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Public but private

27 Jan 2006

The new RBS HQ at Gogarburn is a very competent piece of architecture. The role of the client and the management of the project are exemplary; in many ways it is the nemesis of the Scottish Parliament project.

This project most clearly expresses the development of a growing trend in design that could be broadly categorised as a private building imitating a public place. Photographs by Keith Hunter.The restaurant at the new RBS HQ could revolutionise how you think about your lunch hour. Handling 1,800 covers per day, it consists of a cluster of large elegant circles, at the centre of which a chef prepares fresh world food (stir-fry, pasta, burritos etc) tailored to your needs for the price of a school dinner. Most mortals would be happy to find these facilities in a five-star hotel; in a staff canteen it is jaw-dropping.

The quality of the restaurant stems from RBS’ concern to recruit the best and retain existing staff. This philosophy is evident in many parts of the campus, particularly the leisure and health building and the conference centre. If you took away the simple fact that the population of the HQ campus is on site to work, it could be a state-of-the-art country club.

The building has been open since July. RBS consults regularly with its staff and so far the feedback has been very positive. RBS was also keen that its new HQ would not only win the ‘Best Place to Work’ polls but would also reflect its brand values. The brief to architects Michael Laird was to produce a building that suggested quality but not extravagance. The task was to respond to the RBS brand that manages to combine the idea of Scottish fiscal propriety with its role as a global player – RBS is the fifth biggest bank in the world. The result is a building that is understated, functional and robust with the occasional moment of glamour. The price tag was about £2,000 per square metre.

In 2001 Michael Laird was commissioned to find a site and design a building to house the bank’s executive and 3,500 staff. The bank had looked at revamping St James House, the offices at the notorious St James’ Centre, but was forced to abandon the inner city project when the property deal fell through. It also looked at the Haymarket gap site, but the railway lines under the site mean that it was not quite big enough for the bank’s needs. The Gogarburn hospital site is a 100-acre site close to Edinburgh airport – the bank is the airport’s biggest customer – and just across the ring road from Edinburgh Park and the Gyle. Like many hospitals, the accommodation had grown in an ad-hoc fashion over several years.

The real merit of this project is that it is not a single building but an estate. We often talk about dealing with the spaces between buildings but, when it comes down to it, nobody has the budget to deal with those spaces. RBS had the site and the budget to deliver a complete package for the Gogarburn site. No element of the site was left untouched and, as a result, the package provides truly world-class facilities for the business. What is unusual about the RBS project is that there is a client that is prepared to make this kind of long-term capital investment. It exudes a strong sense of confidence and a commitment to the long term in a way that is rare to find today.

This project is not just an office building – scattered around the ground are a series of interesting resources. An old stable houses a nursery with spaces for 70 children and the original Gogarburn manor house has been elegantly converted to create two restaurants which are open over the weekends. Close by, a leisure centre with a gym, a pool and a surgery for the visiting doctor and dentist is contained within a simple glass box surrounded by trees. Just up the path to the north is a conference centre, which is used for staff training, and away on the east side of the site work has just been completed on a new business school with residential accommodation for visiting executives. Getting access to the site was a challenge. Direct access from the A8 would have been a problem; the solution is a slip road off the north side of the A8, which then runs across a new bridge that takes you into the site. The bridge, which was designed by SKM Anthony Hunts, acts as a gateway to the project. Parking is organised around covered single and two-storey parking at the north of the site and there is basement parking that provides direct access into the building.
The main building is organised around a long atrium that was conceived as, and works as, a covered street. Offices are arranged as fingers projecting off the street. Each finger has an 18-metre floor plate. In a way, the planning resembles that of a modern-day hospital, a greenfield design in which providing natural light to the occupants is a priority.

The street and the main body of the building bend gently in response to the original topography of the site. The intention was also to limit vistas along the street, to create a sense of enclosure. At every vertical circulation point, which the architect describes as the ‘knuckles’, glazed links provide views out to the landscape beyond. These glazed sections are north-south facing and fill the street with light and animate the space. While at the east end of the building you enter the building through the street, at the west end the executive offices and boardroom form a distinct bookend. The stone drum of the boardroom marks the entrance that forms a large glazed foyer that cuts across the street. The roof of the atrium is spanned by a tensile space deck system, which was developed specifically for the project by Michael Laird, with help from engineer SKM Anthony Hunt, as was the three-storey high vertical glazing at the joints of the building, which are also supported by a tension system.

Michael Laird looked at a number of precedents before embarking on the project, particularly Neils Thorp’s HQ for British Airways and the Merrill Lynch HQ in New Jersey. The British Airways building has a similar atrium space, but the difference is that at RBS lets franchises to a number of businesses: Tesco Express, a hairdresser, a florist, a branch bank, two Starbucks coffee shops, a pharmacy and a bistro. RBS had the political muscle to persuade retail units to come on to a site with this limited population and the result seems to work commercially. The coffee bars, which spill out into the public space, have been designed to give an acoustic privacy. Staff use them for informal meetings; groups of two, three, and four people sit around tables with laptops and files. Most of the staff are responsible for their own time management and are encouraged to use the retail units, including the hairdressers, at any time of the day.
Many parallels have been drawn between this project and the Parliament building. The architects formed a joint venture with another practice in order to deliver the project, it was organised through construction management and Gogarburn was ahead of programme and on budget, while Holyrood, of course, was not. The speed and efficiency of the RBS project is breathtaking. Brian Lightbody, the project director at Michael Laird, admits that it would not have been possible to deliver the project without the manpower provided by RHWL. Unlike Holyrood, the palette of materials at Gogarburn is restrained; the main cladding is an up-scaled stone colonnade, which was brought to site as part of prefabricated panels. A slim overhanging eaves is supported on steel columns.

The scale and ambition of the new campus is reminiscent of those Elysian days of the later 19th century in which projects were commissioned by rich and mighty clients who wanted to fashion the world in their image and were prepared to pay handsomely to do so. The really interesting thing about this project is that it most clearly expresses an emergence of a new building type that could be broadly categorised as a gated community imitating a public place. Of course the concept is not new; plenty has been written about Celebration in the USA, and Poundbury in Dorset falls broadly within this category. What has not really been considered is the way that many more new buildings, not just shopping centres, are trying to take on the character of places. RBS, like the Royal Court at British Museum and SAGE in Newcastle and many other projects, represents a trend to try to recreate the ambience of a public space to introduce a sense of activity and engagement into a private or controlled internal space.

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