The Demos report calls it “a backward-looking imperial style”. Ian Gunter, environmental design adviser to The British Council, calls it “a sleepy, dusty environment”. This is Britain’s image as portrayed through its British Council buildings around the world. It is something that the Government and Gunter want to change.
Gunter, an interior designer, is part of the British Council’s corporate affairs department, a division headed by Tom Buchanan, previously director in Hong Kong. Gunter describes his role as managing the council’s interiors identity programme, and with 209 premises, it is an on-going task. He operates “wherever the Brits need to be seen to be doing something”, although the refurbishment of the council buildings is also commercially driven. The British Council may be a registered charity, but it still has to earn more than half of its own money through educational enterprises and development projects.
His prime objective is to create what he calls “the shop window of Britain”, presenting the brand to the outside world. And it is something he strongly champions. “The whole branding issue is about winning long-term friends for Britain, through promotion and cultural exchange,” he says. “Yes, it’s about promoting the best in British design, but it’s also about cultural respect and blending in. If we take the view that McDonalds takes in some countries…”
More importantly, he says, it’s about finding the balance between these two issues and that will depend on your location. For example, in The British Council’s Hong Kong office, designed by Terry Farrell and Partners, a feng shui adviser was called in to approve the interior scheme. “We had to respect it was in their culture,” says Gunter. He continues: “In other countries there may be religious, racial and cast differences… and then there is the ex-pat.”
Sri Lanka is a case in point, with the council trying to propose an open-plan office and introduce new ways of working. But with the cultural and social layers of the country also permeating through to the office – there are five staff rooms at the moment – this is not as straightforward as it may sound. The same delicate manoeuvring applies to Beijing where status is very important. The director may be giving up his office to sit in the open plan, but his grand office will become the management suite, for all managerial staff to use when they receive visitors. “We are trying to encourage better ways of working without being seen to be dictating,” says Gunter.
He is the first to admit that this fine balance between British promotion and local culture doesn’t always work. “The way we put the message across has to vary for each market. We would have to think very carefully about sending out a classic sofa design for the reception in Dakar – it would probably feed a family of four for a month. And then there is the aesthetic styling issue. What we might see as trendy and hip, others in that particular country might not.”
The refurbishment programme forms a large part of the work. The 209 premises vary greatly in size and sophistication. All include libraries and information centres, and many have the added benefit of a teaching centre. How a building is targeted for refurbishment varies. Some come by the request of the local director, while others are steered by the British Council’s head of the UK facilities group, Bob Steedman.
Gunter then draws up an operational brief, often with a consultant, looks at the building to see whether the proposal is feasible, and produces a report. Many smaller jobs are handled in-house by Gunter, though the bulk of the work is now parcelled out to design consultancies.
Gunter is trying to build up a loose roster of consultancies with skills across the board. “Some people send work in; others may have some sort of tie-up with a local practice,” he says. “But it’s also about personalities. Putting the right client with the right consultant isn’t easy… there have been some disasters.” And, while he may recommend consultancies, it has been known for the local director to travel to the UK to interview the various consultancies. In this instance, Gunter will invite a paid pitch.
Perhaps the the hardest part of Gunter’s job is, as he puts it, “the new bit”. How do you make a building feel, immediately, like a British Council building. “In the past, design was seen as a veneer,” he says. “Painting a building claret and grey [the council’s corporate colours]… was a response to the visual identity. It was a sleepy environment; one that was not operationally driven. We now know that we can’t take a flat monolithic approach to our built environment.”
After six years in the job, Gunter is optimistic about the future. “The shift in Government thinking is fantastic, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” he says. “Design is becoming better understood. The Design Council is getting its message across. And there are organisations which are working to export British design.”
He also confirms that the council is developing its own environmental design guidelines, and has organised a series of “workshops” with the consultancies currently on board to ensure that everyone is working towards the same goal. But, as far as the bigger issue of The British Council branding goes, he is keeping tight-lipped. But we can be sure that, whatever the council comes up with, it will be a long way from the “backward-looking imperial style”.
The British Council has been in Mexico City since 1941, and is currently working alongside and under the brand umbrella of an Anglo-Mexican organisation. With the Mexican economy now booming, it was decided that the council should have its own presence in the city, and work under its own brand.
The chosen building, designed by local architect Vladimir Kaspe, occupies a city centre site facing one of the few green spaces in the city. BDG/McColl has carried out a feasibility study and concept design, and is now taking this forward to detail design stage. Implementation will be undertaken alongside a local practice, with the 40 or so staff due to move in next spring.
From the exterior, a full-height glass faÃ§ade provides views in to the reception area at first floor level and glimpses of a cafÃ©-cum-meeting area at second floor, set back from the existing light well. Beyond the reception, BDG/McColl has designed a long gallery space which leads through to the auditorium at the rear of the building. The remainder of the first floor space accommodates the information centre and teaching areas. A staircase takes visitors to the cafÃ© area and further meeting spaces on the second and third floors. At the top of the building, a new glass-enclosed meeting space will be constructed projecting out at one end of the terrace.
Generally, the interior scheme will reflect the open door policy of the British Council, and provide the best in information technology and learning facilities. BDG/McColl is looking to increase the natural light into the building with the use of glass block walls and glass floors. Fixtures and fittings will be sourced locally, where appropriate, and the use of warm colours will be used to reflect the local vernacular.