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Inside Business: Office designers lobby for the corridors of creativity

"Innovation comes from informal meetings, and you cannot plan informal meetings. They just happen," says Gunter Henn, the architect of the BMW research and engineering centre opened in Munich. Architects of such facilities increasingly face a paradox - how to plan environments that produce unplannable encounters.

The BMW centre brings together research, design and engineering staff who used to work in buildings scattered around Munich. In Hamburg the headquarters for Gruner & Jahr, the publishing company, presents another set of solutions. Together they exemplify a new approach to the design of "commercial space, giving their occupants greater control over their environment and the structure and nature of their working day". The hope is that staff will not only be happier but also more productive and creative.

Mr Henn talks of the "intellectual flow of material" within his building. "Eighty per cent of good ideas come up when you have personal contact," he says. "The idea is not to have people working separately, or person- to-person or group-to-group, but to have simultaneous engineering between all the people involved in the R & D of a car. That means people have to work together within a distance of about 50 metres." At BMW, this distance encompasses the entire design process from drawing-board to full-scale clay model of a car.

Gruner & Jahr is more intuitive. Its architect, Uwe Kiessler, likens it to a university. There are planned meeting places but also staircases and intersecting corridors for unplanned encounters. Internal mail is delivered partly by hand for the same reason.

Other notable examples of this thinking in corporate architecture are Design Yard, the furniture company in Michigan, and the KI Building of the Kajima contracting corporation in Tokyo. Less creative businesses, from airlines to banks, are beginning to commission similar buildings.

Their principal feature is often an atrium that serves as a market place or town square. Keith Lawson, a design management consultant, takes the metaphor further, advising clients for whom "internal marketing" has become a feature of corporate life to appoint a "village postmistress" whose job it is to help spread gossip of potential commercial relevance.

Semi-public spaces typically open off these atriums for impromptu meetings. Corridors become "streets", wide enough for people to walk abreast while chatting. Stairs, where people stop and talk, replace some lifts, where they do not.

The focus provided by the coffee machine or photocopier is acknowledged by giving it a more prominent location. Cafeterias stay open longer.

Some of these measures demand extra space. But many simply make better use of what is already there. "It is understandable that some managements say this is a waste of space, but that misses the point," says Frank Woods, of Austin-Smith: Lord, architect of the International Ecotechnology Centre at Cranfield University, which was designed to encourage interaction between academic disciplines.

The budget for such a building need be no more than for a standard design provided the space is laid out appropriately from the start.

David Leon, an architect, goes still further, actually saving space in the quest for greater creativity. His 1995 headquarters and European technology centre for Borax, on the Surrey Research Park, concentrates activity formerly spread in two buildings in one occupying 40 per cent less space. "As some people can go into companies and carve costs by 20 or 30 per cent, I like to think that we can go into a company and reduce its space requirement. We are not looking to reduce people's personal space. We do it by looking at the ways people do things. People will accept something smaller as long as it meets their needs and is fair."

The Borax building is calculated to bring business departments into closer contact with R & D. "People do not go round trying to bump into each other. They bump into each other if they are on a journey. You don't need space to make these things happen."

How to prove the efficacy of such schemes? Teresa Mulford, the director of facility consultancy at HOK, responsible for recent buildings for Glaxo Wellcome in Britain and Bristol-Myers Squibb in America, believes it must be left to trust. "There is no way to measure either productivity or creativity in research, but by enhancing spaces provided anyway with the tools needed to be creative, you are at least increasing the opportunity." Mr Leon, however, is looking at ways to see if there is a correlation with the bottom line.