Design that reflects its local environment is a huge focus for practising architects and designers, and Sydney’s Barangaroo development is a hotbed for this kind of thinking. FRONT 2019 Ambassador and Woods Bagot Principal shares her insights on Gilbert + Tobin workplace at Barangaroo.

I was making my way through Sydney’s Wynyard Walk – the new underground pedestrian link between Wynyard Station and Barangaroo – and two things struck me. The first was that Barangaroo, Sydney’s rapidly emerging new mixed-use precinct, was now truly connected with the city. Sitting essentially at the base of a sandstone escarpment on the foreshore of Darling Harbour, it was previously a remote, undeveloped satellite to the CBD. But now, especially as a large part of it has been completed and the high-rise commercial towers substantially tenanted along with a dynamic retail and hospitality component, it is fully integrated with the city, contributing to a fluent connection between the city and our famous waterfront.

The second thing was the recurring serpentine graphic motif in the passage, which references the original water course flowing down to the harbour. I was on my way to visit the new Sydney premises for the large Australian commercial law firm, Gilbert + Tobin. The designers of this new workplace, Woods Bagot, have picked up on this image – and on the curvilinear expression of Rogers Kirk Harbour’s tower – with the fit-out’s sinuous built forms and in the striking illuminated cut-away snaking through the ceiling.

These design elements were also a response to Gilbert + Tobin’s brief for an environment which not only acknowledged the specific context, but also the Australian light and landscape as a complement to their significant collection of contemporary Australian art. The back story here is that Gilbert + Tobin, led by Principal, Danny Gilbert, was the first firm to commit to moving to Barangaroo. The conversations with Woods Bagot date back to 2012 and it was the second business to move into the new quarter. At the time, says Woods Bagot principal and project leader, Amanda Stanaway, “it was not a particularly popular choice” because it meant leaving their Park Street base and its proximity to the law courts.

But, says Stanaway, Gilbert is “a true disrupter and innovator and he was comfortable with making everyone else uncomfortable”. Gilbert saw the practice of commercial law changing. “He led the partnership to make that decision,” says Stanaway. “He helped drive the workplace mentality and the workplace philosophy. He wasn’t obsessed with what anyone else had done, he was obsessed with doing what was right for the firm.”

In terms of location, it meant being close to the ‘big end of town’, while in terms of the workplace it meant an open, flexible environment which facilitated the cross-disciplinary collaboration necessary in the new legal landscape. It was also essential that the new work environment be a learning environment because law is very much about how experience and knowledge are passed on from one generation to the next. This required breaking down barriers and moving people out of offices.

So, for Gilbert, the appeal of Barangaroo was the proximity to big business and the large floorplates of the Rogers Kirk Harbour tower, which offered the opportunity for an imaginative, but calm and relaxed, workplace with room for a variety of work and meeting spaces – and that’s before you look at the sensational views west over the harbour or back over the city towards the Harbour Bridge.

The big, deep floorplate with its central lift core posed many challenges, especially balancing intimacy with connection, so important for a law firm which, says Stanaway, was aiming to generate energy but also respect the need for focused, private work.

Given the idiosyncrasy of the floorplates in the Barangaroo International Towers – the ovoid shape with an east-west axis and the lift core in the middle – the challenge for all the tenancies has been how to design the arrival sequence. I have now seen four and Gilbert + Tobin’s is certainly the boldest. One steps out of the lift to be immediately confronted by a massive circular white reception desk. “It’s not really a desk,” says Stanaway, “it’s really a piece of sculpture that happens to have two people sitting at it.” The branding is minimalist, signalling the theme of the fit-out: sophisticated, but relaxed, with a restrained palette suggesting the Australian landscape and acting as a backdrop to the art collection and the stylish loose furnishings.

The reception level is given over mainly to meeting spaces and client-facing facilities. There are two client reception areas, one on either side of the core. Otherwise, the only real difference between the 3.5 levels occupied by Gilbert + Tobin are the social spaces which all enjoy the splendid views west of the city.

Front-end briefing was done by Calder Consultants and the resulting office environment was very much the product of an ongoing collaboration between concept and design, driven internally by Danny Gilbert who, says Stanaway, was “very clear about re-working the typology of work.” A significant result of this is the custom workstations designed to respond to the floorplate. They are larger than normal and incorporate ‘hockey-stick’ end positions (for lawyers) with a central, straight desk for admin staff. They incorporate three screens (one a laptop) which ‘undulate’ to create privacy while also offering variety to the office landscape. As Stanaway puts it: “They tried to tailor the technology to the typology of the user rather than tailoring the workspace itself.”

The Gilbert + Tobin workplace is an understated, but quietly innovative response, not just to the unusual base building, but to the rapidly changing nature of legal practice and Sydney’s morphing commercial identity.

Written by Paul McGillick for Indesign #70. Photography by Trevor Mein.

Amanda Stanway is a FRONT 2019 Ambassador, stay tuned for updates about the FRONT Forum being developed with our diverse group of Ambassadors.