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Norman Foster’s Willis Building in Ipswich – 1970s architecture & interiors

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Today’s blog post is rather photo-heavy, but I wanted to share some snaps I took while touring Norman Foster’s famous Willis Building. My husband and I went into Ipswich as part of the Heritage Open Weekend and visited half-a-dozen or so historical buildings that are not usually open to the public. Among them was the derelict art deco style Broomhill lido (currently campaigning to be renovated and reopened) and Freston Tower overlooking the Orwell river.willis-building-norman-foster 20150529-willis-building-40y-anniv-02448Only when I got home did I realise that I hadn’t taken any photos outside the building, so here’s a photo of the Willis Building from the Huffington Post and a stunning long-exposure image by photographer Claudia Gannon of the building lit in red lights to celebrate the Ruby anniversary of the building.

Up on the roof and inside the lobby

The most exciting place for me was the Willis Building. I studied architecture and spatial design in college and the utopian movement was my specialism. I’d been bursting to see inside the iconic Willis Building ever since but, as it’s a fully functioning office building, there was no way to get inside. So when I heard that it was opening its shiny glass doors for two days over the Heritage Open Weekend, I charged up my camera and headed along.

The ‘Green Mile’ corridor and first floor office

Having studied the building in the past, I kind of knew what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the building. Blimey, it’s big inside! With space for 1,300 workers I guess it has to be. And it’s exceptionally colourful too. Visitors are greeted with grass green floors and sunshine yellow walls – replicating a sunny day in utopia. Or the colours of Ipswich’s rival football club. I like to think that Norman Foster was creating an indoor/outdoor office design rather than just goading the locals!

Escalators to the top floor and (just for scale) here’s me popping out half way along the ‘Green Mile’

The colours are including in the building’s Grade I listing so cannot be changed, but why would you want to? The fun colours put a big smile on my face as soon as I walked in. Oddly enough, it’s not overpowering to have such a brightly coloured interior. The usual office furniture, dark vertical blinds and shimmering metal ceilings calm things down somewhat. Would I replicate the interior décor at home? Probably not. But it has certainly reignited my love of all things yellow and I will include more bright accent colours next time I decorate.

On top of the Willis Building and the view of Ipswich town centre

The most exciting part of the tour for me was stepping out onto the roof garden. I’d heard all kinds of rumours about the roof garden (including a kind of half-truth that there was a swimming pool up there for employees to use) when I studied the building as a teen but it still didn’t prepare me for the vastness of the roof garden. There’s space for hundreds of office workers to enjoy a picnic lunch up there. It’s enclosed by a neat hedge (more green) and outside the hedge there’s a track which runs around the exterior of the oddly-shaped curved building. By the way, the glass building was designed in such a curvy shape in order to maximise the use of the whole plot of land available for the build.

The manicured roof garden and the track that runs around the building beyond the hedge

I guessed that the track was used for cleaning the windows (perhaps hanging a platform over the edge?) but I couldn’t be sure. We decided to walk around the perimeter and take some photos of the Ipswich skyline while we were there. In fact, if this wasn’t a rail-track it would make a perfectly good running track for jogging workers at break time, though I can’t be sure that Norman Foster had that utopian ideal in his mind when he designed it.norman-foster-utopian-black-glass-willis-building-ipswich-suffolk-yellow-and-green-interior-office-70s-1970s-9norman-foster-utopian-black-glass-willis-building-ipswich-suffolk-yellow-and-green-interior-office-70s-1970s-3 norman-foster-utopian-black-glass-willis-building-ipswich-suffolk-yellow-and-green-interior-office-70s-1970s-15

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A separate air conditioning system is needed to keep areas beside the windows cool

When you’re right beside it, the black glass reflects the skyline perfectly and almost disappears. But when you’re outside the building it’s an impressive impenetrable imposing smoked glass wall. We went on a ‘glass tour’ to hear more about the exterior of the building and I winced as the tour guide give the glass a powerful kick. It echoed around the vast office but there was no chance that the glass was going to break. Apparently the glass didn’t even break when a bus hit the building years ago, so I felt much safer after hearing that.

Inside the open plan office (the ball on the ceiling is a listed 70s tannoy announcement system) and beside the smoked glass windows

We also took a tour of the swimming pool – the half-truth was a reality. But the pool for workers wasn’t on the roof of the building, it was down on the ground floor. It’s no longer used as a swimming pool (the office space was too valuable and not enough employees where using it) but it hasn’t been lost. It was part of the building’s Grade I listing, so the pool is still there, but is covered with a floating floor and more office desks. You can still see down into the pool through a glass frame around the edge, and the concrete pillars still show where the deep end is.

The deep end, now covered in desks and the Grade I listed swimming pool is still there beneath the floor tiles

The very 70s sound-proof ceiling of the swimming pool

Overall, it’s a vast impressive building (with glorious 70s interiors) that almost makes you want to go to work there. Maybe I should retrain as an insurance broker? It would be worth it to work in Norman Foster’s iconic Willis Building. Just imagine having your packed lunch on the roof every day.

Author: Cassiefairy

Cassie is a freelance writer with a Masters degree in lifestyle promotion studies. She loves to 'get the look for less' so regularly shares thrifty fashion posts, DIY interior design ideas and low-cost recipes on her blog.

3 thoughts on “Norman Foster’s Willis Building in Ipswich – 1970s architecture & interiors

  1. Wow. When I worked for BT in Ipswich I used to see this building every day but I had no idea how amazing it was on the inside. It makes me wish I’d applied for a job there.

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