The country headquarters for insurance company Willis Faber & Dumas challenged accepted thinking about the office building while maintaining a sense of continuity within its urban setting. Innovations such as the use of escalators in a three-storey structure, and the social dimension offered by its swimming pool, roof-top restaurant and garden, were all conceived in a spirit of democratising the workplace and encouraging a greater sense of community.
Externally, the building reinforces rather than confronts the urban grain. Low-rise, with a free-form plan, it responds to the scale of surrounding buildings, while its facade curves in response to the irregular medieval street pattern, flowing to the edges of its site like a pancake in a pan.
The sheath-like, glass curtain wall, which was developed with the glazing manufacturer Pilkington, pushed the technology of the day to its very limits. The solar-tinted glazing panels, each 2 metres square, are connected by means of corner patch fittings, then silicon jointed, forming a three-storey-high curtain, which is suspended from a clamping strip at roof level. A discreet system of internal glass fins at each floor level provides the necessary wind bracing. By day the glass appears almost black and reflects an eclectic, fragmented collage of Ipswich's old buildings; while by night it dissolves dramatically to reveal the activity within.
Conceived before the oil crises of the mid-1970s, and heated by natural gas, Willis Faber was a pioneering example of energy conscious design, its deep plan and insulating grass roof ensuring extremely good overall thermal performance.
Recognising these innovations, over the years the building has attracted almost as many awards for energy efficiency as it has for its architecture. The project also pioneered the use of raised office floors, anticipating the revolution in information technology; so much so, that when Willis Faber introduced computerisation it was able to do so with minimal disruption - unlike most of its rivals, who were forced to move to new buildings. Paradoxically, although it was designed for flexibility, the building now has Grade 1 listed status: an honour that means it cannot be changed.
“Foster was always keen that we should have an open-plan office, or to be precise a 'planned open office'. We as clients were happy to go along with him, for with our ever-changing structure, changes in accommodation layout had cost us a fortune over the years”.Kenneth Knight, Company Secretary, Willis Faber Group
“Ipswich is characterised by low-rise, articulated buildings bound together with winding streets of random geometry. Any new building had to respond to the scale of these surroundings and the pattern of streets.”Norman Foster
“The most sympathetic and effective building form was a low-profile, deep-plan building that could swell to the edges of the containing street pattern like a pancake in a pan.”Norman Foster
“We live for the most part in closed rooms. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we must change our architecture. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture which lets in the sun, the stars and the moon, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass. The new environment we thus create will bring us a new culture.”Paul Scheerbart, Glasarchitektur, 1914
“The profile of the Willis Faber & Dumas building is a more civilised and humane response to a medieval market town than pushing towers up into the sky.”Norman Foster
“It was only by doing our own independent technical research and detailed drawings that we were able to convince a manufacturer that glazing without mullions really was achievable.”Norman Foster
Construction start: 1973
Area: 21 255 m²
Height: 21.5 m
Client: Willis Faber & Dumas Ltd
Structural Engineer: Anthony Hunt Associates
Quantity Surveyor: Davis Belfield & Everest
M+E Engineer: Foster Associates
Landscape Architect: John Allen
Additional Consultants: John Allen, John Taylor & Sons, Martin Francis in association with Jean Prouve, Adrian Wilder, Sound Research Laboratories