Herbert Smith Freehills

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The colourful staff level has walls upholstered in missoni fabric and shelves of books.

The colourful staff level has walls upholstered in missoni fabric and shelves of books. Image: John Gollings

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The central void allows for “visual, physical and symbolic connection” between all floors.

The central void allows for “visual, physical and symbolic connection” between all floors. Image: John Gollings

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Booths in the cafe provide a quiet spot for lunch or another setting at which to work or meet.

Booths in the cafe provide a quiet spot for lunch or another setting at which to work or meet. Image: John Gollings

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Chrome-framed “pavilions” are pulled back from the edge of the perimeter so all staff can enjoy the views.

Chrome-framed “pavilions” are pulled back from the edge of the perimeter so all staff can enjoy the views. Image: John Gollings

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Clusters of armchairs and coffee tables act as breakout spaces on the office levels.

Clusters of armchairs and coffee tables act as breakout spaces on the office levels. Image: John Gollings

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A central void and staircase cores its way through all thirteen levels of the tenancy.

A central void and staircase cores its way through all thirteen levels of the tenancy. Image: John Gollings

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For legal behemoth Herbert Smith Freehills, changing office locations spelled a seismic shift in their workplace culture. They called on BVN Donovan Hill to design a more open, collaborative workplace in Sydney that deliberately engages clients at the centre of their business.

Stacked over thirteen floors of the recently completed ANZ Tower in the Sydney CBD, the offices of the legal monolith Herbert Smith Freehills are afforded spectacular vistas of the city and the harbour. However, these views have not been used as an excuse to mitigate design excellence. Instead, design firm BVN Donovan Hill has used the panoramas and the building’s complex floor plate as structuring devices to address the law firm’s brief for client-centred business and greater staff collaboration. Project designer Bill Dowzer says the firm’s previous occupancy over multiple, unconnected floors suffered from the “iceberg principle” where it “was impossible for clients to get a [picture of the] size of the firm.”

A central void and staircase cores it way through the entirety of the thirteen levels, allowing for visual, physical and symbolic connection between all floors and “putting interaction back into the public zones.” The reception, the client floor and the staff floor are sandwiched in the middle three levels of the stack. It is at this point that the void works most effectively and with the greatest drama. Instead of one large vertical opening, the void is split and staggered, creating glimpses between levels and, of course, towards the harbour and horizon. Despite the spatial gymnastics of void and view, the overall feel of the design is, as Dowzer comments, “classic and timeless.”

The central void allows for “visual, physical and symbolic connection” between all floors. Image:  John Gollings

The reception is coolly formed by a floor of honed marble and curved, backlit glass panels. The glowing white is opposed by a stucco Venezia wall where paintings of cherry blossoms burst in some colour. The cherry theme is extended through the timber work used in the ceiling treatments and handrails. Deference is given to the view through a large, black portal that extends the threshold of the glass curtain skin, creating an over-scaled picture frame. While the dedicated client floor on the level above accommodates the need for high-level service and confidentiality, the design of the three-level core allows the firm’s clients to interact with different aspects of the practice should they wish. As Dowzer notes of the configuration: “there are different spaces for different client needs.” The client level is marked by a predominance of black and soft grey, carried through in the upholstery of the plush Grand Repos armchair by Antonio Citterio and Wing Chair by Hans Wegner.

The staff level below reception is accessed via the central staircase and is used for informal meetings with clients. On this level the feel is less legal and more colourful, the grey replaced by walls upholstered in vibrant Missoni fabric. The cafe has views equally as expansive as the client floor, flattening out the pointy pyramid of spatial hierarchies. The leather-bound tomes often associated with the dusty practice of law are relegated to decorative elements in the cafe, while the contemporary reality of global legal firms like Herbert Smith Freehills is manifest in the all-black high-tech “knowledge centre” located adjacent to the communal cafe. A hexagon-tiled wall of leather and aluminium encloses the Alcove high-back sofas and Joyn workstations – both designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec – creating private study bays overlooking the city.

Chrome-framed “pavilions” are pulled back from the edge of the perimeter so all staff can enjoy the views. Image:  John Gollings

The office levels’ attempts at spatial and view democratization are clearly evident. The most hallowed ground of legal firms – the private office – has been rationalized to become reconfigurable “pavilions.” These finely detailed chrome-framed three-by-three-metre glass boxes don’t cram the perimeter of the floor hogging light and views. Instead, they are pulled back from the edge, allowing everyone to have access to these assets. The pavilions can be used either as an office – if needed – a meeting room or as a general workspace. The perimeter is populated by hubs formed by clusters of armchairs, coffee tables and sofas that act as breakout spaces or informal meeting points. The pavilions occupy 30 percent of the workspace on typical floors; the bulk of the area is given over to the workstations where staff sit together irrespective of rank or role. The useable desk space in the workstation area is the same as that provided in the pavilions and as such reduces the aspiration for isolation.

The whole of the design speaks of exceptional quality, detail and finish. The law firm’s previous tenancy had been held for over thirty years and the new fitout clearly opted for a higher up-front investment in design in return for a longer life cycle. BVN Donovan Hill has successfully avoided the cliches associated with some contemporary activity-based workplace design where a splash of colour and a couple of beanbags is seen to equate to innovation. The Herbert Smith Freehills offices bear the mark of careful consideration, a thorough understanding of client and context and a sophisticated approach to workplace design, resulting in an interior that is as elegant as it is intelligent.

Peter Dunne, partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, talks about the changes in their workplace culture that informed the design.


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