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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Nov-2004

Edition: First

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 13

Wordcount: 1212

Life put back into Monday mornings


Elizabeth Farrelly.

A fun head office defies the staid image of banks, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Work, argues Alain de Botton, is not meant to be fun. For you and me, sure, but not for the sheep shearers, coal hackers and bank clerks of the world. For them – for most of the human race – work is a bore and chore. So it’s our expectation of lives defined and fulfilled by work, rather than the work itself, that generates discontent. Which makes the obvious solution, says Botton (paraphrasing Schopenhauer), not raising your game but lowering your expectations.

The National Australia Bank, and its architect James Grose (from Bligh Voller Nield), beg to differ. Grose and NAB strategist Rosemary Kirkby have designed the new NAB headquarters in Melbourne’s docklands – aka N@D (National at Docklands) – to make work as fun as can be. So fun, in fact, that there’s about as much breakout space – cafes, “verandas”, sunrooms, balconies, bridges, pods, roof gardens, team spaces and glassy open-kitchens – as work space.

Of course it’s all about productivity. No secret there. The theory being that if people are more comfortable they’ll be happier, and if they’re happier they’ll shear more sheep – or whatever it is that bank people do. This happiness-duty, like most of our cultural trends, comes to us via America – lending weight-in-passing to Updike’s theory that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”.

Grose had already worked with Kirkby on North Sydney’s Campus MLC. There, the original building was remarkable. Designed in 1957 by Melbourne’s Bates Smart McCutcheon, it was Australia’s largest at the time; first curtain wall, first flowering of North Sydney CBD, opened by the prime minister Robert Menzies himself. But by the mid-1980s, when Lend Lease acquired them, both the building and the company were impaled on a classic change-or-oblivion dilemma.

Kirkby, pursuing an explicitly domestic feel as a means to cultural change, sought “the best and brightest residential architect in medium-density housing”. Having seen his beach houses and his award-winning Crackenback Village at Thredbo, she appointed the then young sole practitioner, Grose. Fortuitously, the MLC building lent itself to the change of flavour. Its outrigger lift-core (a dead-ringer, as it happens, for Norman Foster’s supposedly innovative 126 Phillip Street, now under construction) saved it from demolition by enabling a 12-storey hole to be cut vertically through its centre, spatially linking all inhabitants.

Next steps were to bridge the chasm at curious angles, encouraging what theorists know as “bump”, ban private offices and establish a range of alternative workspaces – the Beach, the Hospital Curtain Room, green pods and the Zen Den, where you walk on the table to get to the whiteboard.

Of course everyone’s at it these days, this reinventing the workplace. Banks seem especially susceptible. Westpac even has an acronym for its version, the OGP (Our Great Place), yet unbuilt. But it’s not new. Remember the 1980s office blocks replete with pools and child-care centres? The cyber-offices, hot-desks and personally operable work environments of the 1990s? Much of this was based on the work of British workplace-guru (and MLC consultant) Francis Duffy and, before that, on good old-fashioned turn-of-the-century Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) is best known as the theory-base of Fordism, turning offices into production lines and clerks into easily supervised battery chooks. Taylor theorised that making workers happier by enhancing emotional or physical comfort would improve productivity. This spawned two major mid-century movements – the 1950s German buro landschaft (office-landscape) push, which nurtured horizontal rather than vertical connection, and the increasing personalisation and the 1970s domestication of office space (the building as a place where everyone feels at home).

It is tempting to see corporate feminisation behind both of these trends. The entry of women into the clerical force in the early 20th century brought a reduction in individual status of the worker (well, of course!) with the concomitant emphasis on team-work and networking, making “flatter structures” more plausible.

Feminine or not, though, both trends conflow in the N@D. “A house,” goes N@D’s blurb, “is a comfortable and pleasant place that allows people to be themselves.” The resulting headquarters, sieved from 36 possible sites and three global study tours, is unusual indeed: a custom-designed rental-building (NAB has a 12-year lease) that is bigger than the 50-storey 101 Collins Street, and only six storeys high.

Inside, N@D arranges 3500 people in “business units” around two atria – one plush-corporate (but glitz-free), the other relatively smart-casual. Both are criss-crossed by (real) timber stairs and bridges and enriched by colour, texture and evident human busy-ness. There are real views, real light and a number of cafes. Four giant stainless chimneys duct hot air out through the roof via the stack effect, while the building’s entire northern face is occupied by what Grose calls the “veranda”, a zone of shared, glassy meeting spaces that includes the two real-air “wintergardens” on each floor.

Sounds interesting, and it is. A genuinely pleasurable work environment. Already, they say, the “bump” factor has dramatically reduced intra-staff emails, and early post-occupancy surveys show 80 per cent of staff feeling “engaged” – compared with a world average of 22 per cent.

But there are some ironies here, too. So much loving attention (read money) has been lavished inside the building that little remains for the skin. So, while the authorised narrative behind the facade design is of multiculture, shipping containers and optimism (symbolising “diversity, the past, and the future” – get it?) the building itself, to the uninitiated, could pass easily for an off-the-peg North Ryde office-park job with added decks and louvres, a few primary colours and four rather lovable paddle-steamer chimneys.

Kirkby talks of her desire to have “an Australian designing for Australians”, someone who “understood the essence of what it means to be Australian and was designing for it”. A reasonable aim, surely, for the national headquarters of the National Bank. Yet there’s the rub.

All this authenticity talk might lead you to expect something approaching a real veranda, with real shade and air, whereas what you get is the fully glazed-and-air-conditioned sort. You might expect some attempt, at least, at natural ventilation throughout, instead of just 5 per cent of the built volume. You might expect real connection to real streets, rather than the internal synthetic sort.

You might, that is, expect participation in the succulent, grimy reality of Melbourne – its dark and fecund laneways, explorable arcades and layered cultural intricacy. What you get is the glammed-out and disturbingly Darling Harbour-esque plasticland that Melbourne seems determined to make of its docklands. In such a context the new N@D may be an oasis, a refuge, but not a participant.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s a handsome and engaging building and, I’m sure, a jolly nice place to work. It’s just I’d be more thrilled if someone would,just once, reinvent the workplace in a way that seemed to be really of the place, not just in it. Then we could really start to get our sheep shorn.


PHOTO: Office-park job … the docklands building looks great inside but its exterior is disappointing. Photo: John Gollings


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