We will have to see, but if the future of the office is troubled, there is one building which is defiantly bucking the possible trend: 100 Bishopsgate in the City of London. Designed by PLP Architects (headed by ex-KPF figurehead Lee Polisano, with Karen Cook leading the design team), the 37-storey tower is currently the tallest building in the Square Mile. It is also set to become the most expensive, with a reported price of £1.8 billion likely to be sought when it comes to market formally later this year.
The first London office building to sell for more than £1 billion was the Cesar Pelli Canary Wharf Tower in the old docklands; this was followed by the Rogers Stirk Harbour ‘Cheesegrater’ and shortly afterward a new record was achieved by Rafael Vinoly’s ‘Walkie-Talkie’. If 100 Bishopsgate gets approaching the suggested price, it will not only be a triumph for asset management mega-company Brookfield, but for the development team Lipton Rogers, which brought the whole project to life.
A previous tower design for the site, which achieved planning permission following designs by Lee Polisano, was known as the ‘Helter Skelter’ because of its skyline profile. A complicated history resulted in the project being abandoned after construction had started, with a substantial core sticking out of the ground.
This was a stimulating challenge for veteran development Sir Stuart Lipton, and his partner Peter Rogers (brother of architect Richard), both obsessively interested in constructional design and efficiency. With the help of heritage authorities desperate to avoid the Helter Skelter design (by contrast they heaped unexpected praise on the new proposal), the entrepreneurial duo pulled off a major logistical and planning coup.
Not only was a failed project replaced by one that significantly increased space on the site, but construction costs were slashed – a seemingly impossible achievement. The project had to withstand the onslaught of criticism and doom-mongering surrounding Brexit, and has had to be completed despite the problems associated with lockdown – another construction challenge successfully resolved.
Blue-chip tenants have encouraged the sale of the asset, event though it is not yet fully let. The design, which allows multiple sharing of huge common spaces/volumes within the building, is at the cutting edge of office design. In that sense it is a second chapter in the Lipton history of office development – the first being the Broadgate development not so far away, which represented the breaking of the mould of a very conventional UK office market when it was conceived by Sir Stuart, with partners including Godfrey Bradman and Geoffrey Wilson, in the 1980s.
As is the way of things, that development is being intensified under its current owners, British Land, coincidentally the developer behind the Cheesegrater. Demolition and replacement are the order of the day, with architects involved including AHMM, Hopkins, and London newcomer Kim Nielsen of Danish firm 3XN. In London’s new office world, conventional tenants may be welcome occupies, but so too are ‘fin-tech’ companies, media operators and digital media agencies. Times are, in short, exciting.
Standing up for reason
The commentator and management guru, Matthew Syed, gave an inspirational talk to our company in 2018, on strategies for success based on honesty and transparency. His latest column, in the Sunday Times, was a reminder about a potential casualty in a ‘race to the bottom’ where one person’s ‘truth’ is pitted against someone else’s, with objective reality pushed to the sidelines. As the sub-head to his column rightly says, when ‘lived experience’ trumps evidence, ‘the debate can only be vapid, vicious – and very personal’.
By and large, at least since Modernists stopped suck air through their teeth if someone suggested that a flat roof was not necessarily always the answer, architectural debate is relatively civilised. As the best design reviewers say, you do not have to like a design to admire the degree of skill with which it has been conceived. Conversation, heated discussion and sharp criticism are all part of the everyday life of architecture. Abuse and confrontation can be left to less tolerant areas of our collective life, anti-social media being an obvious example.
Union with a credibility problem
An obscure union, currently trying to recruit architects and would-be architects to its ranks, has an engaging set of demands it is making of architectural practices, who are not falling over themselves to grant union recognition. One of the demands is that they immediately introduce a four-day week for without any loss of pay. What impeccable timing, as we fight our way out of recession. Why not three days?