The building demonstrates’, said the assessors for the 1972 RIBA Award, ‘that architecture can be produced from a tough commercial situation by the exercise of ingenuity and imagination.’

The ‘tough commercial situation’ was the requirement to provide accommodation for between 750 and 1,000 employees within eighteen months at a cost comparable to the cheapest temporary structures. The building was to serve as a temporary head office for IBM while a permanent headquarters was built on an adjoining site. Like many expanding companies at the time, IBM relied on a mixture of permanent and temporary accommodation; in some locations as much as half its office space was in ‘off-the-peg’ structures.

The initial brief was simply to research the available systems and propose a site layout. The response, however, was a report that demonstrated that for the same cost IBM could have a custom-designed permanent building that embraced high architectural and environmental standards. The resulting building is a single-storey, deep-plan structure that groups under one roof a wide variety of functions that would traditionally have sprouted a collection of diverse buildings.

The convention, current in the 1970s, that the computer should have a separate ‘shrine’ was challenged through the installation of a raised floor on top of the floor-slab, allowing a computer room to be integrated within the office building. With all services located in the roof and wiring carried down hollow steel columns, the interior has been able to respond quickly to growth and change. Initially the building housed offices, computers, amenities and a communications centre. But over the years offices have been reconfigured, the restaurant has been moved and the computer room expanded.

Major internal changes have been facilitated by the ability to pop in external doors in lieu of the gasketed glazing panels which otherwise complete the external cladding. The bronze glass reflects the surrounding trees and landscape so that the building merges - almost disappears - into its setting.

Although it was expected to be only a stopgap, the building’s ability to respond easily to changing needs has ensured its long-term survival more than thirty years after its completion.

Sketches + Drawings

Construction

Quotes

Lance Wright

“IBM seem to have toyed originally with the idea that if you want speed and cheapness you should go ‘straight to industry’; that you should go straight to a building system knocked up by some hard-headed businessman-cum-engineer, whose mind is unclouded by idle aesthetic preferences, who knows his market like the back of his hand, etc etc. What is principally gratifying about this job, therefore, is that Foster was able not merely to provide something much better than anything which could be bought off the peg, but to do it more quickly and at less cost.”

The Architectural review, January 1972

Norman Foster

“IBM asked us to design a temporary building. I took the brief as a challenge. Having looked at the cost and the time needed to build such a structure we instead designed what was in effect a permanent building for the same very low budget, which could be completed to the same very fast time-scale.”

lecture in Santiago, Chile, 15 October, 1997

Norman Foster

“We have never really had the luxury of that utopian vision where a client isolates a brief and hands it over to a design team who, in glorious isolation, design a fixed building and then hand it over to a contractor who produces a fixed building. In our experience life is not like that. The only constant is change.”

lecture at the construction Industry conference, London, 15 May 1980.

Reyner Banham

“The building is not disguised in any way. It is an honest, straightforward glass box. But when you look at it you don’t see a glass box, you see the surrounding trees and things like that. This is probably carrying self-effacement to the point of lunacy, except , of course, it has given the building a very powerful image quality – of a curiously negative back-to-front kind – which Foster was to exploit brilliantly, I think, in his Willis Faber building.”

‘Beyond the Yellow Bicycle’, lecture at UEA, Norwich, 27 June 1985

Norman Foster

“At the time, it would have been usual for the client to have made separate buildings for offices, amenities and computers. The idea that you could put all these under one roof umbrella and have the capacity for moving them around beneath has its roots in the Newport School competition, and is a recurring theme.”

Charles Jencks

“When you drive up to the IBM building it isn’t there. All you find is a duplication of reality; two parking lots, two sets of trees, a symmetrical sky and yourself doubled – most of it disappearing in infinity.”

A+U, September 1975

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1970
  • Completion: 1971
  • Area: 10,869m²
  • Height: 2.94m
  • Capacity: 1000
  • Client: IBM (UK) Ltd
  • Structural Engineer: Anthony Hunt Associates
  • Quantity Surveyor: Hanscomb Partnership
  • M+E Engineer: R S Willcox Associates
  • Lighting Engineer: Derek Phillips & Partners

Awards

  • 'Financial Times' Industrial Architecture Award Commendation
  • Royal Institute of British Architects Commendation
  • Structural Steel Award Citation
  • Royal Institute of British Architects Award
  • R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award
  • Business and Industry Panel for the Environment Award
  • Structural Steel Award
  • Royal Institute of British Architects Award