With the “White Collar Factory,” Stirling Prize–winning AHMM Bets on the Industrial Past to Inspire Future Workspaces

Thanks to nine years of research, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s design is a sophisticated response to important questions about the modern office.

White Collar Factory
White Collar Factory is a new office development in east London, in the heart of the burgeoning Tech City. Courtesy Tim Soar

How do you solve a problem like Old Street Roundabout? In recent decades, the area surrounding this busy intersection to the east of London’s city center has undergone rapid gentrification, but the roundabout itself is still best known for its chaotic and dangerous whirlwind of traffic. An overhaul is finally under way, and in a harbinger of the area’s transformation, developer Derwent London has unveiled a major mixed-use complex designed by Stirling Prize–winning architecture practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) on its southwest corner.

At its heart is a 16-story office building, the White Collar Factory tower. With its provocative name, stripped-down interiors, and rooftop running track, the project embodies many hipster-capitalist clichés, but nine years of research by AHMM mean it’s also a sophisticated response to the site’s challenging conditions and to important questions about the future of workspaces.

The architects’ guiding philosophy is that office buildings are generally over-specified, offering complex climate control systems and superficial add-ons that tenants rarely require. “A BMW may be able to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in five seconds and go up to 200 miles per hour, but you don’t use those things; in many ways, buildings are a lot like that,” says AHMM director Simon Allford.

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Instead, Allford and his team believed they could achieve substantial efficiency and energy savings if they strived for a modern-day version of the 19th-century factories and warehouses that have proved so successful as office spaces in many cities. In practice, this means a minimalist, adaptable container in which each element is necessary and sufficient; for example, in most places the concrete walls provide structure and hold utilities, as well as offering a visually pleasing finish, with few additional layers and treatments. “You can use this building without adding anything, and equally important, nothing can be taken away,” Allford says.

Aesthetically, the results are high ceilings, big windows, bare concrete walls, exposed ductwork, and generous floor plates. The punched metal plates on the exterior provide solar shading, inspired by the low-cost metal facades of Maison Tropicale by midcentury Modernist Jean Prouvé. A passive cooling system built into the walls allows internal temperatures to fluctuate with the conditions outside, and unlike in most offices, you can open the windows.

The interiors vary with their occupants’ tastes and needs, from more standard corporate fit-outs to configurations suited to co-working, but AHMM has put its own stamp on the double-height entrance hall. Designed as a “city room” that can be rearranged for events, it features an elevated coffee shop that will be open to the public, and in the summer, double doors will open up to the courtyard outside. For an area in dire need of public space, it’s a welcome addition.

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