Over the past decade, we’ve seen the transformation of Stratford in East London from pretty close quarters. On an almost daily basis we’ve travelled from Essex into London, watching this wasteland metamorphosise into something far more than an Olympic hub and major shopping destination.
Every Olympics talks about legacy – and one of London 2012’s legacy is all too visible here. Just 15 years ago we’d have been walking through abandoned goods yards and long-forgotten freight haulage businesses. And yet here we are today – despite the pouring rain – marvelling at both the scale and the change of what is now beyond West Ham’s stadium and Westfield shopping centre.
The regeneration now brings together sporting and creative facilities, major academic institutions, global business and small business, canal-side restaurants, cafés, bars and an inspiring landscape of green leisure space. Indeed, such is the scale that we started off our walk through the Olympic Park with Google Maps to hand. It soon became very apparent, however, that we could put phones away, thanks to our destination’s massive ‘Here East’ signage, which can even be seen from back on the railway line.
We’re here to see Plexal – a world-class innovation destination for technology entrepreneurs and corporations, which is located at Here East within 68,000 sq ft of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Designed as a mini-city, using principles of modern urban planning and technology clusters, Plexal offers technology start-ups and scale-ups a range of flexible working areas from open studio membership to tailor-made private offices and feature spaces, including a high street, leisure park and main square.
Plexal offers a unique package of business support services, including accelerator and innovation programmes, rapid prototyping, bespoke mentorship, entrepreneur training, community events, professional services and a suite of personal development programmes.
Grimshaw designed and delivered the fit-out for a new innovation centre at the Here East campus following a swift 12-month design and build programme. Plexal opened in June 2017 as the venue for the launch of London Tech Week, and is now one of the largest innovation centres in Europe.
Having been greeted with friendliness and plenty of sympathy for our soggy demeanour, we’re given the chance to dry off a little before we take the tour of this innovative space.
Conceived and brought to life together with Plexal CEO, Claire Cockerton, Grimshaw’s design emulates the urban streetscape and the resulting layout includes public and private spaces, streets, squares and civic areas. ‘As well as delivering a beautiful, flexible and functional office space for ‘startups’ and scale-ups, we’re providing innovation services to big business, facilitating the prototyping, commercialisation and culture training needed to address the 4th industrial revolution,’ Claire says. ‘We’re proud to use urban design principles and insights from the world’s best incubator spaces to provide an inspirational space dedicated to the entrepreneurial process.’
Spaces are designed to intersect and weave together, contributing to a sense of community, and each zone has a distinct identity within the various quarters. ‘This was previously the Press Office for the London Olympics,’ we’re informed. ‘After the Olympics, the vision was to turn it into a hub for business and technology. The campus itself stretches right around this area and now has the likes of Loughborough University, UCL’s robotics lab, Hobbs Studio…some really interesting neighbours and there’s a really good mix of academics and big business.
‘Where we come in is we’re the innovation centre at the heart of all of this,’ we’re told. ‘We help connect people in what is a real melting pot of innovation.’
When Claire started designing and conceiving Plexal, she was – as we previously mentioned – really inspired by the idea of cities and how they are places where people from different walks of life come together and collaborate. She worked with Grimshaw to develop this city concept and really bring that to life.
‘So, you can see that the space has been designed as a mini-city. Where we are stood, close to the entrance, is the Town Hall space and then we have the High Street, which runs along the centre of the facility. The idea is that, just as with a normal high street, you have to walk along Plexal to get to where you need to get to – and then bump into people along the way.’
The innovation centre is divided into a ground and first floor layout, where a street mezzanine structure allows open plan workstation areas to sit above the ground floor’s private offices. Other office spaces are formed using a high-performance ‘kit-of-parts’ Tecno partition system, which can be reconfigured to accommodate expanding and contracting businesses, or to set up new work areas.
The main High Street links workspaces to civic areas on upper/lower and east/west axes, indeed reflective of a city planning grid. The wider layout offers a range of quiet and social areas, including Legacy Place, which is a contemplative place to work, while Monument Square is the bustling entrance we started out at, which incorporates high-top flexible hot-desking spaces, a café zone and a stunning 5m high green wall, with screens streaming business data.
At the heart of the hub is Plexal Park; a 200-seat capacity, multipurpose events space with a busy programme throughout the year, which is designed to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas between Plexal innovators and visitors from a variety of industries. This, incidentally, is something that we can absolutely confirm, as there is a major event being held throughout our own visit.
We ask our hosts to tell us a little more about how Plexal works. ‘We have a series of co-working spaces – so our members have a hot desk or they can place themselves in various places throughout the space. What really differentiates Plexal is all the services we offer our members. We do have some very specialised services and facilities we can offer, such as 3D printing and prototyping. The idea was always to offer those things that a tech start-up might need – and to have them in-house.
‘We’re already well over halfway full. A lot of the fixed office spaces were the first to go – and we’re now finding more and more members joining on a hot desking basis.’
Claire was keen that there was a real balance to the space – so you tend to find that there is more activity and social gatherings on one side of the building – where you’ll find Plexal Park and the events space – and on the other side of the building it is a lot quieter, so that members can focus on their work. There are even signs in these areas asking people to keep the noise down.
Further contributing to the wellbeing of Plexal innovators, the centre includes ample community spaces, green areas with indoor planting, and casual environments for workers to wind down or work in a more relaxed atmosphere. Lighting can be programmed to match natural circadian rhythms, while private phone booths dotted along the High Street provide respite from the hustle and bustle.
‘Co-working spaces are rapidly becoming the home for start-up companies as well as the more established businesses that want to collaborate with them,’ Grimshaw Partner, Jolyon Brewis, says. ‘In designing Plexal, we wanted to avoid the clichés of this building type and offer a space that is flexible, long-lasting and has an authenticity that provides an enjoyable home for serious innovation.’
‘Our Makers’ Yard, executive boardrooms, indoor Plexal Park and events stage are critical and distinct places, enabling business innovation and acceleration to flourish,’ Claire adds. ‘We’re proud to build upon urban design principles and the insights from the world’s best incubator spaces to provide an inspirational space dedicated to the entrepreneurial process.’
There is an awful lot to like and admire about Plexal. The smart, commonsense approach to the delineation of space and the issues of noise/quiet space, for example, is something that many could learn from. We love the feeling of height and space throughout – and should also give a special mention to the impressive and comprehensive furniture choices here, which were supplied by Umbrella.
The one thing we haven’t been able to fully appreciate, given the adverse weather conditions, is the amazing outdoor space that runs alongside the canal. We’d better come back in the summer!