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Feeling at home in the workplace

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Buckminster Fuller once remarked that in spite of all the advances made in technology and its impact on the built environment, architecture would remain rooted to the ground by the most mundane of its functions; plumbing.

At the start of the 21st century we all thought that the office would disappear, that technology was about to evolve sufficiently to dismiss the ancient idea of daily gathering with co-workers under one roof. Similarly how people consume the written word would be digitized. The civilized concept of a library would soon become a relic of a fossil-fueled past.

We thought everyone was going to work from home because we could readily connect with holographic images of one another and perform our calling in life in a manner that was effortless – things would be more efficient – work and life would be better balanced.

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Technology, much like plumbing has inherent limits – people (for the most part) respond better face to face – gathering is an import part of what makes us human and a hugely important facet of building successful cultures.

So is it then the other way around – not work from home but a bit of home at work – comfort, flexibility and stimulus to offset emotionless, tedious and corporate environments? Is the 21st Century more about connecting in an appropriate environment?

Before we started work on Airport City we had just won the BCO award for best workplace in the UK. This project was another step on a continual journey for us; how could we shape the architecture in regard to its projection of contemporary values?

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Here we aimed to invert the traditional isolation of workplace activity from front-of house, instead showcasing co-worker interaction, celebrating connectivity and promoting collaboration in a flexible and expressive environment. We have explored similar concepts in a recent library and community project just south of Newcastle upon Tyne. Libraries, much like workplaces are continually evolving. They are emerging to satisfy a growing cultural demand for attentive design with the ability to connect people in inspiring, well-considered and responsive places.

Airport City has offered us the opportunity to not only engage with a global piece of place making, physically connecting businesses throughout the world but it has offered us the chance to test our ability to adapt to the needs of the people that use our buildings and the places they create. At Airport City we have reflected on the advanced manufacturing evolution in Manchester coupled with our drive to champion the idea that design should be simple yet have expressive spirit. It emphasizes rationality and functionality employing clean lines, inventive sensibility and a capability for mass production.

It raises the question for businesses to tailor their premises to suit their own cultural agenda and promotes the generational step-change concept of consumerism in the architectural design process - home at work and design responses that are reactive to the needs of the user.

Above all, it reinforces the question that beyond the complexities of changing technologies and shifting cultures, successful place making remains a deeply humanistic endeavour – rooted and earthbound.

Lee McLaughlin

Hebburn Central: part library, part sports centre, part workplace