Friendly Giant

Imagine a workplace for over 3,000 people under one roof, spread over a single storey space with an area close to one million square feet. That’s about the equivalent of a typical 30-storey office tower. In the case of the Nortel Networks World Headquarters in Brampton, Ontario, northwest of Toronto, this office space occupies a former manufacturing building previously used to produce analog switching equipment.

Faced with the dual challenge of consolidating a far-flung and rapidly growing workforce and figuring out what to do with the sizeable obsolete factory, Nortel decided to take advantage of the large physical plant at its disposal and convert it into office space for its headquarters. The telecommunications giant turned to HOK Inc.–who over a decade ago established an agreement to provide Nortel with architectural services worldwide–to develop a design strategy for this massive undertaking. HOK carried out the first phase of work, the Consolidation, in association with Toronto’s Bregman + Hamann Architects, while the most recent phase, the Westside Expansion, was carried out by Urbana Architects Corporation and HOK Canada.

Developed in stages between 1996 and 1998, the Nortel Networks World Headquarters is a response to several major issues facing the technology sector. First, with fierce competition among companies for staff with high-level technology expertise, the quality of the workplace has become a significant factor in attracting and retaining valued employees. Second, given the rapid expansion of the industry, it has been virtually impossible to accommodate the demand for workplaces of such scale and flexibility in downtown office buildings. As a result, many of these companies are located in suburban areas, on huge campuses surrounded by parking lots of oceanic proportions and with little access to public amenities. In order to compensate for this, amenities–such as fitness and day care centres and landscaped gardens–have increasingly been incorporated into the workplace, a cost-effective option thanks to the large number of employees that these buildings typically accommodate.

Given the scale of this particular project, it’s not surprising that the design team chose as its basic ordering principle the model of “The City,” as Nortel HQ has come to be known. The City is comprised of six major blocks of office space–“workspace neighbourhoods”–delineated by three east-west “streets” (Memory Lane/North Loop, Colonnade, and South Loop) and five north-south cross streets (Sunrise Lane, East Loop, Main Street, West Loop and Sunset Lane). These blocks are augmented by a series of support and amenity spaces at the periphery and interspersed throughout the building. Within each block, or neighbourhood, a hierarchy of spaces is established, with communal areas such as conference rooms, washrooms and photocopy/ coffee stations–with masonry, drywall, or stucco partitions–represented as more permanent than open office areas where individual workstations are fitted out with flexible systems furniture. In keeping with the analogy of the city, changes to the space are governed by kit-of-parts, master planning and zoning by-law documents developed by the designers, which include guidelines for alternative office concepts, furniture and finishes.

The model of the city is used to generate both spatial order and an aesthetic vocabulary meant to assist with orientation and wayfinding. The Town Centre, at the intersection of Main Street and the Colonnade, consists of a CIBC branch complete with clock tower, along with a travel agency, a coffee/sandwich shop, Cybershop, and HOMEbase, a showroom featuring furniture options for Nortel employees working from a home office. At the north end of Main Street is Aralia, offering massage and other wellness services, as well as an internet caf and Venture Park, which, with its substantial trees, generous skylighting and oversized chessmen and board, emulates a gracious urban park. Further west along the Colonnade, where it intersects the West Loop, a large meeting space/auditorium called the Forum spills out into another gathering space that overlooks an outdoor Zen garden providing access to the outdoors at the heart of this vast floor plate.

At the Town Centre, the project takes its cues from some of the familiar vocabulary of New Urbanism, but traditional architectural forms are used as playfully cartoon-like signifiers, in contrast with the often self-important mimetic artefacts that characterize New Urbanist developments. By contrast, Dockland, the shipping and receiving area along the South Loop, sports a large-scale wall covered in graffiti, which clearly identifies the area’s back-of-house function. Throughout most of the building, forms are bold and simple and colours intense, which seems a fitting response to such a large space. But in the end, the architectural vocabulary seems incidental to the larger order of the project, and in some sense it is. Like any urban entity, the success of The City is governed by its infrastructure and fabric, its individual pieces for the most part expendable and interchangeable so long as the overall order and spirit of the place are respected. In the course of visiting the project, I saw several areas undergoing renovation, testifying to the constant “churn,” an industry term for the frequent moves and changing workplace requirements as projects are completed, project teams disbanded, and new ones assembled to tackle the company’s next venture.

The existing building provided a ready-made starting point for the organization of infrastructure, with its regular column array and exposed steel structure providing the basic elements for a rational distribution grid. The 18″ deep industrial concrete floor left over from the building’s days as a factory precluded locating cabling and other services below the slab, so all distribution takes place in trays suspended below the roof structure. Cable trays are organized on the structural grid, with the columns designed to function as “Utility Trees” that carry the trays. This layer of infrastructure also establishes a virtual ceiling beneath the structural deck soaring 23 feet above the floor.

The City separates infrastructure and program space into permanent and impermanent elements, allowing for maximum flexibility with minimal disruption. The raw infrastructural machismo lurking beneath the cheerful finishes is a compelling feature of the Nortel Headquarters, and recalls some of the systems buildings of the 1960s and ’70s. But despite its rationalist appeal, the limits of this thinking are succinctly caricatured in such dystopic projects as Superstudio’s 1969 Il monumento continuo (the Continuous Monument), which consists of an endless framework that encompasses the world’s entire surface, resulting in generic placelessness. Faced with the challenge of balancing the efficient management of infrastructure (and its tendency to generate generic spaces) with the creation of an amenable workplace, the City’s designers have handled it with skill.

The successful collaboration at the Brampton headquarters between the architects and Nortel has led to two additional projects in Canada. The Nortel Networks Research and Development Campus Expansion in Carling, near Ottawa, and Nortel Networks Broadband Research and Development Campus Phase One in Dorval, just outside Montreal, the latter done in association with Menks Shooner Dagenais Architectes, were both completed in 1999. While these projects are based on the same fundamental approach to the workplace that characterizes the Brampton headquarters, each is developed with its own themes informing the overall design strategy.

The Carling expansion consists of three new linked three-storey buildings designed on the theme of the convergence of technology and landscape, referring to the relationship between network technology and the networks found in nature. The new addition to the existing campus features a lake, fountains, and extensive landscaping as major amenities. The Montreal facility consists of two four-storey L-shaped wi
ngs linked by an atrium, and is based on the think tank environment of a university campus. The workplace is designed on the premise that people might work anywhere, anytime, providing spaces that refer to the streetscapes, libraries, theatres and cafs that describe a typical university environment.

It may seem paradoxical that a global telecommunications giant whose innovations are enabling people to work remotely should place so much emphasis on the quality of the office environment. That they do acknowledges the value of the social aspects of the workplace, and the role of design in supporting the spontaneous interaction and brainstorming that generate new ideas and creative solutions.

Client: Nortel Networks Real Estate

Architects: HOK Inc./Bregman + Hamann Architects (consolidation); Urbana Architects Corporation/HOK Canada (westside expansion)

Structural: Carruthers & Wallace (consolidation); Giffels Associates Ltd. (westside expansion)

Mechanical: Smith & Anderson Consulting Engineering (consolidation); Giffels Associates Ltd. (westside expansion)

Electrical: Mulvey & Banani International Inc. (consolidation); Giffels Associates Ltd. (westside expansion)

Landscape: HOK (consolidation); Alexander Budrevics & Associates (westside expansion)

Interiors: HOK, B + H Interior Design (consolidation); HOK Canada (westside expansion)

Construction manager: BFC Buildings

Program management: HOK Program Management

Graphics: HOK Visual Communications

Programming: HOK Consulting

Acoustics: HOK Engineering

Food service: Frank Longo

Systems furniture: The Resource Alliance (Herman Miller), POI (Steelcase)

Area: 970,000 ft2

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: December 1996 (consolidation); December 1998 (westside expansion)

Photography: Tim Griffith