Selgas Cano’s inventive new workspace for creative start-ups in London’s Tech City quarter performs more like a piece of urban fabric than a conventional office
Second Home is at once both simple and complicated, familiar yet unexpected. Its website strapline declares it to be ‘the place where entrepreneurs and creative businesses come together, in pursuit of great work’. It’s a description that glides past typological labels: is it an office or a café? A members’ club or a guild for nomadic workers?
When explained by its co-founder Rohan Silva, former Downing Street senior advisor and the instigator of the government’s Tech City initiative, this hybrid hub (a ‘hubrid’?) appears as the inevitable conclusion of astute market analysis. While the number of small businesses in the UK is proliferating − from 700,000 in 1975 to 4,800,000 in 2013 − the lifespan of big firms is shrinking. In 1930 the average S&P 500 company lasted 90 years; in 2013, it was only 18. More specifically to the locale, the number of digital and technology companies in east London increased more than tenfold from 200 in 2010 to 2,500 in 2013.
Seeing the commercial sector as lagging behind these trends, Silva and his business partner Sam Aldenton sought to provide an environmentally appealing, socially integrative and aesthetically beautiful working environment tailored to the needs of innovative start-ups. The name ‘second home’ refers − not to the slightly sinister notion that your office is now your home − but to the second berth in a business’s development between having a bright idea in a coffee shop and a growing company with expanding space requirements. Owing to the fast and fluid nature of these new enterprises, Second Home has flexible leasing terms with no break clauses, a minimum sign-up of three months (compared with five years for many conventional offices) and no deposit.
Co-working spaces have been around a long time (you might even cite Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice as a centuries-old precedent). But Second Home is different from most contemporary examples in three significant ways. First, Silva and Aldenton have an almost messianic faith in the ability of architecture to affect the quality of human experience (if only all clients were thus). Second − instead of the open-plan hot-desking that feels right in theory for a highly networked workforce, but in practice is noisily inimical to getting anything done − the design is composed of sound-proofed enclosures of varying scales, allowing private ownership and occupation for different needs.
And, thirdly, beyond the St Jerome sequestration, the brief called for a shared ‘publicness’ to choreograph interactions that may lead to fruitful creative connections. In a conventional office, workers tend to know their neighbour within a 10m radius of where they sit; here the aim is to form a terrain untethered from desks where an almost-urban fabric fosters a community of collaborators nurtured by chance encounter. It is an openness that is spatial, but also behavioural − Second Homers are a friendly bunch who fully comprehend the networked nature of 21st-century opportunity. (I think I exchanged more business cards in an hour at the launch party than I had in the previous 12 months.)
The clients picked Spanish starlets Selgas Cano, the Madrid-based husband- and-wife team who have an increasing international reputation for their colourful acrylic confections that combine material inventiveness with spatial subtlety. The practice has a growing body of critically interesting work in Spain, such as the Youth Factory in Mérida (AR October 2011) and was recently commissioned for this summerʼs prestigious Serpentine Pavilion in London.
Source: Iwan Baan
Tucked into a side street off Brick Lane in east London, Second Home occupies the ground and first floor of a three-storey former carpet factory. Though essentially an interior project, the architects have made their presence felt externally by removing the ground-level brick-and-glass infill in the front facade and attaching a kind of elongated neon conservatory. Housing the café, this transparent tube curves elegantly outwards from the building, neatly incorporating a dining seat into its sinuous profile. Aside from the occasional double-height space, this is the only sectional area of interest in an otherwise highly planometric project.
Having said that, what the design lacks in section, it certainly makes up for in a plan composition that has more seductive curves than Dita von Teese. The existing building is set within an urban block, but open at both the north and south ends. The plan is nearly 45m deep, and around 24m wide at its northern frontage, expanding to 30m at the back. The original concrete structure has a regular column arrangement set on a 6.5m grid, and existing floor-to-ceiling heights of a little over two metres. A completely conventional edifice is transformed into an immersive and beguiling spatial experience.
‘In one of the more Bond-like moments of the scheme, the central table can be hoisted up to create an open space for lectures, music events, even yoga classes’
Somewhat reminiscent of Archizoom’s No-Stop City, the structural grid is usurped by free-floating curving walls, which here create a variegated landscape of spaces that carefully orchestrate the transition from public to private. Entering from Hanbury Street, you immediately encounter the café/restaurant (open to the public), and glimpse through glazed screens the largest space in the project: a shared work zone for some 70 people where tenants can slot in suddenly expanded teams. In one of the more Bond-like moments of the scheme, the central table can be hoisted upwards to create an open space for lectures, music events, even yoga classes.
The ground floor has the semi-public spaces, with five meeting rooms, while the first floor has a small coffee bar and ‘resting room’ (ideal for a post-prandial snooze). There are 31 private workspaces, ranging in size from studios for four to 30 people (10 is the average). It is quite a dense office − 250 ‘desks’ in 2,230sqm, so 9.1sqm per person compared with the London average of 11.3sqm. This proximity is mitigated by transparent resin screens, which create an acoustically separate yet visually porous environment. At your desk you can tune out and be in your own headspace; or take in the pollinated layers of life that the building frames.
The experience of moving through the building is delightful. The curlicue plan provides dynamic interest to the unfolding of the spaces, yet it never becomes illegible or disorientating. The spatiality is made more sensuous by the reflective qualities of the curved partitions and mirrored edging to the cuts in the first-floor-plate. This shininess is cleverly counterpointed with matt finishes to the suspended ceilings and thick-piled carpet. What could otherwise have become an overly slick interior has been deliberately foiled by the introduction of 1,000 plants and the decision to have no two chairs alike, instead convening a collection of mid-century classics.
Second Home is a calming and wonderful space to be in. It’s certainly a place I’d like to work and hang out. However, questions arise about how you manage the relationship between supply and demand: how easy is it really to grow a team of four to 20 overnight if a job comes in? What about the ‘anchor’ tenants who overstay their welcome? Could you be evicted for becoming boring? Who decides? There is also a tension between freedom and control. It is highly visually curated − so, while it is urban in its ambition to create friction between strangers, is it perhaps suburban in its degree of aesthetic consistency? And will an office interior designed for a lifespan of two to three decades be able to offer enough flexibility for changing patterns of work over that timeframe?
Second Home is an admirable and brave experiment in how altering the spatial arrangement of clusters of small innovative businesses can affect creative and commercial outcomes. As an unknown model, there are questions about how it will evolve − the map is never the same as the territory. If the thesis is that bringing creative people together will yield rewarding results, then Second Home’s true success will ultimately be measured in the innovations that take place there. I’m genuinely excited to see what emerges from it.