WORDS Paul Kotze PRODUCTION Sumien Brink PHOTOS Clinton Friedman and Karl Beath
The striking new RCL Foods head office in Westville, Durban, reflects the company’s people-centric approach in memorable fashion.
Elphick Proome Architects’ building for RCL Foods in Durban is all about people and connectivity in the workplace.
That’s not to say all buildings should necessarily be about people, it’s just that sometimes architects and their clients forget that this is a potential need. This happens mostly when a specific aesthetic image is decided on before the project begins. This desire then drives the design to the extent that people and the way in which they interact with the built environment becomes little more than a passing concern.
Such buildings might be aesthetically memorable, but they remain forever devoid of life. The RCL Foods head office represents the complete opposite of this outcome. The choice to fundamentally care for the physical and social wellbeing of people, before any other consideration was taken care of, becomes clear when the architects and designers explain the design history of the building.
Construction had started and the basement parking was nearly finished when tenant RCL Foods decided the building’s design should reflect its people-centred approach. This change of heart necessitated fast, focused and well-coordinated action from the entire professional team. It also created an opportunity to come up with a unique and memorable building.
The contemporary workplace today is fundamentally different from our conventional understanding of it of just a few years ago. Work is now more collaborative, performed by fluid groupings of various sizes that are not necessarily tied to one physical location. In this different configuration, visual interaction coupled with a measure of acoustic privacy is crucial.
Moreover, people want to feel at home in the workplace, seeing that they spend so much time there. The professional team achieved all of the above in spades. A full-height atrium unifies the spatial logic of the building, and two glazed facades on either end place the atrium and its users in constant contact with the direct external environment.
All vertical and horizontal movement of people is associated with this space, which is filled with daylight from above and from the two sides. The most arresting element in the atrium is a staircase linked to the two sides with walkways – the open stairs and glass balustrades create a sense of wonder at how precisely the architects managed to defy gravity with the design.
Glass-encased workspaces and meeting rooms of various sizes form the vertical surfaces of the atrium. Visitors to the building enter this space directly, which enables easy orientation for all concerned. There are test kitchens and dining facilities on the ground floor, so it is full of activity. Well-designed corporate messages on the walls illustrate what RCL Foods is all about.
One of the most exciting aspects is the rooftop entertainment area, which affords views of the Indian Ocean and seems to float in space, suspended and removed from the realities surrounding it.