Design: Airline takes flight to new-age headquarters
Thursday 05 February 1998
British Airways' new HQ for 3,000 employees is the size of a small town, but on a site as big as Regent's Park. The building which looms lightly and whitely out of the sulphuric suburbs in the slipstream of Heathrow Airport is so large at 5,300 square metres that BA call the six horse-shoe-shaped office blocks after continents. Cherry trees blossom in the courtyard of the Orient, eucalyptus in Australia, American hardwood sapling take root outside the Americas and birch saplings signpost the European section. Each are themed for different BA destinations.
So now that it has landed, was the building worth it? It has been designed by Niels Torp at a time when BA has tried to reinvent itself from being a sober-suited, navy-and-grey airline flying the flag to a funky, global, get-together. Robert Ayling, chief executive, describes the change as a "move away from a rather arrogant and self important image". The airline's new identity is British but modern. Global but caring.
It's difficult to convey all that emotion on a tail fin - only 80 of the 300 fleet have the dramatic Kalahari desert daubs or calligraphic swirls from around the world that Newell & Sorrell chose for the new livery - but nearly impossible to set in concrete. Yet Torp has managed it. Six limestone-clad buildings angled like cliff faces around a glacial glazed core make working more recreational.
The building should have been ready in December but it is now due to be opened in May. The management, however, reeling from flak for launching discounted services called Go British Airways upped and went there. It was shelter from that particular storm, and shelter, with all its connotations of comfort and a safe house, is very much what Torp's building is about.
It also epitomises Robert Ayling's concept of work, while embodying the clear corporate image of BA.
This is a world where your desk can be fitted on to your lap-top, plus bins, paste and scissors, even filing cabinets, are icons on the screen.
Ayling indicated he wanted a building that would be a catalyst for change for the airline, transforming the way it does business. He wanted to ensure a better flow of information and better ways of exchanging ideas between people in a less formal environment. Staff have undergone a training for new ways of working, which included hi-tech document management, aimed at minimising the use of paper.
Hot-desking, that fast-lane accessing of terminuses by anyone with the password, was invented by the airline industry at check-ins. It frees floorspace from clunky power-dressed contract furniture. BA offices are open plan-ish, with half-partitions that never block the view. Even Ayling does not have an office. Throughout the entire 175-metre atrium that connects these offices, the sky is beamed down, uninterrupted by girders or even the walkways between floors which are made of glass.
Torp sees big buildings as a town. "A town is like a big house and a house is like a small town," he believes.
A sandstone broadwalk, 175 metres long, as big as three Jumbos nose to fin, is set about with trees, pavement cafes, news- agents, florists, cash machines, restaurants. Stiletto-shaped walls of the office blocks, staggered like sharks' teeth to run on both sides of this atrium, accessed by glass lifts and walkways connecting the two wings across the atrium.
There is no hologram greeter. No bouncers but a gurgling stream flowing from the entrance to the electronic gates to divert visitors. Micro- climates with colours and textures and plants to suggest different environments.
Wavy floor plans sketched by the architect owe more to to mutating spirogyra than grid plans. To use a computer phrase, they morph. Spaces are fluid and designed to entertain with cafes, travel shop and somewhere to sit - the ideas Torp pioneered in 1980 at the SAS offices in Stockholm. Cited by Frank Duffy, architect and author of The New Office, as one of nine blueprints of the future, it influenced the BA judges' decision to award him the contract after a competition in 1989.
Ribbed plywood furniture shaped like airport carousels and slinky curvaceous benches in pearwood, American oak or maple create little oases around the BA complex. Designed by Torp, they are more attractive than those ergonomic stools for bad backs for which Norway is known on the international chair fair circuit.
Ervin Nisslan, the project director since June 1993, calls it a Utopian concept. "Throughout we have worked with the graphic designers Newell & Sorrell and British Airways in a common effort to share ideas, break down barriers and have respects for cultures and human beings. This building is a tribute to human beings and ways of working in groups and interaction, both when it comes to work and global attitudes."
So Newell & Sorrell didn't unceremoniously dump the client's quaint but irrelevant trademark when they replaced the flag with a flash marque. They introduced a new attitude. A lighter touch with more dynamism that wraps around the world. More than a typographic or geometric solution, the creative team have established goals for the airline for the 21st century.
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