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1975 June: Willis-Faber and Dumas Building by Foster Associates (Ipswich, UK)

Christopher Woodward’s essay on Foster’s Willis-Faber and Dumas Building, first published September 1975

IPSWICH REFLECTIONS − Certainly all the merit of Foster Associates’ building for Willis, Faber & Dumas does not lie in its spectacular glass sheath; but, just as certainly, this is what history will remember it for. Our critic Christopher Woodward has rightly considered this building and its glittering wall as a specific solution to a specific problem.

But the AR has a duty to carry the matter a stage further and to ask the question: ‘What would Ipswich (or anywhere else) be like if the Willis, Faber & Dumas sheath were to become, no longer the unique exception, but the norm?’… ‘What is its value considered as a Townscape cliche?’

The question is not rhetorical. Since the last war the course of architecture has been much deflected by the brilliant technical invention: the slab block, the tower block, the curtain wall-all first came upon us as the inevitable solution to a generic modern problem. All were avidly seized upon; and all, with the passing of time, moved through disillusion to anathema.

For fear that the Norman Foster sheath might go the same way it seems worth while to try and separate the values it contains which seem permanent and repeatable from those which bear the mark of death and of environmental destruction.

Glass, as an architectural material, has gained great stature from the evolution of the technique of bronzing. For this has converted it from something you look through, a mere facility, to something you look at, a high-class surface material such as would have made the Ancients green with envy. It is to the credit of Norman Foster that he has appreciated the glassiness of glass and has known how to exploit it to the full.

At the same time we cannot fail to notice that, like those other technical devices, the glass sheath, as such, is what we might call ‘an aggregational facility’. However delightful and luxurious, it is, in itself, a reach-me-down. ‘You show me your building and we will sheath it for you.’ Furthermore, since the incidents of the design-the fixings and the joints-are minimised to the point of disappearance, it is, of its nature, an eliminator of particularity. The problem, surely, is this: The demand is for ‘architecture’.

The universal outcry against the pulling down of old buildings which has risen during the last few years is not to be interpreted as an outburst of popular antiquarianism; or as a perverse preference for items that are old and inefficient over those that are new or up to date; or even as a protest against the removal of familiar landmarks.

Rather is it to be seen as a protest at the removal of an optimistic image of life and at its replacement by a pessimistic image. Traditional architecture, of any period, is ‘optimistic’ because it offers a picture of man triumphing over his necessities. It offers a picture of freedom: of building needs and of building techniques being used to indulge a measure of fancy.

By contrast modern buildings, or at least the sort which are turned out in quantity, offer a pessimistic picture. The repetitiveness, the grid, the diagram-all these speak of determinism, of man at the mercy of forces outside his control. Whereas traditional architecture is saying all the time: ‘Look what you can get if you try’ this sort of quantitative modern architecture is saying: ‘You have got to have this or nothing’.

Thus the call is for an ‘architecture of incident’ and not for the furtherance of an ‘architecture of repetition’. To revert to our question, much of the charm of the Willis, Faber & Dumas building lies in its reflecting of the older buildings opposite: it produces an image of these which is at once mobile, slightly distorted and intense. It is thus an ideal foil to architecture, an aid in the dialogue between new and old.

But when there are no older buildings to reflect or when opposing buildings are of the same sort the ‘conversation’ (to pursue the metaphor) falls to the ground. Paul Scheerbart’s exaltation of glass, so aptly quoted by Woodward, is not necessarily false; but his vision is obtainable only in terms of an ‘architecture of incident’ ,not in terms of an architecture limited to planes and grids.

Take away incident and you take away the human presence and that unconscious optimism to which traditional architecture testified. One Willis, Faber & Dumas building may be a revelation, but two, facing one another, make a prison.

It is hoped, therefore, that the technology of which Foster Associates are such masters will move in the direction of incident and form, and away from an ideal of repetitiveness and unlimited extension.

HEAD OFFICE, IPSWICH, SUFFOLK- CRITICISM BY CHRISTOPHER WOODWARD − Ipswich has accidentally become host to a building which materially realises these two early twentieth-century images: ordered skin and bones and, almost, the Arabian Nights. After at least 1200 years of fluctuating commercial activity it is now, with its 120 000 people, the largest town in Suffolk, and had been identified in the ’60s by two planning consultancies as an area suitable for expansion to meet the then Registrar-General’s population model.

Ipswich welcomed large firms decentralising from London, and part of a new but long-planned ring road skirting the dense medieval centre to the south serves some of these and the newish Civic Centre. One of the world’s largest firms of insurance brokers, Willis, Faber & Dumas, first considered moving out of the City some 25 years ago, and had already set up a satellite office in Southend.

The imminent expiry of some of its London leases made the amalgamation of its scattered offices sensible, and these have now been condensed into a small City head office, and the much larger country head office-the present building which houses about 1350 people on a 1- hectare site. Architects were appointed and a small client’s committee was set up to plan the move, the management of a stock of temporary buildings in Ipswich and the new building.

The ritual job evaluation exercise was carried out, the structure of departments and the relationships between departments were made explicit. This suggested that there was no particular relationship between departments, except that all should be near Accounts.

Willis, Faber’s management was taken through careful discussions of the principles of office planning, and the arrangement finally adopted in the building grew out of these meetings. Special presentations, including 46 drawings by an Evening Standard cartoonist, were made to explain the proposals to staff, stressing the high standards of working conditions to be expected.

After detailed exploration of several different ways of arranging the accommodation, office space and associated functions, with different storey heights, patterns of organisation, different ideas for the building’s envelope, and the fixed constraints of the site, the present strategy emerged: a four-layer sandwich.

Two floors of general open office space are placed between particular, more differentiated functions: at roof level a restaurant pavilion and garden; on the ground, entrances, swimming pool, computer and telephone exchange, and some plant. The site is marshy with a high water table, and only one small basement connects the feet of two escape stairs.

This sandwich, theoretically indefinitely extendable because zoned horizontally, has been trimmed to the edges of the sites which the company had assembled to own nearly the whole of one block. One end of this, with its cottagey scale, is still clearly part of the medieval town, but the other, smoothly curved by the engineering works of the dual-carriageway ring road, Franciscan Way, faces the stained, crumbling concrete of the largely unlet Greyfriars Centre.

Approximately in the middle of the block stands the Unitarian Chapel. The ruthless and apparently automatic way in which the shape of a plan has been determined more by the accidents of the site rather than by the building’s internal organisation, has had a number of extraordinary effects.

It has called for an architectural language which can do again what the corners of most Victorian blocks, especially pubs, could do so well in towns not having the convenient assistance of an orthogonal street grid. The problems of form and meaning to which Townscape was addressing itself are neatly parried; the line of the street, its origin now as obscure as that of a country lane” can be reaffirmed, and the street itself transformed, but with materials and techniques only available within the last decade-the technically brilliant skin of 4000 m² of 12 mm anti-sun armourplate glass in 930 panes, set out by computer but placed by suction pads.

Questions of scale are neatly avoided. What is the size of the building’s subdivisions? Is it the interval of the scarcely visible floor slabs, or the individually faceted and dynamic reflections of the sky, the buildings opposite or, occasionally, of the building reflecting itself?

The entrance hall reveals what is not clear, at least during the day, to the passer-by who has not pressed his nose to the 12 mm glass. The four floors behind the facade are connected to each other by six escalators (on which the occupants are already learning to pose). This display is lit by large areas of rooflight set in the white-painted trussed roof of the restaurant four storeys above.

On the long axis established by the escalators, behind them and behind a framed glass partition, lies the swimming pool, the level of its reflecting surface slightly above that of the surrounding floor; and beyond again stands the farther perimeter glass wall. Parallel with the axis, two long solid yellow tungsten-lit walls race across the green rubber floor.

This hall, again the result of an apparently simplistic planning decision, makes the organisation very easy to understand and to use, and canies two main redolences, neither necessarily intended by the designers. There are reminders of the large rooflit and galleried hall, the floor of which served as arena for the exchange of wool, coal, shares or insurance risks, the galleries as divisible offices.

The second, more likely, is the Baroque celebration of vertical movement in a big space. Chicago’s Rookery and Los Angeles’ Bradbury Buildings did this with delicate cast stairs and lift screens. Department stores still use escalators in this way, and the decorative style of the space, were it not for the quality of the daylight, suggests a very good California shopping centre.

What look at first sight like alarming geometrical risks have been taken in developing the plan shape from an irregular perimeter: the various sub-systems, whether derived or additive, appear to have been thrown together. At the entrance, one of the regularly spaced perimeter columns faces the user of one of the bank of revolving doors which are skewed to the main axis and not on it.

On the office floors, the main 14 m square structural grid, while meshing with the openings for the escalators, casually peters out before it reaches the perimeter. At last a fitting use has been found for those neat structural systems-coffered slabs, space frameswhich always claim the benefit of allowing their columns to support them in nonregular places. The coffered slabs are now mostly covered up by the polished surface of the suspended ceiling, leaving the irregular grids poking through without benefit of specific geometrical order.

But these risks, more apparent in the drawings than in life, always produce success: the systems are hardly ever allowed to touch, and never have planning or constructional modules seemed so unimportant.

(There is one exception, on the ground and top floors, where heavy glazed black frames are brought out to meet the perimeter at right angles, trimming to the raking underside of the concrete slab edge. But here only the formal clarity falters: the technical requirements of the junction are answered with a large black rubber tube between frame and window.)

The two open office floors are models of quiet and pleasant efficiency. They seem to have fulfilled the promise of the planning of departments and sections using magnetic model furniture arrangements; and they allow the efficient passage of paper through the organisation, although this might later become less significant than the massively provided telephone links which are received in a new computer-aided silent exchange on the ground floor and which allow desk-top print-outs on the office floors.

To the main elements of escalator well and perimeter glass wall are added the yellow steel-partitioned cores, a serviced ceiling and floor. The ceiling, finished in reflective metal slats, handles generalized functions like lighting (fluorescent lamps in low-brightness fittings, producing a light that combines well with the daylight through the perimeter grey glass), airhandling and sprinklers. The suspended floor supplies electricity and telephone lines from an uninterrupted void below to people, furniture or machines placed anywhere on it.

None of the modestly sized and delicate furniture is more than shoulder height, and its subdued colours against the yellow cores and green carpet reverse the more usual scheme of bright furniture scattered across a neutral background. ‘Bright, wide workrooms’ indeed.

The calm simplicity resulting from an approach to the design of services, which avoids some problems of more conventional arrangements and solves those remaining so elegantly, must derive directly from the engineers successfully embedded in the Foster practice.

The attitude towards plant is instructive, for instead of being placed and identified in one monumental zone, it is scattered about in odd corners, sometimes ‘centrally’, sometimes next to what it is serving. A lot of plant is on the ground floor in rooms which differ very little visibly (their fire-fighting arrangements are even more elaborate) from the offices and put on a modest display to the street.

The unwillingness of the designers formally to monumentalise anyone of the main elements of the building, neither structure, services, nor the usual paraphernalia of modules, is offset by an obvious pleasure in showing how some things work: the exquisitely detailed white fibreglass trimmed escalators with their already cutaway diagram installed on their sides, the swimming pool plant, and the miniaturised cast-resin transformers of the two packaged electric sub-stations which take up only half the space of their older oil-filled counterparts.

“The display of the building as an entity, and such flagrant enjoyment of our present building techniques, may cause twinges of guilt in those affected by the too-quickly fashionable noises of reaction. We are now supposed to be hoarding energy, not appearing to delight in its consumption, however relatively mean this needs to be in unconventionally thick low building with unusually efficient lighting.

For only when the steel mills are cold, and managers ride to work on bicycles (with walnut handlebars if necessary) would these offices be unused. The considered excellence of this building demonstrates conclusively that, in European Architectural Heritage Year, the heritage known in this country as Modern is not as dead as has been supposed: that some well-organised clients still recognise and want it, and that our maligned build. ing industry can, when challenged, find the skills of management and craftsmanship which we too rarely demand in order to produce it.

Architects and engineers Foster Associates, London and Oslo

Consultants - structure: Anthony Hunt Associates, quantity surveyors: Davis Belfield & Everest, acoustic:Sound Research Laboratories

Building period - design: 1970-71, site clearance, and service diversion: 1972, construction: 1973-75

Client Willis, Faber & Dumas Ltd.

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