BBC North at MediaCityUK20 February 2012 by Jamie Mitchell
Three of the site’s buildings have been transformed by Sheppard Robson’s interior design arm ID:SR for the BBC, more than meeting the brief of ‘provoking smiles’
Size: 35,000 sq m
Completion time: Three years
The architecture of Salford’s MediaCityUK complex has divided opinion since it was completed last year. The purpose-built development, which is the new northern home of the BBC and also houses parts of ITV and Salford University, was the unfortunate recipient of last year’s Carbuncle Cup, a booby prize awarded for the year’s ugliest building. Not everyone agrees with that award. The complex designed by Wilkinson Eyre, Chapman Taylor and Fairhursts Design Group was also named Greater Manchester Building of the Year in 2011.
Whatever you think of the outside, the interior, of the BBC’s portion at least, is far from ugly, thanks to a design scheme by Sheppard Robson that has transformed three of the complex’s eight buildings – Bridge House, Dock House and Quay House – into a vibrant and inspiring new workplace. Helen Berresford, a partner at Sheppard Robson and head of its interior design arm ID:SR says that it was ‘one of the most significant challenges we’ve had in recent years’. The brief, set by the BBC’s portfolio director Alan Bainbridge, was to ‘provoke smiles’ – an enigmatic request that might easily have provoked the designers to scratch their heads.
In one of the biggest projects in its 85-year history, the BBC has moved some 2,300 staff from more than 37 departments including children’s programming, sport, Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live. For many, that meant relocating from London as well as giving up some of the space they had been used to, and it was all part of the job for the designers at ID:SR to assuage any concerns. The solution, the designers say, lay in careful analysis of the way the various BBC departments work, an approach ID:SR calls ‘activity-driven design’.
Says Berresford: ‘To design the space we really needed to understand the various roles and profiles of the people who were going to work there.’ The starting point was ‘close analysis of the organisation; studying the BBC empirically so that we could design something that would suit 37 departments working in three buildings.’
According to Berresford, the traditional model of a broadcast media organisation such as the BBC involves ‘lots of meeting rooms, lots of desks and lots of individual territory’, but the design and Category A fit-out of the buildings limited what the designers could to the interiors.
Regulations concerning sprinkler systems, for example, meant they couldn’t put in any new floor-to-ceiling walls to create new rooms. Instead collaborative, open-plan areas equipped with various semi-enclosed meeting spaces such as circular ‘thought pods’, and bespoke joinery were created and placed around the atrium in Quay House. The pods, upholstered in shades of magenta and lime green, have been one of the most talked-about elements of the scheme and they are also hugely popular with BBC staff, says ID:SR. ‘We designed lots of places like this where you can sit down in an informal space with a laptop, tablet computer or smart phone,’ says Berresford. The pods’ economical shape also means they use space that would otherwise be wasted.
Another element of the brief was that each of the three buildings should tell a story, evoking the illustrious history of the BBC while also representing it as a competitive, modern media organsation. To do this, ID:SR teamed up with London-based BAF Graphics.
Wall graphics designed by ID:SR and implemented by BAF Graphics are used extensively throughout the three buildings, from cityscapes in Quay House to abstract maps of Salford at Bridge House; in Dock House a ‘digital tapestry’, made by scanning upholstery fabric used in the office and weaving it with scanned images of modern technology such as videotape and wires, symbolises the evolution of industry in the area from textile production to modern creative media.
The atrium core in Quay House also has a large print of Alexandra Palace, the scene of the BBC’s first broadcast in 1922, while in each of the three buildings ‘history walls’ trace the BBC’s evolution through a mix of colour and monochrome images from the BBC past and present. Graphics have also been applied to the glass walls of meeting rooms using a special technique that means the images look the same from either side of the glass.
Each of the three buildings has its individual character, thanks in part to the different kinds of timber used in the fit-out. In Quay House it is dark, while in Bridge House it has a light grey finish and in Dock House a charcoal colour is used. These subtle variations informed not just the graphics, but also the choice of furniture, fabrics and carpets. Parts of Bridge House (home to children’s programming) for example has what Fleur Peck, a senior designer at ID:SR, calls an ‘outdoor, allotment feel’, with areas of green, grass-like carpets.
Joinery items here are made of pale timber, and bright summery fabrics by Brute and Camira are used in upholstery. By contrast, Quay House has a more ‘urban’ feel, with a monochrome palette and furniture upholstered in bold, striped fabric inspired by the BBC’s iconic test card.
Dock House has lots of radio studios, so it naturally has more small pockets of space than the other two buildings. Here, the design team used comfy sofas by Naughtone to create intimate, living room-style spaces.
This being the BBC, there was a strong impetus to use British suppliers where possible, and the designers estimate that an impressive 70 per cent of FF&E comes from British suppliers, including Naughtone, James Burleigh and Jennifer Newman. Much of the joinery items, including the thought pods, were made by Sandoms, a Yorkshire firm.
The designers say using home-grown products and materials made perfect sense. ‘Finding that much from the UK was a challenge, but it was a challenge we relished,’ says Peck. ‘Many of the products we used are very economical because they came from local suppliers, and this also allowed us to customize certain pieces, including the sofas from Naughtone.’ ID:SR also sourced fabric from Melin Tregwynt, a 100-year old textile mill in Wales that produced a special print inspired by pixels especially for this project.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this scheme in the history of the BBC, and designing offices for such a venerable and diverse organisation was always going to be a challenge. So what does Alan Bainbridge, the man who set the brief, think of the final scheme – does it ‘provoke smiles’?
‘I am delighted with how Sheppard Robson and the BBC’s property and design teams have been able to deliver a product that uses so many great UK manufacturers and suppliers to deliver a world-class work space, one that truly provokes smiles,’ he says.