Amid much fanfare, just under a year ago a new office block was formally opened, and over the weekend a lot of non-employees got to go inside and see what all the fuss is about.
This is the Bloomberg Building, which is remarkably almost as anonymous as much as it is noticeable.
That a distinctive groundscraper has emerged on this site is undeniable, but in this age of brash branding and Trump Towers, ask the casual passer by who occupies the building and they’d be hard pressed to name the owner, for the only indication is a small unobtrusive carved notice in a recessed space that’s almost an oversight.
While the exterior is of a certain taste, with sandstone and bronze fins, it’s the interior that has had people itching to go inside ever since the first photos were released.
This is also a building that’s won plaudits for its low environmental impact, although that’s the operational costs — such as reusing water and low energy consumption. A building made of Japanese bronze, Chinese glass and components from around the world isn’t that green in construction.
As part of Open House Weekend, groups of wide-eyed visitors were taken around, corralled by security and a gushing Bloomberg guide and a representative from Foster + Partners who designed the building.
Having followed their work for some years, each new Foster building is an evolution of a long term path towards lower eco-footprints, but also improving working environments. That can cause friction with clients who see a marginal improvement at considerable cost. The development of The Gherkin could have come in a third more expensive, but at minimal visible benefit.
It’s to Foster’s luck that Mr Bloomberg’s rather deep pockets are attached to a man who seems to have a genuine reputation for being willing to spend on good things. Hence, the budget was based more on what Mr Bloomberg wants, than necessarily what a commercial office block would normally have been able to recover in rental income.
A foyer that has become famous for the vast overhanging, and unsupported, wooden panels, and each slab of wood being finished with a sound absorbing texture pattern. The use of uplighting and stone edging giving this palace of commerce a calm monastic feel to it.
This is just the entrance, and concealed around a curving corner are the obligatory security gates, and lifts right up to the top floor.
The gushing guide was excited to tell us that the lifts were specially designed for the building, and use a system that means there are no cables above your heads as in a normal lift, so the glass ceiling has something nicer to look at than greasy mechanics.
It’s up here on the top floor with the double-height space that they really show off the wow factor of the building. The giant aquariums, a common feature of Bloomberg buildings, to the large windows that give views out to St Paul’s Cathedral.
What’s less obvious unless pointed out is the lack of supporting columns for the ceiling, thanks to the use of extra long beams which pushed the limits of how far apart the columns could be.
Less obvious also is that the lifts and facilities are on the edges of the building not in the centre as is often the case. This apes the method developed for the Lloyds Building in creating much larger open spaces inside the building, but whereas the Lloyds building makes an external feature of its lifts and utilities, Bloomberg has concealed them behind frosted glass. That’s had the slightly controversial result of having a lot of the building externally at street level being blank walls rather than glass and shops, and creating a slightly fortress appearance to it.
Back inside, and although this is a space with lots of free snacks and drinks, if you want to have a proper lunch, then you have to leave the building. One failing of large office blocks is that they often kill off local small cafes with their in-house restaurants, so the lack of a large restaurant in the building was deliberate. Even if the cafes in the “Bloomberg Arcade” outside tend to the luxury end of the lunch market.
The arcade outside being the space that splits what are in fact two buildings joined by walkways — and it aligns with the old Roman Watling Street, which was built over in the 1960s by the post-war development that sat on this site.
Back inside, some notable features highlighted by the Foster representative was the ceiling, which is covered in thousands of aluminum petals, which help disperse the lights and improve the cooling effect of the ventilation. As someone who is deeply irked by downlighters in coffee shops casting an unreadable glare on my reading material, I wish more places would be fitted with more ambient lighting. Even if they don’t use the petals.
An innovation for the building, and later commerciallised to be sold to other buildings is the flooring, which is held down not by bolts or screws, but magnets. A suction clamp lifts them to reveal the cable ducts below, but the lack of visible fittings adds an almost impossible to notice until it’s pointed out polish to the effect.
Everywhere are subtle signs of money spent on the final finish in a way that’s difficult to point out individually, but adds up collectively. I rather liked the usb sockets in the top of all the cafe area desks so people can connect their laptops easily. I once radically improved an office I worked in by the simple expedient of pulling the 4-way power blocks up off the floor and blue-tacking them to the top of the desks. No more crawling under desks to plug in phone and laptop chargers.
Simple things, big improvement.
In the building, little noticed, but I did like the use of stepped back steel for the skirting boards and the use of soft leather on the handrails.
Talking of handrails, the big feature of the building is the triple-helix staircase in the middle of the building. Built just wide enough to allow three people to walk along side each other, part of the design was to encourage conversations between staff, and hence, ideas for the business.
This is where you move away from constructing a building for people to work, into building a workspace that is designed for the type of work people do.
The staircase in the centre and open to all sides was deliberate so that people can see who is using it, and then if they want them, grab them quickly. Likewise, tables and chairs for chats face onto the staircase to ensure people can see each other easily.
Meeting rooms can be in the middle of the floor, and no doors. Apparently Mr Bloomberg doesn’t like doors.
Mr Bloomberg’s aversion to doors doesn’t apply to the executive dining room though, which not only has a stunning view across London, but also has doors.
I hope the no-doors rules don’t extend to the toilets, which the gushing guide told us uses 70% less water than normal toilets, and much of the water is “grey”, namely waste water from sinks and drains. The building aims to avoid using any clean water for its toilets.
Elsewhere, the fittings that turn a building into a workplace had me sighing wistfully.
Unlike rows of desks, people sit inside circles, with each desk occupying a quarter of the circle, and oh, electronic motors lift and lower the desk to whatever the user wants it to be.
As someone who finds office desks tend to be about an inch too low, and either gets sore shoulders or has to lower the seat to an uncomfortable level, the ability to adjust my desk height would be a delightful luxury. In some jobs where my desk was solo, I’ve slipped a couple of blocks of 2×4 under the desk to lift it up, but that’s not easy when sitting in a row with other people.
I’ve long been fascinated by office layouts, and how good simple design can make a huge difference to the job, from sound absorbing baffles so that offices aren’t a din of noise to simple traits such as modest amounts of privacy to let people not feel there’s someone looking over their shoulder all the time.
Open plan offices are all the rage, but they are often so badly designed as to impede collaboration and productivity.
After more gushing about the TV studio in the corner of one floor, showing off a scale model of the building we’re in, and chances to take photos from vantage points of the staircase, it’s time to leave.
The overall effect is two fold, of a physical building that’s impressive to look at, but probably much more important, a workspace that’s been designed to make working not just more comfortable, but also more productive.
And that productivity is what’s needed to pay the eye-watering cost of the building.
We lesser mortals can only hope some trickle-down effect as the innovations developed here are slowly turned into more cost-effective mass products for architects to use in more averagely priced offices.
One room that wasn’t shown though, which is a pity as (smug mode), I’ve been in and it’s quite impressive, is the big meeting room on the ground floor. And it has it’s own private entrance into the Mithraeum.
Diamond Geezer also went inside. He got a book, I didn’t.