A new British empire emerges to conquer the world through design. HELEN LEE reports from the front.
The Brits have a vision. That of a global village. This vision was taken to great heights with their national carrier British Airways' distinctively indigenous tail sections. In the same vein, British Council offices all over the world are taking on the winds of change. Be it in South Africa, Egypt or Asia, the interior of British Councils are upgraded to feature indigenous influences and materials alongside "new English designs". In all of the cases, the aim was to improve its customer focus, to reflect the current state of British design and to use technology as a tool of communication according to Dr. John Grote, the local Council Director.
Here in Singapore, it was timely indeed for an interior makeover of the Council's office. 'There had been a problem on the basic function of the previous interior of the lobby which had been under utilized," explained British Architect Andrew Jones of Poole Associates. Visitors to the office in the last ten years would have been greeted by a staff member in a wooden reception box with a telephone exchange room at the back, a lift and a seating area surrounded with messy newspaper displays. "They had to go all the way to the fourth floor to register for courses or see the administrative staff and then come back down to the first floor again," said Jones. Local architectural + design firm, Poole Associates was selected to work with Casson Mann Designers from London whose projects included the British Council office in Greece.
Further information on Casson Mann Designers appears in Frame Vol. 2 No. 6, 1999 BIS Publishers, P.O. Box 15751 NL-1001 NG Amsterdam
"To rationalize the function of the lobby, one of the ideas was to open up the entire first floor," Jones explained, "and subsequently create a line of new workstations for the frontline administrative staff moved down from the fourth storey". Among the facilities that had to be demolished was a bulky reception desk and the telephone exchange room. In their place are counters of dark wood veneers with powder coated steel trimmings and perforated screens of the same material which are echoed on the opposite side as magazine display shelving.
Turning the tables on the general perception of English design, the colors of the British flag were subtly deployed in an abstract manner. A cream marble floor runs throughout the heavily trafficked public lobby, softened with a custom blue/gray carpet below the seating area. The administrative staff are screened using a mottled blue Venetian plaster finished wall and column cladding. An 'information wall' and adjacent lift are surrounded by a bright orange/red to attract attention, countered by the pale purple bulkhead above. "The general view of English design had traditionally been that of old fashioned, dark, solid and heavy wooden structures", noted Dr. Grote. Jones' interpretation of new English design has transformed the lobby into a bright and modern hall with cleanly demarcated areas, strong colors and an equal balance of materials.
Reception counters at the 5,500 square foot premises are now livened up with youthful and dynamic hues. "The color representation is layered for a softer appeal," said Jones. "An icon of British design, Jasper Morrison's chairs and stools in a bright orange now make up an appropriate seating area. To heighten the feel of a pulsating information technology center, dot matrix liquid crystal display screens and video monitors keep the waiting area lively and upbeat, transmitting course details along with informative cultural and educational images of Britain.
An interesting feature next to the lift is a teak screen which is an attempt to "localize" and reflect the mix of cultural influences here, inspired by carved Chinese, Malay and Indian wooden screens. The mesh-like wooden screen made of re-used teak planks has vertical holes hand carved halfway through so that a curved indentation remains. These indents alternate with machine cut horizontal holes. "The juxtaposition of the execution reflects the changing industrialization of Asia," Jones added.
This screen was as much a visual effect as an acoustical solution for the noise created by visitors walking on the compressed marble lobby floor. "There are actually sound insulation panels inside the wooden screen", revealed Jones, "which is why we have the holes cut through the wood." The curious angles introduced into the slotted ceiling design are an acoustical solution as well. "The ceiling tilts forward to break up the reverberation of sound towards the wooden panel, and house the video monitors" explained Jones.
"The first two phases of upgrading have been completed," revealed Dr. Grote, "and future plans include a cybercafe when the economy picks up".