An unusual decision to build a multinational oil giant’s headquarters using white off shutter concrete instead of the predictable corporate signature of granite or metal cladding, won the architects of the new Chevron Headquarters in Century City the coveted Concrete Society’s Fulton Award for Architectural Concrete.
The man behind the award-winning design is architect Robert Silke, who produced the work while he was head of design at Louis Karol Architects. Silke recently launched his own practice, Robert Silke and Partners, with former UCT classmate Robert McGiven.
According to Silke, the brief for Chevron’s South African headquarters was to build a five star green building with the gravitas associated with a multinational oil giant, while at the same time creating a pleasant working environment for the company’s staff.
“I believe we won the competition for this project because our design turned the building inside out – building an atrium around the perimeter of the site with sheltered courtyards inside for staff to enjoy,” he says.
A number of factors contributed to Chevron being a unique project, he said, allowing for attention to detail and good quality craftsmanship: Firstly, this was an ‘owner occupier’ project, which meant that every detail and finish had to be built with longevity in mind. “With spec building, durability is not a priority. In this case, detail and craftsmanship was top of mind throughout.”
Also, the fact that Chevron’s corporate culture was extremely particular about health and safety meant the building process was slow and correct – there was no cutting corners to save time. “This is a company which runs oil rigs according to rigorous safety standards. We were working with the same obsessive commitment to safety,” says Silke.
He proposed the use of white concrete in the Chevron building to make a solid, ‘naked’ and unpretentious statement. “We were designing a corporate headquarters that has to stand for at least another 100 years – I wanted this building to be a thing of permanent beauty. So much could have gone wrong but this building’s crisp beauty is testament to the fact that the South African construction industry still has what it takes,” he says.
Silke has not rejected the concept of cladding altogether: A Novelis aluminium wrap product with unique light reflective qualities is the perfect solution over the building entrance and turns a charming pink at sunset. The ventilation shafts are clad in stainless steel. The stairwell has a distinctly silo look about it – the concrete pipes are a subtle nod to the fact that this is an oil company.
“I wanted the Chevron head office to be honest about what it is.” Silke says his ambition is to design buildings that matter and he describes himself as a public architect interested in buildings on a city scale. He has never designed a house, “though I would not turn down the opportunity to make something beautiful”.
With their new partnership, Silke and McGiven want to expand on the changing scenario of the Mother City. “I think that we’re only now coming to terms with the spatial damage suffered by South African cities in the 20th Century, as well as the brutality of our modern built environment,” says Silke.
“Commercial developers know that they have a role to play in turning our cities around. I’ve hardly ever met a developer who doesn’t dream of making the city a better place. “Commercial buildings have to provide economic returns, and once a client knows that his architect is looking after his return, then you’d be surprised at the social magnanimity and largesse that can follow. In that way we see ourselves as libertarian architects, fiscally conservative and socially progressive.”
Silke has a pragmatic attitude to doing business as an architect in uncertain economic times: “I think we’re coming to terms with the fact that we continue to live through a long depression era. And what that means for architecture is that new buildings have to work a lot harder, as developers can’t afford to build the same thing twice. So fashion is out and enduring beauty is in. Spec buildings are passé, and durability is the order of the day. Which is good for the planet and good for architects.”
Robert Silke and Partners