Expressing corporate values; the language of brick and stone

By Nicola Harwood

concrete wall staircase
Architecture can often express an organisation’s values with greater clarity than any number of carefully crafted mission statements or visioning propositions.  It has a rich language that’s able to use space, scale, colour, texture and materials to manipulate light and views to achieve many different, often highly nuanced effects. Institutional buildings, as a stereotype, tend to be serious-minded, rational, conservative in style, as a manifestation of the character of the organisations they house. They typically follow the ordered geometry of classical architecture for a couple or reasons; it’s been around long enough to suggest permanence, reliability and longevity, which is reassuring. Beyond this, and perhaps more significantly, it has an essential mathematical order that expresses logic, legibility and rationality. These are all the qualities you want the public to believe you possess if you are the keeper of the flame of expert knowledge or a representative body for a noble and learned profession.

Where this becomes interesting is when organisations move and are obliged to consider, perhaps for the first time in a long time, what their values are and how they’d like them to be expressed in their new building. Values change over time and differ between organisations. For corporate businesses, enterprise, prosperity and reliability are probably the most common themes. When it chooses new buildings or builds for itself the corporate focus tends to be about the workplace and its many qualities, because that represents the most visible benchmark of productivity and output. For the knowledge sector it’s much more complex. Buildings need a richer narrative that balances opposites; openness with intimacy, tradition with an eye on the future, functionality with engagement and innovation posed against the weight of history. The space needs to enhance the overall brand and show off what the business stands for whilst being a welcoming environment for staff, members and visitors. There is no doubt that contemporary architecture is well equipped to deliver buildings that reconcile these diverse themes, but design is a bit like fashion - it’s of the moment, so there is always a risk that if it’s poor season for fashion - if you follow - you might get stuck with it for a hundred years. The best architects don’t follow fashion, they have the vision to draw on history but not be constrained by it.

As a project manager it’s my job to help clients find expression for the qualities they want their buildings to have, whether that’s through the building envelope, interiors, layout, colour scheme or anything else spatial or visual. Working with architects and in-house property teams we’re always searching for the optimum balance that holds all of the competing demand for space, representation and budget in a delicate orbit to create space that allows our clients to perform their best work and live their core values.

For The Royal College of Pathologists, which had a strong sense of its own identity, Bennetts Associate’s award winning new building in Alie Street demonstrated how it was possible to move from an archetypical Georgian town house – actually a mansion is probably a better description – to a new purpose built headquarters designed in a contemporary style that fully reflected the issues of the day like sustainability and Wellness, but at the same time is well mannered and thoughtful architecture.

Perhaps the lesson here is that values don’t change that much, especially important ones, but the way they find expression through architecture does. For organisations holding onto older buildings for fear that they might somehow lose some critical element of how they are perceived by the world, it’s good news.  Our experience working to relocate many organisations in every sector is largely the same; once the fear of letting go of the familiar can be overcome, no one looks back with regret.

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