The Sacred Workplace
A few days ago, I drove past my former workplace on the outskirts of Leicester, only to find that it had finally been demolished. This was the end of a particular story that illustrates the changing nature of work in the UK over the past twenty or more years.
The company I worked for was – and still is – called Bellrock; but this was the result of a corporate re-brand to reflect a change in ownership and in corporate structure. Previously, it had been known as SGP and had provided facilities management services to the finance and retail sector. In 2005, SGP had been acquired by Johnsons, the workwear provider, part of a sprawling group operating in the textiles sector for something like 200 years. Best known nowadays for their dry-cleaning business, Johnsons had seen their peak years in the provision of workwear hire, which meant that they had ended up with a massive factory on their Leicester site and a huge headquarters building. As a workwear hire company, Johnsons had had to provide laundry services – hence the dry cleaning business – and having a national chain of laundries and depots meant that they had to have a fairly extensive secondary workforce to maintain those premises. Hence the excursion into facilities management. The development of accountancy theory in the post-war years saw companies embrace the idea of the “profit centre” and the “cost centre”, and how to make the latter turn into the former. If you are spending money on doing a thing, you either start doing that thing as a business and offer your services to third parties (making a cost centre into a profit centre), or you stop doing that thing and buy the service in from others (streamlining your costs so as to maximise shareholder value). Of course, all this is predicated on the economic theory that the purpose of a company is to maximise shareholder value, rather than make a better product or offer a better service.
Separating SGP from Johnsons involved a management buyout, which in turn meant that venture capitalists got involved. And venture capitalists are based around the maximisation of shareholder value. Meanwhile, it also meant that SGP was suddenly a tenant on Johnsons’ Leicester site instead of being part of the owners’ business; and in any case, a site consisting of a huge office building, designed in the 1960s to house a clerical workforce supporting a national-scale business and a factory that covered nearly half a square mile, located on a late 1940s trading estate was no longer appropriate to a modern business and a computer-literate workforce. Indeed, the factory had already been re-purposed as a distribution hub, given that the trading estate was convenient to the motorway and also the shift away from companies having huge workforces engaged in manufacturing who required overalls. So Bellrock and the other tenants were under notice to quit, and the factory, with one of the biggest asbestos roofs in Europe, was marked for demolition – just as soon as the site owners could raise the necessary funds to remove that roof safely. (Had the factory ever caught fire, the Leicester Emergency Plan called for mass evacuation of residents in up to a one-mile radius, such was the risk.)
Once I knew that the site was going to be cleared, I determined to take the camera in to record something of the site. After all, at one time this site had housed a huge working community; and the office block, though outwardly an unremarkable 1960s corporate HQ, had been designed by architects and represented a major outlay of working time and effort on the part of probably hundreds of people that was all going to be swept away. A large number of buildings from the 1950s and 1960s have been demolished in recent years; although many of them were undistinguished and probably quite unloved, they nonetheless played a part in people’s lives and ought to be recorded in some way.
Photographers like a bit of urban decay; and there is a community of “urban explorers” who find experiencing this sort of thing interesting. So perhaps there is more appreciation now than ever before of unloved buildings; stuff that will never be the subject of preservation orders or get into coffee table books of the best modern buildings. Architectural fashions change; in the post-war years, Victorian buildings were unloved until the demolition of the Euston Arch focussed attention on the quality of Victorian buildings and their contribution to the built environment. But the tower blocks and offices of the 1950s and 1960s were quickly opened to criticism even when they were new; their status as indicators of the “white heat of technology” culture rapidly waned as evidence of shoddy construction quality and the consequent shortcomings in the standard of accommodation mounted. One of the most notorious examples was Alexander Fleming House, the DHSS headquarters building at the Elephant & Castle in London. Designed by the architect Erno Goldfinger, it became better known for poor construction quality and sick building syndrome (SBS), to the extent that the DHSS moved out in the early 1990s. Alexander Fleming House narrowly avoided demolition but required a major refurbishment and re-purposing before it became fit for purpose; had it not had a noted architect’s name attached to it, it might have become another re-developed site.
In the middle 1980s, I worked in the DHSS complex at Five Ways, in Birmingham. This consisted of two buildings – Five Ways House, built in the year of my birth, 1957, and housing the Department of the Environment, the DHSS, and a number of other smaller organisations; and Five Ways Tower, a 23-story block clad in red brick dating from 1979. The site became notorious; firstly for poor construction standards (bricks started detaching themselves from the cladding in high winds, and when the brickwork was examined it was found that whole panels of brickwork were at risk of coming away and falling up to 180 feet onto public circulation areas), and then for sick building syndrome, especially after Drs. Sherwood and Burge from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital used the site for their key study of the condition as the two buildings had different forms of ventilation and heating and could therefore provide populations for proper epidemiological study, especially if staff were transferred from one building to the other. The proof of the existence of SBS had quite an impact; given that the sufferers included a number of senior managers, DHSS management took the matter very seriously indeed, and in due course Five Ways Tower was cleared and indeed stood empty for many years. Oddly, though, when the BBC’s long-running science programme Horizon wanted to make a documentary on SBS, the Department of the Environment would not grant permission for them to film inside the building. Which was odd, as permission had been granted earlier for another BBC production unit to transform part of the basement of Five Ways House into a South African prison cell block for a drama-documentary on the life and death of the activist Steve Biko. I always wondered how they knew Five Ways House would make such a good and appropriate setting…
About this time, the TV critic, journalist and writer Clive James began hosting a show called Clive James on Television. It featured James doing acerbic voiceovers to tv clips from around the world, especially ones from Japan or Brazil, and usually including things that to a UK audience looked strange or bizarre. Amongst footage of appalling South American singers (Marguerita Pracatan springs to mind) and extreme game shows, he also showed some clips from a Japanese series about the British. Having once been photographed by Japanese tourists whilst buying an Underground ticket, I could relate to this. In one clip, the presenters marvelled at a Royal Mail motorcycle courier: “Look! This is the Royal mail!”. And in another, they visited the London Underground depot at Neasden, where one of the workers was retiring. In those less enlightened times, this bloke’s colleagues had arranged a strippogram to deliver his leaving card. This boggled the Japanese camera crew somewhat. At one point, the highly excitable frontman for the show made an exclamation that appeared in the subtitles as: “Oh! Oh! Those wonderful boobies are coming out in the sacred workplace again!” I don’t know how accurate the subtitling was – I have the sneaking suspicion that Clive James may have had a hand in embellishing them somewhat – but “the Sacred Workplace” immediately became a term I applied to my own place of work, especially if my tongue ever found its way into my cheek. Which it did quite often over the following twenty years in a succession of roles, usually in response to some instance or other of managerial or organisational foolishness.
And thinking about it, a significant number of those Sacred Workplaces have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. And all of them, I think, were office blocks. Perhaps there is something about big, rectangular buildings that encourages corporate daftness, which may account for the architectural trend in recent years to build offices in a variety of shapes that verge on the non-Euclidian. And it could well be one of the advantages of now working for a smaller company whose offices are on a more human scale.