New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Matt Thornley, director, Gibson Thornley

Tuesday 30 November 2021

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Mr Thornley, how are you? 
 
Matt Thornley  
I'm great, David. I'm sitting in my office, staring out at a dark night. 
 
David Taylor
Excellent. Is everybody in the office? 
 
Matt Thornley
About 50/50. We have got a flexible approach. I think most people have enjoyed being back. And for us, that collaborative piece of work is quite important to do together, actually. I think there's a real importance in being able to work together and collaborate and talk and chat about projects in a very easy way, which is difficult to do from home. But it's a sort of evolving piece - we want to keep safe, but we want to allow people to have flexibility. So, about 50/50.
 
David Taylor  
So you mentioned flexibility there, which is a neat segue onto a project I'd like to talk to you about – your Kajima HQ scheme on the Centre Point bridge. Which is I think, first floor level if I'm correct, linking the two main buildings together? 
 
Matt Thornley  
It's actually at third floor. So: you've got ground, two storeys, and we're on the top floor. The building was originally designed by Siefert and at the time it was built it was the largest post-tension span in Europe. So, it's an amazing space, which originally spans over a road. There's this large, singular space which is quite dramatic and not designed to be a place to work. It was designed to be a place for leisure and retail, dining and things like that. 
 
David Taylor
So, what have you done? 
 
Matt Thornley 
So, our client is Kajima, who we actually spent a lot of time walking around London with and visiting lots of buildings to try and find a new headquarters for them as the base for them to collaborate with their wider supply teams, both as developers and development managers. It's a really interesting project because it is a building which is a singular space. You know, it was designed to be this huge space and there was a slight idiosyncrasy in the brief where they fundamentally wanted to celebrate this openness and have this idea of a big collaborative space. And also, balancing that with cultural need, actually, because it's a Japanese company. That is, of having space, which can be cellular, and the importance of meeting rooms and offices to certain members of staff and the process of bringing people in, and welcoming them into boardrooms. So, it was a wish to create both collaborative space and space that was fundamentally cellular. We then fundamentally looked back at the history of the Modernist building. These big span Modernist buildings, especially through the photography of people like Ezra Stoller, and about how you can make interventions into these larger span groups as buildings in quite a delicate haptic way that has a real sense of materiality. 
David Taylor
Sure. And is a key part of the brief to look to future adaptations of this space? 
 
Matt Thornley
Yeah, so one of the key things was that the project evolved during COVID. At the beginning, it was actually being planned to be a space that was more desk-based and more traditional, in a sense. People would come in; everyone would come into work nine-to-five, and have their own desk. And as COVID happened, that brief really changed and it actually became much more of a space to collaborate. So actually, it was about not having lots of desks; it was about creating different settings where people could work or meet, or come in and be sociable with each other. And also, there was the importance of connecting that to the external spaces around the building. So, part of our job was to put in a sort of infrastructure that could allow us flexibility, and could allow these spaces to evolve over time. But also thinking, I suppose, with them as a sort of live test about how you create a space where people want to come to, in the centre of the city; a place also for them to bring their teams together and as a collaborative space for them to work on projects in. So it was, yeah, a really good prototype for us to work through with them to understand what the office in the future could be. It's really important, because we spend so much time in offices, and often they are treated as second-class citizens in terms of building typologies. And actually, they should be spaces where people really support people's enjoyment and creativity. And that's what we strove to do with Kajima and thinking carefully about how we plan the space all the way through to the furniture we bought with them and the lighting in real detail.
 
David Taylor
And wellbeing is a part of that, presumably, with the public spaces and the greenery?
 
Matt Thornley 
Yeah, I think it was really about the fact that there are these amazing terraces, looking on to the new St Giles square, which is part of the wider Masterplan of Centre Point to really take traffic out of the middle of that building. So, there's this real opportunity to have external spaces for working or link directly onto the places where people are internally. And, actually, to think about the building not as a purely hermetically sealed box, which I think it was originally envisaged as, but as a mixed mode building where in the summer you can just open the doors on both sides and cross-ventilate the building, and actually create a really healthy space to be in. Which is supported by planting. We're actually working with a gardener rather than a landscape architect to create a really naturalistic planting strategy out to the terraces, to create a garden in the sky for them, which will form a real focus in the summers. 
I think it was really useful for us to do Kajima’s office because it gained us a lot of trust with them. Doing someone's office is like doing someone's home, in the sense where it's really specific and really allows you to test out what they're about and what things mean to them. Their wider ethos on buildings, and what they think their position is on sustainability and what their position is on new methods of working. If people are going to reinhabit the office, we have to make spaces that people want to be in and want to take people to and invite people to. So it's really about thinking about the external spaces as much as the internal spaces; it's about thinking about how people get into a building, about your journey as a cyclist and as a runner or walker, rather than just as a as a person turning up on the tube. 
 
David Taylor  
Talk to me about the cycling aspects as well as the recycling, then, to make quite a bad joke… I mean, you're a keen cyclist yourself - what's the cycling input you've put into projects like this, essentially, from your own experience.
 
Matt Thornley  
With Kajima’s own office, because it's located in the air, we had to transpose a piece of that to ground floor to really make a logical entrance sequence. A lot of that also goes into our work in the cultural sector. We're doing work at the V&A at the moment, for a major new gallery for them. We've done exhibition design, and we really think about that user experience element to design, whether it's an office building, a residential building, or a gallery. So, it's about choreographing a set of sequences that are really intuitive and enjoyable to you. So in the office it is actually really about the ease of people being able to come in, drop off their Brompton, drop off things at lockers at ground floor so you don't have to lug things up and down lifts and stairs, and then allowing then the office space and this collaborative space to be much more open and not cluttered with all the sorts of stuff associated with bits of bike and cycle kit that is spread all over my office. On future work it is really thinking about those arrival sequences not as the back door to buildings. I think they've often been seen as this sort of poor relation to the main entrance, and actually, I think that's really changing in central London now. I think our ambition is to make London more like Amsterdam is now, and what Paris is becoming. So: the idea that that sequence of arriving by bike should be enjoyable, it should be easy, it should make it better for you to cycle rather than climbing a barrier, and all the pieces that you want to do about cleaning and drying and allowing you to cycle all the way through are built in. And designed in a way that makes them a designed piece rather than a purely functional element. Something that you can enjoy to use, and you actually think: “I'm going to have a shower on the way in” rather than, you know, just get changed in a toilet. I think it's really important thinking about that so that we can try and make London a better city. 
 
David Taylor
And are many of the Kajima staff cyclists, as far as you know? Yeah, I think people do. I think people also run in. I think the idea of it purely being cycling is now quite an outdated way…
 
David Taylor  
Sorry! (laughs)
 
Matt Thornley  
(laughs) People use scooters and, you know, I'm all for people using e-bikes and as many methods as we can to get people coming to town in green transport, the better. I think it's also thinking about all of those different users. So, it's about charging points; it's about trying to think about it as a wider body of people who can be encouraged to have healthy journeys, whatever age you are, or whatever your level of fitness. It is about trying to get as many people as possible outside and doing activity to make our cities greener. 
 
David Taylor  
So, in summary, this project seems to embrace most of the current themes whizzing around our professions – flexibility, retrofit, transport, active travel, extensive use of timber, wellbeing. It's got it all, seemingly! 
 
Matt Thornley  
Yeah, hopefully! I think this idea of green retrofits that are human focused is really the key way of designing buildings for central London now. We can't just keep on building new; we've got to reuse buildings that are difficult in creative ways. That's, as architects, where our skill can come in, which is taking spaces that seem to be difficult to use and actually making them spaces which are tremendous to use. And I think we're all hoping for the sort of benefits that can come out of this of COVID situation are greener places and greener, healthier, more enjoyable places to work and live in London.
 
 
David Taylor  
Hear, hear. Thanks very much, Matt. That's really great! 
 
Matt Thornley  
Brilliant. Thanks very much, David. It's always a pleasure!

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



Recent

What does Smart London’s programmes mean for the built environment?

News

What does Smart London’s programmes mean for the built environment?

Camilla Siggaard Andersen reports from the second meeting of the NLA expert panel on Built Environment Technology.

‘Opportunities for radical property-led innovation’

News

‘Opportunities for radical property-led innovation’

David Taylor hears industry experts give broadly upbeat outlook on State of the Market 2022 despite materials, labour an...

Five minutes with ...Tim Gledstone, partner, Squire and Partners

News

Five minutes with ...Tim Gledstone, partner, Squire and Partners

David Taylor catches up with Tim Gledstone of Squire and Partners to talk through the practice’s approach to sustainable...

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

Billing type:
All prices exclude VAT
View options for Personal membership