Quality new office space in Istanbul is thin on the ground, which is why, when an unfinished shopping mall became available, Microsoft jumped at the chance to turn the shell into a multi-storey office space. Developer Jones Langdon Sal redesigned the facade to turn the building from mall to Microsoft HQ, before the shell was passed to Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (SHCA) to put in services and fit out the unusual hexagonal-shaped floor plates. Istanbul is not the most common of locations for a multinational architecture firm to have an office, and although SHCA hadn’t worked with Microsoft before, it was happy coincidence that they had a fully staffed office there when Microsoft were looking for someone to create this new space. Microsoft employees previously worked from a tower block, with multi-tenants, on inconsecutive floors, a space that was not only difficult to work in but impossible to brand as their own.
The lease on the original building was up, which was the main trigger to scout out a new one, but the company also wanted to house staff from other offices. “Microsoft needed to relocate and chose Turkey as the best spot, over somewhere like Dubai,” says Jason Turner, head of interiors at SHCA. “It’s a gateway point between Europe and the Middle East.” The newly formalised sales and marketing HQ for the middle east and Africa now houses just shy of 350 workers. “We created a flexible working environment, as regional sales and managers are often out and about in Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and South Africa,” explains Turner.
In Turkey, a country that is a lot more traditional and hierarchical in its work ethos, members of staff tend to work completely from cellular offices. “With Microsoft, we convinced the employees – mostly Turkish, with some Americans and Europeans – to go almost completely open plan,” says Turner. There is a pool of desks that people share and book out, and quiet rooms, breakout areas with soft seating, technology demonstration areas, a café space and a roof terrace space (being Microsoft, it’s all wireless, and meetings can easily take place on the roof). “There were amazing views over Istanbul from the old office, but the mall came with a rooftop space, which we turned into landscaped gardens, as a payback for the tower block view,” says Turner.
The underground parking was also a draw: Istanbul doesn’t have a heavily designed business district and most people drive to work from the residential district south of the city. “There are only two bridges from this region and traffic can be awful, so this had to be a consideration too,” says Turner. “The parking is what made this a plausible option.” The building offered three floors above ground, and one underground floor which is used for client meeting suites, demo areas and a staff café. The sloping ground means that one floorplate is only half underground, so this floor is mixed-use.
At the foot of the atrium that runs up through the building is a podium where demonstrations take place on a daily basis – an environment a bit like a trade fair. “There’s always something going on, and everyone can see across each floor. It’s a very connected space,” says Turner. Corner areas, adjacent to the lifts, have been turned into lit breakout spaces that look across and over the atrium. “Some of the space we left quite exposed,” says Turner. “Because we started with a shell, we could put in the service to fit the look. We put in ducting that was nice and shiny. The advantage of it starting life as a shopping mall is that it had higher ceilings than you would get in an office build. We didn’t want to put in suspended ceilings to counteract that.”
Although Herman Miller Aeron chairs populate the office floors, the Istanbul office specified a lot of the furniture in Turkey. “There are great quality Turkish brands of office furniture and the Istanbul office made some sound patriotic choices when specifying,” says Turner. Although renowned for its artisan crafts and ceramics, there is a strong vein of contemporary design in the area – Istanbul hosted its first international design week in September 2005 and the city has been nominated European Capital of Culture for 2010.
Turner explains how SHCA came to have a base in the city: “It’s because one of the SHCA directors in New York used to have an architectural firm in Istanbul before joining the company. He retained it, and we inherited it.” SHCA won the contract, but came to a framework agreement where it would do a small amount of the upfront design work in the London office, and then pitch and sell it to the Turkish office, where rates are lower.
“The practice usually does small private jobs, so it’s a great advert to do the fit out of a multi-national company, to Western standards, in Istanbul,” he continues. “Interior architects are currently overlooked in the development process there. Developers put in the interior walls; it isn’t seen as a discipline that warrants a specialist to come on board.” It’s a tide that may be turning. “Istanbul has a thriving scene,” says Turner. “The economy there is very strong, and industrial manufacturing is still developing. Big earners come there from the Emirates to go on holiday, and live, as it’s more cultured and relaxed.” As a growing focal point for multinationals, it could soon become a spot to watch for interior architecture too.