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Centraal Beheer revisited.

Twenty-five years ago Centraal Beheer, then a relatively small insurance company in The Netherlands, was responsible for commissioning an office building by Herman Hertzberger which was to affect the design of other office buildings around the world. Whatever one thinks of Hertzberger's original (and it is not universally appreciated, or at least understood) it tells a story of a thinking architect prepared to challenge convention, and a thinking client. The interpretation by this same client of the problem of the office building twenty-five years later is, therefore, interesting in itself -- for what it tells of the functional demands that have changed since then and the attitudes of clients to what is important.

The brief for `CBM', as the new building is known, spells out the concerns of the current management. In addition to what the original building could provide, the new building had to be flexible but also extendable, low on running costs, environmentally friendly, and have full value on the open office market. Furthermore it should provide working space of equivalent quality to the Hertzberger building and yet be built for approximately half the cost per square meter. It was a tall order but not unlike that of many another contemporary building. It was further described as a `developer plus' building, a term referring to its economical budget but more importantly to its ability to be sublet or otherwise treated as flexible real estate. What is significant is that the emphasis on this set of requirements and the use of such an epithet as `developer' were not seen as an admission of compromise or reduction in the significance of architectural quality but a way of endorsing the importance of the building in the life of the organisation.

In the words of the facility manager whose involvement with the company has spanned both projects, the building was required to be `an organisational instrument' and should have the `highest possible instrumental worth'. In other words its architectural value was important but only in the way that it physically and psychologically assisted the operation of the organisation.

The culture of Centraal Beheer is based on trust, initiative and individuality and is rather different from other clerically based insurance companies. To this extent the organisation was `modern' before its time, recognising the importance of professionalisation. Similarly the Hertzberger building, known as `CB1', anticipated some of the criteria now seen to be especially valuable to creative organisations, such as varying combinations of individual and group space and the opportunity for informal contact. But the brief for the new building goes beyond CB1 and the need for local flexibility and communal well-being. It defines a more mercenary attitude to the whole purpose of a building -- yet, at the same time, suggests a new dimension of responsibility.

Jan Peters' solution makes the complex look simple. The building is demonstrably undramatic -- a well detailed but straightforward yellow box not unlike many other pieces of business park architecture. Like its predecessor it is visually unpretentious, deliberately playing down the notion of building as object in favour of the notion of building as system.

CBM is functionally straightforward. The problem of combining accessibility with tight security is solved in the same way as Niels Torp coped with it in the SAS Stockholm building (AR March 1989): by lifting office functions above street level (an open concourse contains all public and organisational support facilities). The individual office blocks have separate access, thus allowing for subletting and extension. Self-sufficiency and flexibility at a local level, and the provision of enclosed, open and mixed working space are dealt with by the meticulous sizing and proportioning of the individual floor plates.

In other situations the solution to the problem is even more down to earth. Thus delivery of power and telecommunications to the workplace is via the banally simple device of perimeter trunking and vertical drops from the ceiling. Energy saving is simple to the point of being homespun -- a third layer of glazing and a ventilated gap of 110mm providing extra insulation in winter and the removal of heat from radiation at source in summer.

Superficially, the building might not appear to be doing anything very different from the conventional developer's box. But behind this normality there has been a thorough consideration of every working aspect of the office, honed and polished by a series of working client committees on issues ranging from catering to printing to internal transport.

There has always been a generous provision of support and ancillary space in Dutch offices compared with those in the UK or the US, but the number and distribution of these facilities goes beyond what is normal even in The Netherlands. For 1200 staff the building contains 48 formal and informal meeting spaces, incorporating one coffee area for every 700 sq m of office space. Space standards per person (at 9.75 usable sq m) are generous, but the added generosity in terms of meeting space and other support facilities (taking the space standards to 19.5 lettable sq m per person) suggests a new emphasis on non-desk working. For the moment, with the relative cheapness of Dutch office space and the conservatism of Dutch attitudes, the actual removal of workspaces or the possibility of `hot desking' seems a little way off, but `free address working' is a real possibility -- a complete reversal of the values embodied in Hertzberger's building.

Everyone at Centraal Beheer, from senior management to office staff, is delighted with the new building. It has been based on their specification, drawn out of careful analysis of their own experience. Everyone was involved and everyone was kept informed during the design process. There has been a careful balancing of sophistication with complexity, flexibility with identity and human scale. The building is restrained, yet robust and likely to be able to deal with the knocks and bangs of future change. For an outsider (let alone an architect) however, there is still the temptation to see the building as `object', and it is slightly hard to stomach the utilitarian approach to much of the building's detailing -- `developer basic' perhaps, rather than `developer plus'. Even taking into account the difference in budgets, the contrast in the elegance of the steelwork, for instance, with similar work by (say) Foster, is considerable. And yet it is not even this which ultimately leaves one feeling uneasy. If `responsibility' means the careful use of resources and an emphasis on the operation of the organisation, then the building sets a standard of which Centraal Beheer can once again be justly proud. But if it also means paying attention to the inspirational aspect of the working environment, then comparison with the original Hertzberger building suggests that there might be something missing.

Hertzberger's CB1, like other buildings of the Dutch Structuralist tradition, also made a virtue of being utilitarian. Its use of exposed concrete and crude system building is positively hair shirt, and has not pleased everyone over the years. But CB1 came to life with its contrasting profusion of foliage, changing light and gorgeously rich collection of art.

CBM attempts this contrast with its `arty' interior design elements -- the staircase to the first floor, the reception desk, coffee point and signboards. But, pleasant though its central space is and interesting though it is to look through to the telephone sales office and print room, the space does not live by comparison with (say) the street through the SAS building, and, significantly, doesn't attract the same usage.

If visual delight was only for the benefit of the visitor one could be sceptical of it; if interaction with fellow workers was only a question of meeting rooms and computer connections, one might similarly discount quality of interior design as a luxury that the new competitive business could ill afford. But creativity and stimulation are more a requirement of the successful business than they ever were, and delight would appear to have a part still to play.
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Title Annotation:Central Beheer's office building in the Netherlands
Author:Anderson, Hugh
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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