Skip to page content

The Secret Ingredient to Placemaking

In their recent project with Swiss Life's BIRD Building, BaseGVA pushed the boundaries of the original client 'ask’ to go beyond an ordinary branding exercise. BaseGVA, alongside various stakeholders, embarked on a mission to give this space a fresh identity and attract new tenants with a novel approach. We sat down with Jessica from Swiss Life Asset Managers and Thomas Marsch from Base Design to explore the project's inspiration, risks, and the exciting rewards.

Thomas Marsch (Base Design) and Jessica Graça (Swiss Life Asset Managers)
Thomas Marsch (Base Design) and Jessica Graça (Swiss Life Asset Managers)

What were some distinctive elements or features that set this project apart from other building transformations?

Thomas Marsch: Over the past years, we've been involved in the design and creation of numerous real estate projects: commercial, residential, and retail. What sets the BIRD apart is the fact that the owner, Swiss Life Asset Managers, accepted the challenge of putting brand positioning and strategy ahead of any architectural, functional or commercial aspects of their building. The clear definition of the experience we wanted to offer, the promise, the difference and our interpretation of today's commercial real estate influenced the entire program and enabled us to determine the changes that needed to be made and the actions to put in place.

What inspired Swiss Life Asset Managers to undertake a project of this scale?

Jessica Graça: We knew something had to be done, but we didn't know where to start. When presenting their offer, Base went further than its competitors by addressing the architectural aspect of the building and confronting us with its outdated image. Base's presentation clearly made us aware of the situation, and we decided to take action, as the stakes for this building were very high.

Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.
Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.
Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.
Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.
Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.
Behind-the-scenes of work in progress at BIRD with architecture firm, group8.

What incited your company to take such a risk with this project ?

JG: Yes, it was a risk, but the risk of doing nothing was greater. It was important to take advantage of the fact that we had a lot of vacant space to act on, as such architectural transformations are no longer carried out when a building is in full operation. What's more, changing the character and ambience of the building would set it apart from the competition, so it took us several stages, interspersed with Covid, to achieve today's result.

Attracting and retaining tenants must have been a significant aspect of this project. What are some innovative approaches you took to not only bring in tenants but also create an environment that fostered engagement and collaboration?

TM: Everyone naturally focuses on external communication to reach new leads and prospects. We've learned that prioritizing internal communication and existing user interests is vital for project success. Why invest heavily in prospect communication when our existing customers should come first? This principle applies to almost any project in any industry. By carrying out satisfaction surveys amongst BIRD tenants, we were able to define pain points and build our entire strategy around these considerations. This approach fed into the new identity and communication strategy, enabling us to put into place a holistic offering that responds to existing users and, by inference, future users.

“Strategy” is a word we hear a lot. How do you define it? What role does it play in placemaking?

TM: It’s essentially the same as for any other sector. It’s about knowing what you do and how you do it, but above all, why you do it. It’s about answering simple but fundamental questions. This process requires alignment and motivation. Above all, choices may lead to reconsidering the entire product and business proposition. And that’s when it gets exciting.

What I particularly like about strategy for placemaking is that the human element is inherently at the heart of the mission and, therefore, at the heart of the consideration. Whether we're talking about a country, city, district, museum, hotel, workplace or ephemeral installation, such places have an intimate connection with our day-to-day life, and must actively participate in enhancing its quality. Thus, placemaking is a sector where our work can have a significant impact on people’s lives.

Another aspect that is special about placemaking is that we integrate a large number of stakeholders into the process, taking into account the various interests and limitations of each party: politics, urban planning, architecture, developers, etc. That, together with delving into the context to find common ground amidst these diverse interests, makes it one of the most challenging aspects of the process.

This project involved collaboration across various disciplines and stakeholders. How did you manage to bring together architects, interior designers, restaurants, and more to create a cohesive and integrated strategy for the building?

TM: Interestingly, none of these collaborations were foreseen at the beginning of our partnership with Swiss Life Asset Managers. Their request was originally limited to a name change, a redesign of the graphic identity, and the creation of new communication tools to attract new tenants. After an initial analysis of the entire context of the building and its function, we realized that this intervention – which in hindsight could be described as cosmetic – would not achieve the impending commercial objectives alone. Rather than changing their visual identity, BIRD needed to rethink their entire concept. The building, which was designed and built in the late 90’s, was no longer meeting the needs of its users. Our approach involved a reassessment of the building's very function as a collaborative space in this particular context, and from the outset, our recommendations focused on a complete and structural redesign of the building. We initiated a comprehensive global strategic analysis that actively engaged multiple stakeholders, including Voisins (co-working and events), group8 (architecture firm), chef Benjamin Luzuy (dining), Ykra (architecture and scenography) and the Fondation Apprentis d’Auteuil International (charitable foundation), and drove a significant structural transformation. This endeavor encompassed one year of collaborative research with architects, planners, and prospective partners, followed by two years of renovation work, ultimately culminating in the realization of our strategy-defined final outcome.

How has working with Base influenced the way you work?

JG: Working with Base on the BIRD project gave me a different perspective on the typical office building. Clients expect certain services which – depending on the case – can easily be put in place. It's also important to try and give these office buildings an identity, even if the BIRD's particular experience can't be replicated everywhere.

If you had to distill the essence of Base's approach on this project into a few key takeaways, what would they be?

TM: It’s definitely people first. Any real estate project often tends to be approached first and foremost by purely functional characteristics: its location, the modularity of its spaces, the number of square feet, its program, its technical specifications, etc. But these spaces all have a calling to be places to live in, work and meet at. This leads us to open our analysis and fundamentally question the raison d'être of these places. The needs of users have changed over the last few years, and the social aspect has become much more important. Happily so. Our job at Base is to take these new views into account and integrate them into the future program from day one.

Edited by Julie Tentler, Editorial Director at Base Design.