Architecture & design

In Good Shape

adidas Laces, the sportswear brand’s new headquarters, is designed to promote a fluid, collaborative work culture, most notably through WORKOUT, a modular furniture system that can be assembled in myriad ways. We talk to Dirk Zweering of Kada Wittfeld, and Karim El-Ishmawi of KINZO, to discuss how architectural and interior innovation can best enhance a company’s working practices. 

In the summer of 2011, some 1,700 adidas employees moved into their new corporate headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. The latest addition to the brand’s thriving ‘World of Sports’ campus, adidas Laces sits between the Adi Dassler Sportplatz stadium and the adidas Brand Centre exhibition hall. Its mission: to foster creativity and team play through the conduit of clever design.

Herzogenaurach, a small town in rural Franconia, is well-known for its associations with sportswear, specifically a bitter sibling rivalry that spawned two global brands. It was here that Rudolph and Adi Dassler lived, worked and died, producing their first handmade sports shoes in their mother’s laundry room before quarrelling irreconcilably and moving to opposite sides of town.

The rift was not merely fraternal; it involved the whole community, with the rival manufacturers (adidas and Puma) going so far as to sponsor separate football teams. This engendered a peculiarly sartorial kind of tribalism. Herzogenaurach was nicknamed ‘the town of bent necks’, because residents would not speak to strangers until they had first looked down to check their shoes.

Today Puma and adidas are based just a few miles apart, and while the animosity has cooled, the town’s fixation with sportswear remains. Situated at a one-time military airbase, the adidas campus boasts a cluster of sports facilities, outdoor areas, residential units and offices. Not till the opening of Laces, however, did the ‘creatives’ gain a workspace specifically designed to suit their purposes.

“We wanted to establish a custom-made office with a holistic concept,” says Karim El-Ishmawi, of Berlin-based interior design firm KINZO. “When a corporation has its own identity, they want to live that identity, rather than expressing it just through external communications.”

A flexible solution

KINZO is the creative force behind WORKOUT, a modular furniture system custom-made for adidas, comprising 46 flexible elements. Manufactured by Planmöbel, the system runs throughout the entirety of the office area, and can be arranged to suit a wide gamut of needs. Here, the furniture choice is not merely a matter of kitting out a pre-partitioned space. Rather, assumes some of the structural functions of interior design.

Most salient in this regard is the central element, Teamplayer. A multifunctional room module, Teamplayer brings the other utensils together and can be used for storage or desktop support. More than that, however, it shapes the area, dividing and connecting teams as appropriate, and creating breakout spaces, workstations and meeting rooms.

With its dark punched plate wall, the module contrives to look both semi-transparent from a distance and near-opaque up close. As such, it promotes both privacy and accessibility, combining the breeziness of an open-plan workspace with the necessary degree of seclusion.

“You are able to adjust the programme to the various needs of the building,” says El-Ishmawi, “creating either a really open kind of feeling, with a few desks and low partitions, or a dense atmosphere in which the partitions go almost up to the ceiling and are equipped with lots of fabrics and so forth.”

The creatives’ requirements, no matter how idiosyncratic, are central to the design. An eclectic band of materials researchers, biomechanical experts, designers, engineers, product developers and marketing specialists, these workers do not confine themselves to files and paper. The system enables them to store their most unorthodox office items – textiles, shoes, balls and bags – and display them against an unobtrusive backdrop.

KINZO has also endeavoured to reflect the realities of a flexible working culture. “There are lots of modern office concepts, such as mobile working, desk sharing, co-working, you name it,” says El-Ishmawi. “These are all just words, and you have to build the space around the ideas.”

Inspired thinking

Whereas old-style cubicle-based offices are geared towards the nine-to-five, today’s office designers are exploring ways to dismantle that rigidity. In practice, this means handling variations in the numbers physically present at their desks. Because the components can be easily rearranged, these furnishings are ideally suited to the vagaries of shape-shifting teams.

This high adaptability and specialisation presents, as El-Ishmawi sees it, a resounding argument for going custom-made. “WORKOUT supplies a framework, and adidas can create their world within this framework,” he says. “Perfect fit with their work identity is the most important thing.”

Conceptually, this is far removed from a traditional office design. A typical corporation, preparing to deck out its empty building, would generally select a furniture range that connoted certain traits – a ‘classic’ range to suggest affluence, say, or more contemporary pieces to seem hip.

The danger here is that the office will lose any sense of individuality, communicating its values through an appropriated dialect as opposed to its natural idiom. At worst, the space may resemble a furniture showroom; at best, the hundreds of other ‘hip’ or ‘classic’ offices in which the same range is deployed.

The adidas LACES building

Keeping fit

This furniture, by contrast, conveys all the easygoing athleticism for which adidas is known. It integrates seamlessly with the design thread running throughout the rest of the building, such that it is difficult to say where KINZO’s role starts and the architect’s remit ends.

Unusually for a corporate building, furniture, interior design and architecture were not treated as separate themes, but rather as a single design signature. The processes were developed in parallel, with furniture design incorporated at a strikingly early stage in the proceedings – when KINZO began work, the building-to-be was still little more than a hole in the ground.

The project architect, Aachen-based firm Kada Wittfeld, was working towards the same goals: creating a hub of collaboration and invention that would reflect the character of the brand. Their design went above and beyond adidas’ original brief, eschewing a standard office typology in favour of something far more distinctive.

“It could be said that we won the commission because we didn’t follow the brief in every aspect,” says Dirk Zweering, project partner. “We couldn’t imagine these creatives and designers working in a conventional office space.”

The adidas guidelines specified an arrangement of around 70 office units, positioned so as to minimise internal through-traffic. While the expected solution would have been to intersperse the building with courtyards, Kada Wittfeld felt that such an approach lacked context.

“We considered it to be wrong that, as a young and ambitious designer in such green surroundings, you would have to sit in your office and look out across your generic courtyard, onto the façade of your own building,” says Zweering. “You could be anywhere with that.”

View points

Kada Wittfeld thus determined that each workstation should have one view into a central atrium, and one towards the historic landscape of Herzogenaurach. From here, they developed the idea of a ring-shaped building intersected by zig-zagging bridges.

Made from steel 30cm thick, these bridges (‘laces’) are suspended from lattice supports, and serve to ‘tie’ the building together. They link units on opposite sides of the atrium and create a workspace rich in relationships.

Six storeys high, the exterior is covered with windows and a flat, mirrored façade. The atrium, lush with greenery, has something of the semblance of a park, such that it is contiguous with the campus outside and invites those within it to interact. Communicability and transparency are the keynotes.

The final result is unmistakably adidas. A squeezed parallelogram, roughly the same shape as a bow-tie, its geometries are clean and minimalistic, its contour lines sporty and straight. Set against the blanched colour scheme, the black bridges evoke nothing so much as the adidas logo. Were you to land here with zero foreknowledge, it wouldn’t take you long to guess the brand.

Team spirit

As workers familiarise themselves with the spaces, the building looks firmly poised to add value to the organisation. “Architecture, for sure, can provide the right circumstances for creativity and team play, and by doing so is able to enhance an existing corporate culture,” says Zweering. “If you walk through the adidas building right now, you will be able to sense that new team spirit.”

El-Ishmawi agrees. “The only way to create your own identity, as an office, is to incorporate your specific needs – your culture and the ways you work – into the design process. Interior design in office space is a relatively new field but, because of the change in working environments, the need has grown greater than ever before.”

We might think back to Adi Dassler’s shoe designs, which were guided by a single tenet. He believed that shoes should be ideally adapted to the discipline in hand, with all their features expressly tailored to maximise performance. No doubt he would have expected nothing less from his brand’s corporate headquarters.

As El-Ishmawi puts it, “A corporation has to think about how it can optimise their ways of working and install it into a building. You build the way you work.”

This feature appears in the June 2012 edition of LEAF Review

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