Corporate architecture - continuity in sync with the times

To what extent can architecture serve to convey corporate identity and values? And what does this mean specifically for Swiss Re Next?

Speaking at the two Lunch & Learn events for Swiss Re staff members in November, Koebi Gantenbein, editor in chief of the architectural magazine "Hochparterre", gave his very own and highly entertaining view of how corporate architecture developed.

"Who's the best when it comes to corporate architecture?", he asked. "And what's the global benchmark?" In terms of the ability to combine architecture and design with the company purpose, he said, there can be only one answer: the Catholic Church. She's clearly the best, the primordial mother of corporate architecture, so to speak. Take the cloister, for example: it has defined the floor plan of monasteries for more than 1300 years. A consistently designed centre point in hundreds of "branch offices" throughout the world, all of which belong to the same firm: the Catholic Church. Taking the monastery of St. Gallen as an illustration, Gantenbein pointed out that all local branches in the Catholic provinces were suggestive of the "grand architectural glory of the head office in Rome". The Catholic Church, he added, gave its self-image a glorious architectural expression – not only at its "head office" but in all churches and chapels around the world.

There's a lot to be learnt from the Catholic Church's imagery and building programme in terms of effective corporate architecture. For example, how to reflect the powerful appearance of the exterior inside the building. Modern head offices also apply this concept, he said. They do so not with effusive art as is the case at the monastery of St. Gallen, but rather by way of purified and understated design. The superior architectural quality, the effort and the means large companies invest in building their head offices is truly impressive. And for the construction of their head offices, modern companies today settle only for the best, which are often selected by way of an architectural competition.

But what's the benchmark for successful corporate architecture? Gantenbein asked. With an impish grin, he said he'd discovered an astonishingly simple and effective measure. The more a company's architecture shines out, the more often it's portrayed on postcards. He had a collection of 7,698 postcards portraying churches, of which 17 are of the monastery of St. Gallen. Who knows, there may be postcards of Swiss Re Next one day.

How corporate architecture manifests itself at Swiss Re

In the ensuing panel discussion, Swiss Re Next project sponsor Thomas Wellauer, Jörg Schwarzburg from Diener & Diener Architects and Koebi Gantenbein discussed various aspects of the company's corporate architecture with moderator Anne Keller of the Swiss Re Next project team. As Gantenbein pointed out, "despite the great variety of the Swiss Re buildings in terms of their spacial design and perception, they all share a clear and consistent identity."

Swiss Re's office buildings are a tangible expression of its corporate culture, of its values and conduct. Quality, high-grade materials, innovation and integrated art: although at first glance none of the Swiss Re buildings resembles another, their inner values are all identical. You notice that each time you enter a Swiss Re building, regardless of where it's located in the world.

Swiss Re Next faces the special challenge of having to fit into an existing row of neoclassical buildings while aiming to be modern in appearance. The building should be contemporary and open, offering a lot of light and flexibility of usage. It's being built for the employees in the first place, and it should inspire and delight them – after all, the work environment has an essential effect on the energy levels and satisfaction of the employees. And of course, it should also be a visible expression of our corporate culture towards our clients and other stakeholders. Challenges which Swiss Re Next is well equipped to satisfy.