August 25, 2015

A Working Work of Art: Hassell Transforms Office Life for Melbourne’s Medibank

The concrete jungle of Melbourne’s rapidly renewing Docklands precinct just got a strikingly green addition. “A living, breathing building,” is how Hassell managing director Robert Backhouse describes Medibank Place, a 16-story boomerang shape that houses the headquarters of Medibank, Australia’s largest health insurance company, alongside one other tenant. Plant walls flank the main entrance, while other plants and vines climb the facade like loose latticework. And, accessible to the public, a pedestrian bridge that connects the building to its immediate neighbor, Southern Cross Station, is landscaped like a garden.

But if the foliage-laced exterior evokes Medibank’s slogan, “For Better Health,” the headquarters inside—a collaboration with principal Anthony Dickens—goes much further. “It reflects an evolution in the corporate culture, aspiring to actively promote the well-being of the 1,600 employees there. Medibank was ba­si­cally looking to create the healthiest office environment possible,” Backhouse continues. The brief, developed with the workplace consultant Veldhoen + Company, called for adhering to the precepts of Activity Based Working, a dynamic, flexible plan that provides a choice of settings for a variety of tasks rather than forcing people to occupy one location all day. Hassell has given Medibank 26 types of work environments from which to choose: solo or group, informal or formal, quiet or buzzing, sit­ting or standing. Laptop and smartphone in hand, employees can find the spot that best suits their needs.

Corporations often adopt Activity Based Working for financial reasons. (It allows for contractions and expansions in head count without changes in real estate.) Medibank, however, was more interested in the positive implications for the physical, mental, and social health of employees. In fact, there was such emphasis on this aspect of the project that Backhouse nicknamed it Health Based Working.

That the design encourages physical activity is immediately evident. From the common lobby, for both tenants, a ramp in the form of a spiraling ribbon of brilliant-blue rubber gives cyclists access to bike storage one level up. The ramp then loops up again to the Medibank headquarters proper, 10 levels totaling 328,000 square feet. It’s introduced by a double-height reception area. Above, in an architectural coup de theatre, balconies encircle a vertiginous atrium. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum halfway around the world in New York, except that the free-form balconies change the shape and size of the atrium as it rises, and floating staircases crisscross the void. “It’s not a monotonous vertical space,” Backhouse notes.

Just as the staircases offer the quickest, most natural pathways between levels, encouraging employees to walk instead of seeking out the less handily positioned elevators, the layouts overall encourage movement. Communal work spaces and active social spaces, such as conference rooms, break-out areas, and lounges, gather around the atrium, making it the dynamic heart of Medibank. Meanwhile, quiet zones for tasks requiring undisturbed concentration are sequestered away from the bustle, at the ends of the long floor plates.

The vastness of the atrium, which extends beyond Medibank’s own office to reach the top of the building, is tamed by colors that look straight out of a still life of desserts by Wayne Thiebaud: mango, watermelon, pistachio, lemon, raspberry, blueberry. They all appear on rubber or vinyl flooring, nylon carpet, and ceiling paint in the surrounding spaces. “As part of Medibank’s transformative program, we inverted the traditional office formula of white ceilings, gray floors, and maybe a bit of color splashed on the walls,” Dickens says, adding that aesthetics weren’t the only aim. “The paint, flooring, and furnishings are all low-VOC to improve air quality, and the wood used on some ceilings and walls is certified Australian plantation timber. The building is sustainable without looking recycled.”

Hassell’s most radical move was to combine two of the middle levels to create a double-height expanse, then invite other firms to make statements there. These take the form of freestanding “clubhouses,” which serve a variety of group functions and vary in atmosphere and affect. “It brings additional diversity, richness, and dimension to these crucial communal zones,” Dickens explains. Chris Connell Design provides a café-style gathering place with booths and tables. Kerry Phelan Design Office offers an almost après-ski environment complete with a fireplace. And Russell & George’s glass-enclosed mezzanine training room floats serenely above the activity. As for the most formal “clubhouse,” comprising executive dining and meeting spaces, plus the boardroom, that’s the work of Hassell itself.

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Project Team
Mark Loughnan; Ingrid Bakker; Steve Coster; Travis Hemley; Robin Deutschmann; David Andrew; Kevin Cullis; Matthew Mackay; Mary Papaioannou; Harley Vincent; Trevor Coolledge; Jacqui Low; Ian Grant; Joel Sampson; Greta Stoutjesdijk; Allison Armstrong; Yi Zhen Kueh; Brenton Beggs; Andrea Giuradei; Benjamin Kronenberg; Bethany Mann; Biljana Lojanica; David Simpson; Ecknaathh Bala; Harry Hrissis; Hendy Wijaya; Horaci Sanchez; Jack Barlow; Julia Zaritaskaja; Maria Bauer; Michael Fouche; Molly Hibberd; Patrick Hamilton; Darren Paul; Pauline Vivaldi; Robbi Peirce; Shalom Ling Choong; Simon Rich; Steven Paul; Stuart Dow: Hassell. WSP Global: Structural Engineer. NDY Group: MEP. Rigger Contracting: Woodwork. Brookfield Multiplex: General Contractor. Montlaur: Project Manager.

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