Blue or white: The façade of Discovery’s new headquarters at the intersection of Katherine Drive and Rivonia Road creates a stunning effect best seen when driving past. From some angles the building seems to be a reflective glassy blue and from others it seems solid white. Picture: PETER HASSALL
Blue or white: The façade of Discovery’s new headquarters at the intersection of Katherine Drive and Rivonia Road creates a stunning effect best seen when driving past. From some angles the building seems to be a reflective glassy blue and from others it seems solid white. Picture: PETER HASSALL

A Boeing 737 could be suspended in the west atrium of 1 Discovery Place – the new Sandton headquarters of the health, life and short-term insurance provider Discovery – without it touching sides. Among the many statistics about the impressive building, this one seems to stick in everyone’s mind.

Early publicity said it was "the largest single-phase commercial office development in Africa". It was also the largest new building to receive a five-star rating from the Green Building Council SA.

It has 4km of aluminium balustrades, 4,500 LED downlights and 50,000m² of tiling.

Ahead of the curve: The size of the atriums enables visitors to take in most of the building at a glance when they arrive. Picture: CHRIS WESSELS
Ahead of the curve: The size of the atriums enables visitors to take in most of the building at a glance when they arrive. Picture: CHRIS WESSELS

The choice of a passenger jet to illustrate the size of the atrium articulates one of the major challenges that the architects, Boogertman + Partners, had to face when designing a building of this scale: objects and terms that dwarf humanity express characteristics of the building, but the real challenge is how to make it human. At its simplest, the architects’ task was to design a building that would enable Discovery to consolidate its operations, which were inefficiently scattered across several other buildings.

Healthy lifestyle

The site is prominent in Sandton, the highest point in the CBD at the intersection of two of its main axes: Katherine Drive and Rivonia Road. The big site allowed for a large, low building rather than a high rise, which would reflect (and function according to) Discovery’s relatively flat corporate structure.

A new headquarters is also an exercise in architecture as branding. At the heart of Discovery’s Vitality brand is a particular kind of active, healthy lifestyle. The building had to create a world in which that lifestyle was encouraged or even compelled.

The wellbeing of a building’s inhabitants translates into improved productivity. It is the same reason why many new corporate buildings have green and sustainable features: because energy and water efficiencies translate into financial efficiencies. Typically, large corporate buildings have no relationship with the street, dwarfing anyone nearby and giving little back to their surroundings.

The Discovery building has a monolithic presence (corporates love that word, along with monumental, without realising that they are not necessarily positive attributes). But while its undulating façade initially might present a hard, flat surface, it is actually quite layered and variable.

The entire ground floor is open to the public, so clients, passersby and people from neighbouring buildings can simply walk in from the street. Crucial to the success of the concourse is that it can be reached from the pavement without having to scale stairs or encounter barriers

What the architects call the "camisole" — where one wavy layer of glass seems to slip underneath another — creates a sense of lightness. The vertical white aluminium fins that run up and down the façade create an effect that is best appreciated when driving past. From some angles the building seems a reflective glassy blue and from others it seems solid white. This apparent change, when combined with the sinuous shape of the façade, gives the building a dynamic, changeable quality. It seems to be in motion, which softens it, gives it some texture and a sense of engaging creatively with passersby.

Another fundamental aspect of the building’s character is the way it is knitted into the CBD around it.

Essentially, the building is defined by two large linked by a central concourse that leads in from the street, visually continuing the urban axis of the intersection of Katherine Street and Rivonia Road. The entire ground floor is open to the public, so clients, passersby and people from neighbouring buildings can simply walk in from the street. Crucial to the success of the concourse is that it can be reached from the pavement without having to scale stairs or encounter barriers.

It was conceived of as a space reminiscent of a train station or some other kind of public urban space. The ground floor is filled with about 20 shops and restaurants, from Woolworths and Clicks to a home affairs office and a pet shop. In the first week of opening, the restaurants were serving 700 meals a day to noninhabitants of the building, illustrating a need and appetite for these kinds of spaces in the Sandton CBD.

The building’s curving façade works as a kind of invisible hand, guiding arriving visitors towards the entrance, providing intuitive visual prompts. In a city where the paranoid character of urban space often means that entrance points are hard to find, this one is unusually encouraging and welcoming.

Boogertman + Partners was also responsible for Soccer City, so it is a master at creating buildings through which large numbers of people can flow without getting stuck or the space feeling congested. The Discovery building has about 10 exit and entry points and the building is conceived of as a place of motion rather than a static destination.

Its vision of bustle and activity is a bit like the buildings that surround and feed into squares in cities and towns — a little urban design within an urban design — that people animate with their activities.

Instant overview

The hangar-sized atriums are so big because of the need to let natural light flood into the building, so each is topped with a massive skylight, bringing in a lovely sense of the sky and the weather outside and making sure enough light gets in for the plants in the atrium to grow.

But the size does something else quite clever: it enables visitors to take in most of the building at a single glance when they arrive, so they have an instant overview, and everything has a sense of immediacy, which makes for quick and easy orien-tation. This open arrangement also allows the floors to communicate with each other from their edges.

The impressive curves in the architecture are motivated precisely by this necessity. None of the inhabitants of the building will gaze down an endless straight corridor towards a dead end. The curves lead people through the space and constantly draw their eyes outward, so they never feel lost or trapped. At the same time, the vast proportions of the working areas are broken down into human-scale proportions by the curves.

The large atriums and the expansive open working areas hook into a multiplicity of "pause areas" and "agile break-out spaces", including five cantilevered pods protruding into the concourse on various levels from the seven-storey back wall behind the main reception area.

The way the brightly coloured pods break up the potentially intimidating seven-storey high backdrop in the main reception area (which will be softened as the creepers grow up the framework) is part of a larger imperative to humanise the scale of the building.

Vertical matrix

The interior architecture in the two, by Paragon Interface, is articulated along the edges of the curves with a dark border that brings out the lines and patterns to show off the architectural achievement.

From the top floor looking down, the edges are animated with the bright colours of the break-out areas and meeting spots. It is fresh and uplifting. The colours, of course, reflect Discovery’s branding.

The architects have used little tricks, like putting coffee shops on every second floor, so that there’s what they call a "vertical matrix" that connects people across levels too.

One little detail that stands out is the way the lifts connecting the floors have had their usual arrangement reversed, so that their mass is broken up and they do not create so much of a visual barrier.

The building includes a huge range of impressive facilities: a big gym and a 650m running track on the roof that rises and falls as it winds its way through the roof garden. There are also yoga decks and multipurpose courts on the roof.

1 Discovery Place is by no means a quiet or a modest building. Its intention is, at least in part, to make a bold statement, break records and represent its tenant as visionary.

Inevitably, it’s a bit of a brag. But the fact that it has that scale and status is quite a breakthrough for Sandton’s CBD. With some luck, it will pave the way for a more public street life in the CBD.

And despite the fact that it is so big it could almost contain the sky and exist as a world unto itself, it connects with its context in a way that suggests that happiness and wellbeing might have something to do with the world outside as well.