Architecture: A little global village in Littlehampton: At the Body Shop's new HQ, Japan meets Russia meets the Caribbean. But the building plunders rather than understands cultures, says Rowan Moore

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The Independent Culture
A FORMER chicken farm on the outskirts of Littlehampton, West Sussex, just across from the Little Chef, is not where you would think of going to find a building on the cutting edge of office design. Nor would you expect some respectable Worthing architects, Michael Cook Associates, to have designed it.

Anita Roddick, however, is precisely the sort of person you would expect to find on this, as on most cutting edges. The founder and managing director of the Body Shop has made herself famous not only for making lots of money, but also for espousing the causes of the moment: opposing animal testing on cosmetics, saving the environment, helping the homeless, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Friends of John McCarthy.

With the Body Shop's new headquarters, opposite the said Little Chef, she has acquired this country's most developed example of the themed office.

Most large offices are still laid out as production lines, as not-too-distant descendants of cotton mills, but, as machines take on more of the drudgery of office work, this approach makes less sense. As office workers cease to be cogs, offices become social and creative, not industrial spaces.

Companies employ fewer, but more valuable individuals, who have to be wooed with stimulating environments, and like (this is less new) their buildings to act as built PR. 'Theming' offers a short cut to both stimulation and a strong corporate image.

Modern offices lend themselves to this treatment as, apart from certain functional demands, they are architecturally neutral. They can be moulded and decorated in virtually any way. Like other modern devices - televisions, computers, theme parks - they are blank pieces of technology through which any imagery may be funnelled. Famous themed office developments, such as Quinlan Terry's Richmond Riverside (1984-86), already exploit this fact, but they restrict their fantasies to exteriors and, with unaccountable puritanism, to Classical architecture.

What is remarkable about the Body Shop building is the diversity of its imagery, both inside and out. Japanese on the outside, it houses an 'Odeonesque' lobby, a canteen like an American diner and a green Victorian shopfront, a recreation of the world's first Body Shop, in Brighton. This will be a museum of the Body Shop. Its courtyard is part Alhambra, part Far Eastern, and the site contains a water treatment plant in the form of a Sussex barn, and a factory and warehouse in a meticulous recreation of the British hi-tech style of the early Eighties. A Caribbean-colonial visitor centre is being built.

As in a theme park, the places between the set pieces are nothing in particular: Tarmac or limp planting outside, standardised offices within. The place is a sequence of episodes, not spaces, more a story than a building, and best experienced in events such as the guided tours which, from September, will take 100,000 people a year round the site. These tours will add new experiences to the Art Deco and the Japanoiserie. Through glass panels visitors will see laboratories in action, and the testing of products on humans, with explanatory notes written on the glass. They will view the factory from special viewing platforms, see exhibits of recycled plastic and, in a special chamber, be sprayed with scent.

This is theming with an educational slant, but the building also borrows techniques from revolutionary Russia - Disney meets agitprop - slogans abound, on the walls, on signs, even on the ground. If, like most people, you have to drive to this suburban site, the Tarmac tells you that 'Driving in cars causes 1/5 of all pollution and severe, life-threatening climate change'. The personality of the founder, like a benign Lenin, beams from the walls. There are pictures of Anita with a Papuan, Anita with an African, Anita with an Amerindian. The office is in Littlehampton because she grew up there, and the diner/canteen is designed in memory of the cafe her mother ran.

The building has other, non-visual qualities. The Body Shop's headquarters is the first in Britain to include a purpose-built creche, and it damages the environment rather less than most office buildings. The offices are naturally ventilated, not air-conditioned, and the walls are packed with ozone- friendly insulation. Lights are individually switched, so they are turned on only when needed. Timber is from managed plantations that are replanted after felling, and the Body Shop is planning a wind farm to put back into the national grid the electricity it takes out. At Littlehampton it is pioneering an organic technique for purifying waste water, using algae and higher forms of plant life to break down pollutants.

These are real achievements, the results of serious application, and the Body Shop likes to dwell on them rather more than the appearance of the building, which happened partly by chance. What strikes you most forcibly, the pagoda-like exterior, came from a whim of the developer who owns the site, and who built the building in co- operation with the Body Shop.

However, the developer's eclecticism is continued and amplified by the interiors and the visitor centre, designed under the Body Shop's direction.

Tamar Seaborn, designer of the interiors and the visitor centre, says they reflect the Body Shop's belief in diversity, and one of the slogans bears her out. 'The Body Shop believes', it says in the entrance, 'that our own culture's biggest oversight has been its refusal to recognise the diversity of other cultures', alongside photographs of Third World faces, oozing character, and a realistic, life-size statue of a Mrs Mop. The theming of the building is therefore of a piece with the company's world-saving conscience. It also goes with the Body Shop's practice of drawing on herbs and wisdom, discovered on Anita Roddick's trips round the world, to produce cosmetics.

The impression left by both company and building is profoundly ambivalent. They represent causes attractive to the liberal conscience, yet this goodness is used, remorselessly, to sell vanity products. You wash your hair in global concern. And it is debatable whether the wizened peasants on the walls are dignified or patronised, whether they are there as equals, or as stimulants to a tourist's tripping with a Nikon.

In its greenness, the building embodies the solid part of the Body Shop's professed concern for the world. Its appearance tends more to the touristic. Its logic is that of a tour, of a series of snapshots, and just as the photographs reduce whole continents to a flat, portable image, so the building plunders rather than understands the cultures it mimics. Nor, in the end, does it relate much to the more immediate world of its employees and life in one of West Sussex's less glamorous towns.

It might all pass as harmless fun, except that the Body Shop makes such great claims. 'Even in business,' says a poster, next to a relaxed and fit Anita, 'it's possible to keep body and soul together', yet the design, with imagery disconnected from its origins, is nothing if not disembodied.

(Photographs omitted)