Getting Down, Down Under
Australian communications consultancy George Patterson Bates hired Whittaker Hadenham Openshaw and Mark Marin to design a youthquake of an office
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Usually it's the designer who pushes the client in bold new directions, not the other way around. But Australian communications consultancy George Patterson Bates knows how to get the most from a creative team—as evidenced by the design of a new headquarters in Sydney. "They really encouraged us to go out on a limb. There were times they said, 'This doesn't quite go far enough,'" says Graeme Hadenham of Whittaker Hadenham Openshaw, which collaborated with Mark Marin Design on the project.
Although one of Australia's top agencies, "Patts," a venerable 65 years old, was perceived as solid and stable—the kiss of death in an industry favoring youth and innovation. "They needed a bit of edge," explains Hadenham. "Relocating provided a catalyst to lift the currency and profile of their image." And, moreover, to reinvent the corporate culture from the inside out.
Hadenham and his partners, David Whittaker and Greg Openshaw, put their heads together with Mark Marin to deliver a radical solution within a short time frame (five months) and a relatively conservative budget (an average of 110 Australian dollars per square foot for 61,000 square feet). Public areas were to communicate dynamism and, above all, openness. From the low, leather-upholstered lounges in the vanilla-toned lobby, visitors can observe a flurry of activity in the offices, glazed conference rooms, and other public areas. "Transparency was a key word," says Hadenham. "Everything had to be open and on display."
Just as important, the flexible new environment would improve collaboration, revolutionizing the way that staffers worked. "In the old office, conditions were oppressive. There were no places to meet and relax," says Hadenham. "Half the team was out of the office at any time."
Challenges imposed by the new building's shallow core-to-perimeter dimensions led to the design team's unusual solution: All 300 employees, management included, sit at long common desks, much like school cafeteria tables. The very suggestion shocked the clients—who concluded that anything shocking was worth embracing. "It's very egalitarian," says Hadenham. "Their staff came from a traditional workplace, with a hierarchy of offices and cubicles. To come to an environment where everyone is treated equally was quite a leap." As project teams resize and regroup, staffers slide along the 23-foot-long, 6-foot-wide surfaces, which accommodate three or four workstations per side. Each station has power and data conduits channeled below a flip-top hatch flush with an acid-etched glass top that glows pale green. With the center shelving partitions removed, desks also double as conference tables. "It's absolutely flexible and very cost-effective," says Marin. "The notion was to intensify accommodation without having to alter the layout. Bums on seats change a lot, but not the overall structure of the office."
Portable phones allow employees to move freely about all seven floors of the company to work wherever is most efficient. "People are scattered through the public spaces all the time," says Hadenham. The cushion-strewn upholstered banquettes behind runs of desks and the six cafés with harbor views are popular choices. Seven non-dedicated areas for group brainstorming include a Japanese-themed room with walls lined in shag carpet. "There's a sense of dynamism and liveliness," Hadenham continues. "You can hear the buzz." But not the cacophony of bleating phones: All ringers are set on low.
Circulation is enhanced by a dramatic LED-lit staircase that slices through five stories. "Because the floor plates are small, connections are critical," says Hadenham. The glass-enclosed structure, suspended from the uppermost level, offers a colorful counterpoint to the otherwise white-on-white public areas. A glass plane etched with a light-diffusing dot pattern forms the stair's spine. "The LED lights cycle through the rainbow and can be speeded up or slowed down for a nightclubby effect," says Marin. Now Patts practically needs a bouncer to send the staff home.