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‘Openess, simplicity and care’: 3XN's Stockholm Swedbank HQ

AR Work Awards 2016 Commended: 3XN’s zig-zag plan encourages movement and chance encounters between employees

‘Here your money is safe in  the hands of honest people,’ was the impression Adolf  Loos demanded of a bank’s architecture in 1910, a mantra he literally set in stone in his 1914 design for the Anglo-Austrian Bank. After crashes, takeovers, mergers – and a 2011 subletting as a One-Euro shop – the words chidingly remain on the wall. Loos was of course referring to the grander banks of old rather than the sleek head offices of today, which seem to oscillate between macho (think Nikken Sekkei’s Islamic Development Bank) and transparent friendliness. Swedbank’s entire image is most definitely geared towards the latter, complete with endearing adverts by plasticine pioneers Aardman. Just as their star – a squirrel – buries an acorn and waits to reap the benefits while a carefree bird fritters his savings away, so too did Swedbank CEO Michael Wolf bury a metal acorn inscribed with the bank’s values into the foundations of the shiny new head office in Sundbyberg, Stockholm. Perhaps the lesson taken from Loos is that if anything went wrong, at least it would be buried.

‘A big issue for us’, says Swedbank’s head of internal services Janne Björklund on their new headquarters, ‘is that it wouldn’t be like a bank palace from the 1800s: it should be big, but open and caring’. The latter are two of Swedbank’s catchwords: ‘Openness, Simplicity and Care’, and this is a project that, while experimenting with working conditions, is as much about rendering company values – ‘the life under the oak’ – in glass, metal and, well, oak.

 ‘I would have my room and you have yours, and you might never know who some of your colleagues are’ 

When ‘International Architecture English’ meets the world of banking – along with the more recent vocabulary of flexible office working – things can quickly become stifling, as though each employee has been briefed to deftly respond to questions  on the building with talk of ‘activity-based’ working and community creation. The task here, however, is to cut through brochure-ready phrases such as ‘I get to be me, and you get to be you!’ and determine the extent to which Swedbank uses these ideas not as gimmicks, but as long-term solutions to the ongoing ‘office problem’. 

Swedbank previously occupied five buildings in central Stockholm, totalling roughly 50,000 square metres. All of them were rooms-off-corridors affairs, much like – as one of the buildings once was and as one will soon become again – a hotel. ‘I would have my room and you have yours’, says Björklund, ‘and you might never know who some of your colleagues are.’ Never mind those in different buildings not meeting one another – workers were not even meeting when they were in the same building, or on the same floor. Some may have loved this insular set-up, but it was a situation Swedbank’s Peter Wånggren imaginatively bemoaned as not being ‘Swedbanky’.

Swedbank 3XN Location Plan

Swedbank 3XN Location Plan

Site plan

Danish behaviour-shaping architects 3XN, working with  a site owned by Swedish developer Humlegården, were chosen from several proposals, each on sites in Stockholm with varying centrality.  While not dramatic in terms of commuting (Sundbyberg central is some 15 minutes from the centre of Stockholm), Swedbank CEO Michael Wolf regards the move as demonstrating the bank ‘daring to go its own way’. Really, this could be said of any new site: the main appeal of Sundbyberg is its sheer proximity to the city centre, and the fact that the majority of Swedbank’s workers travel in to work.

Sundbyberg has been oddly labelled both Stockholm’s Brooklyn and Sweden’s Klondike, while poaching Naples’ vaguely threatening motto – ‘See Sundbyberg and die’. It is a municipality and suburb of Stockholm that defiantly calls itself a city. While I don’t feel my death would now be regret-free, Sundbyberg is pleasant, with its centre making it more than a commutersville. Still, its character is derived from having more transport links than you can shake a stick at that take you under, over and through its mixture of offices and residential streets lined with copy-and-paste housing blocks. 

It is one of these routes, the pendletåg – or commuter railway – that passes directly behind the new office building, along with freight trains that use the space for storage. As a result the head office sits with road on one side, rail on the other two, and the affectionately named Stora Blå (Big Blue) on the other. This complex, an uncompromising and listed example of 1970s architecture, along with the stacks of rail containers, lend the site a rawness that only emphasises Swedbank’s corporate-zeitgeisty sheen. 

Swedbank 3XN 0

Swedbank 3XN 0

Source: Anthony Coleman

This considered, Swedbank’s exterior attempts little: it  is in the plan of the new headquarters that the ideas  are found. Like its previously estranged workers, it has been squeezed together, folded into what 3XN’s Marie Hesseldahl Larsen refers to as a ‘triple V’, a simple formal gesture to draw in sufficient natural light and shortening the distance from one end of the building  to the other. The welcoming gestures – the ground floor’s wide, open space adorned with sculptures and two large spiral staircases – are pushed as closely to the road and houses opposite as possible, intended as shorthand for the bank’s transparency.

The zigzag creates both five atria and several of what Larsen terms ‘pockets’ where two sections join, traversed by following the zigzag and bumping into colleagues or taking a shortcut – the ‘promenade’ – that cuts down the plan’s middle. ‘Each is its own system’, says Larsen, ‘with a coffee station, storage and meeting rooms so no areas are left empty.’ Each ‘pocket’, defined by green carpet that darkens in hue towards the ground floor, mixes what project manager Yvonne Palm calls ‘high concentration areas’ of more conventional desks and fairly sci-fi hooded pods, with increasingly more  casual spaces towards the coffee station, of which there are an impressive 30. In total, there are some 5,000 seats  for 2,500 workers. Provided you don’t have inordinate amounts of desk clutter, and are not at all attached to the idea of having your own desk, the idea is you can move from one pocket on say Floor 6 to one on Floor 3 and be just as close to amenities (read: coffee) and see a different set of colleagues each day.

Swedbank 3XN Plans

Swedbank 3XN Plans

Floor plans - click to expand

Those familiar with 3XN’s work will perhaps make an immediate comparison to  their 2008 Saxo Bank head office in Copenhagen, a project that – albeit smaller and driven far less by its plan – dealt  with the same concerns  of transparency and collaboration. The same crisp corporate spaces and funky furniture abound. Thankfully, restraint is shown, preventing comparisons with more bombastic examples such as the BBC’s Broadcasting House, whose bizarre seating options and lurid ‘active working’ spaces have been lampooned by wry comedy series W1A, culminating in a meeting taking place on a circle of hay bales. 

No – here ‘activity-based’ working is not met with such cynicism: it is perhaps easier to embrace in a culture where sit-standing desks are part of regulation and in an office with a gym in the basement. Despite the office being quieter than usual, workers are peppered across these different spaces, increasing and decreasing in number in relation to the carpeted pockets; sitting, standing, or encased in a maze of Kvadrat-clad workbays. This much seems to have worked, and the arrangement of the pockets around the zigzag makes it possible to sit looking down and across an atrium, or hide away closer to the cores  of meeting rooms. While you can’t quite have your own room, you aren’t ever forced into a loud, crowded one either, and certain set areas such as the trading floors, project spaces and library – on visiting, packed and empty respectively – make full advantage of light from the atrium spaces.

‘Most encouragingly, all parties involved with the office welcome and invite change’

Most encouragingly, all parties involved with the office welcome and invite change. It might be assumed that a firm set on changing behaviour would be peevish at the moving of a few pot plants, but Larsen and Palm find it key that 3XN and Swedbank learn from the building. ‘It of course was not a case of everyone being happy from day one’, says Palm, ‘initially we thought we would not need as many meeting rooms due to these large meeting areas’, gesturing to the vast, bright, but empty atrium around us. It has only recently been a public holiday and I am assured the spaces are usually not so quiet, as photography may testify.

Some workers improvise: ‘these really small meeting rooms are far more popular than we expected’, says Larsen, referring to a room barely large enough for two chairs and a small desk. ‘One person stayed in here for two weeks, pinning paper up all over the walls.’ Despite this no one seems particularly worried that in  a space designed to foster collaboration, tiny meeting rooms are proving the most popular – the employees are blamed rather than the space.

Swedbank 3XN 5  1

Swedbank 3XN 5 1

Source: Anthony Coleman

‘People are still stuck in  the old way of doing things,’ continues Palm. ‘They think if they have a meeting they must have a room, and they must book that room.’ The unease  of this transition was perhaps not helped by some of the more dramatic design decisions, such as meeting rooms without doors, which subject to feedback have since welcomed the addition of a curtain. These surveys to measure ‘work joy’ are taken twice a year, to gauge both how successful the project has been and how workers are finding the new space. ‘We have actually been turning larger meeting rooms into several smaller ones’, says Palm. The implication seems to be that these poor workers were so programmed by previous office micromanagement that the ability to walk straight into  an empty meeting room came as something of a shock. 

What of that most important issue of openness? ‘We don’t advertise it’, says Björklund, ‘but anyone can use the ground floor and canteen space.’ I am told of a retired woman dressed in bright colours who has her lunch in the office every day, and a worker at the Swedish Tax Office who does the same. It is a boundary marked unsubtly by turnstiles through to the offices, and for those not in the know I can’t help but wonder what would draw a passer-by in for lunch apart from perhaps inclement weather. While you cannot accuse the building of not catering for  the public, this relies on them realising they can use it in  the first place.

Swedbank 3XN Section

Swedbank 3XN Section

Section - click to expand

In many ways the project was an exercise in undoing  the perceived damage of  years of outdated office space, and beyond anecdotal accounts of colleagues of 25 years meeting each other for the very first time, 3XN’s squished, zigzag plan has introduced some serendipity and movement into the open-plan office. I ask Björklund if this turn towards transparency has caught on in Sweden; ‘a few other branches, banks and insurance firms are going this way – but we are still fairly unique’. ‘We still have a long journey left’, adds Palm, speaking both for her office and Sweden in general.

For Swedbank, then, this office is a step in the right direction. While it is wholly  a product of the world of banking and cannot be considered an office model, it offers a more mature approach to the phenomenon of activity-based working in which the plan both acknowledges a need for and creates a range  of atmospheres while avoiding strict boundaries. Other  than its neat zigzag plan,  it presents no grand gestures or game-changing feats,  but it is enjoyed by – and crucially has the engagement of – its employees.

Swedbank Head Office

Architect: 3XN

Engineers: PO Andersson Konstruktionsbyrå AB, Ikkab, Hillstatik

Photographs: Anthony Coleman 

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