Why Bloomberg’s London office is in a class of its own

Against all expectation, the top award in British architecture, the RIBA Stirling Prize, has been given to an office block. But this Foster-designed workplace project defies the odds in so many ways

The Stirling Prize, given annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects, is the design equivalent of a Hollywood Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize for journalism or a Nobel Prize for science. Architecture’s super-gong is usually preserved for sensitive arts or cultural buildings. The 2017 Stirling Prize went to the restoration of Hastings Pier and, in 2016, the winner was Newport Art Gallery. Big, fancy office blocks are very rarely in the running.

So the news that Bloomberg’s spectacular new London headquarters, designed by Foster + Partners, has won 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize cannot be easily dismissed. It is a breakthrough award, showering a cathedral of commerce in the workplace sector with the RIBA’s most glittering prize at a time when real-estate trends are generally moving away from high-end, stand-alone, owner-occupier buildings.

‘A spectacular scheme that bucks the trend…’

The Stirling Prize for Bloomberg follows hot on the heels of the British Council for Offices declaring the development to be the best workplace in the UK. Inevitably, workplace professionals will pour over the details seeking clues for how you create such a monumental scheme, which has been hailed for its combination of design flair and sustainable credentials.

But before everyone hunts high and low for some hidden success formula, let’s face the facts. The Bloomberg HQ is not like any ordinary office building. The normal rules do not apply to this project. It operates on an entirely different plane in terms of budget, client-architect collaboration, creative ambition, use of materials and so on.

Here are four reasons why Bloomberg’s new London landmark can be said to be, literally, in a class of its own:

Super-client meets super-architect

This bespoke-everything scheme is a meeting of minds between Michael Bloomberg, head of the Bloomberg media empire and a former mayor of New York, and Sir Norman Foster. One determined, powerful individual with a singular vision locking heads with another determined, powerful individual with a singular vision. This was not an office designed by committee. The budget is strictly under wraps but is rumoured to be astronomical.

The results are undeniably spectacular, especially a vortex ramp which pulls people to a sixth-floor ‘pantry’ and connects all office floors in a meandering loop. On each floor, up to 700 staff work at bespoke sit-stand desks – 4,000 employees in all. Unlike most offices with a large central core formed of lifts and staircases, Bloomberg’s services are pushed to the edge and the people form the core. But it all comes at a price. An estimated 600 tonnes of bronze was imported from Japan as well as a quarry-full of granite from India.

Sensitivity to site and history

Described as the largest stone building in the City of London since St Paul’s Cathedral (c. 1675), the project has more than an eye to historical significance. The size of an entire block, it creates 1.1m square feet of office and retail space divided by pedestrianised dining arcade. This arcade reinstates an ancient Roman road called Watling Street, which originally ran through the site. The scheme also incorporates a museum displaying the Roman Temple of Mithras, which was discovered on the site 60 years ago.

However, the HQ is not overblown in scale, sitting at a modest and respectful ten stories in relation to its neighbourhood. The story goes that Foster + Partners originally obtained permission to design a building more than double that height but Michael Bloomberg wanted to create a dialogue with the historic district that surrounds it. As Sir Norman Foster told the press: ‘We could have gone a lot higher but Mike wanted to fit in. He has a keen sense of civic pride.’ Few office developments, burdened with maximining capital and space, share that sense of refinement.

Commissioning art with deep pockets

Office developers and occupiers have a rich history of arts patronage. But this is next-level by today’s standards. The building features an artwork called ‘No future is possible without a past’ by Icelandic superstar Olafur Eliasson as well as work by other artists, including Michael Craig Martin who created 12 pieces under the title ‘Lexicon’ to act as signage. Bloomberg’s block is surrounded by a three-part sculpture called ‘Forgotten Streams’ by Spanish installation artist and sculptor Cristina Iglesias, which is not only sensitive to the site but acts as a secret and unobtrusive security barrier.

Serious – really serious – about sustainability

Finally, Bloomberg claims to have created the most sustainable office building in the world, which uses 70 per cent less water and 40 per cent less energy than a typical office block. Its BREEAM score at 98.5 per cent is off the charts. Foster’s extensive research in this area is the reason for such a result. The project’s workspaces are filled with pioneering new technologies including multi-function ceilings fitted with 2.5 million polished aluminium ‘petals’ to regulate acoustics, temperature and light.

Does this all sound like business as usual? Not a bit of it. Nobody contemplating the design and delivery a new office building should beat themselves up trying to out-Bloomberg Bloomberg. But in its ambition and detailing, this is a project that lays down a marker for how the top-end of the global workplace market may be heading in the future

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