How can architecture offer an appealing alternative to digital modes of remote working? That is the question that Swiss firm Christ & Gantenbein asked itself when devising Roche’s new flexible office design, or “multi-functional workspace,” as the firm calls it, in Grenzach-Wyhlen, a German town near Basel.
An excellent example of a new generation of offices that respond to employees’ desire for open-plan workspaces, the project was set in motion before COVID-19 but was adapted and adjusted over the past two years in response to it.
The project’s primary aim, says architect Emanuel Christ, was “to provide a space for what cannot be done remotely.” As he explains, “We wanted to equip a workspace with personality, diversity and freedom in order to provide a positive experience for employees.”
The third structure the firm has designed for Roche’s century-old industrial campus, the gleaming building is set within a public plaza and immediately reads as a distinctive landmark. It also embodies the fact that, on its grounds, which feature edifices by a variety of firms, the pharmaceutical giant has evolved over many years from an overriding focus on manufacturing toward human-first environments that foster interaction and teamwork.
The project telegraphs this subtext in a discreet form that is tied inextricably to its context, “speaking” to its neighbours while also playing a representative role as the point of entry into the campus. By chamfering the corners, the architects reduced the scale of the 23-metre-tall, 50-by-36-metre building to make it appear more open. Referencing an “industrial palazzo,” the facade composition is a rational framework of aluminum panels, mullions, transoms and generous ribbon windows — articulated by raw and robust diagonal steel bracing — while the massing emphasizes restrained, high-quality materials like aluminum, concrete, steel and glass.
Echoing the language of the architecture, the interiors are characterized by their prefabricated, pre-stressed coffered ceilings and column-free floor plates. To keep the core space open and support the flexible office design, the architects positioned both the concrete columns and the circulation routes at the periphery of the floor plan; furthermore, they decided to run electric cabling along the ceiling so the central expanse, its workstations and its moveable walls — already arranged in myriad ways to allow freedom of configuration and both formal and informal interaction — can be easily shifted around in the future.
The primary concept here, then, was to create generous, non-hierarchical spaces for staff to meet and work: Alongside lightweight office pods and desks for heads-down work, there are trendy breakout and “chill” zones with industrial kitchen counters where employees can warm up a meal or make a cup of tea.
From the publicly accessible entry, one enters the lobby, then ascends to a double-height auditorium on the second floor — a 550-seat room that can be divided into three smaller halls or areas for concentration work. Above this level are two others, both featuring conference rooms and glazed pavilions with acoustic curtains for larger meetings; these are juxtaposed with individual “on–off” work areas with adjustable desks and enclosed cubicles for more private tasks. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood every space with natural light and provides generous views out onto the campus.
Christ & Gantenbein collaborated closely with INCHfurniture to create lighthearted, colourful interiors animated by adaptable, cheerful furnishings that form a counterpoint to the more austere architectural design. Dusky pink chairs are paired with custom chocolate-brown circular sofas made from cork — their central voids bursting with tall plants, they’re dubbed “forest circles” — where employees can sit and work or converse with their colleagues. The olivegreen modular Omnio shelving systems from Visplay, which also double as plant kiosks, enable the room layouts to completely transform in just minutes. Extensive greenery throughout softens the interiors and creates a pleasant ambience.
Above all, it was imperative for Christ & Gantenbein that the building accommodate change over time and have built-in modularity, both technically and architecturally. Thanks to the space’s heterogeneous design, individual elements can be expanded, renewed or replaced without detracting from the overall concept.
This Roche building’s flexible office design epitomizes a positive shift in the company’s work culture, fostering collaborative face-to-face environments rather than isolated silos. By designing light-filled, malleable spaces, Christ & Gantenbein has created a setting that motivates people to leave the comfort of their homes. It is, quite simply, a reason to return to the office.
A pharmaceutical giant wants to bring employees back to the office. The prescription calls for inviting workspaces that can evolve over time.