I suspect I didn’t spend sufficient time at the BBC HQ in Scotland. I leave it behind feeling disappointingly ambivalent.
The building – Pacific Quay – was something of an anticlimax when I sped past it during my taxi ride from Glasgow airport.
I’ve seen the building before now. In photographs. But it always looks different in those photographs. The context is cropped out. The colours are saturated. Those pictures on Flickr or in the BBC rag are subject to creative or editorial bias. But when the human eye sees it in real life, the human eye sees things differently. And sometimes the human eye looks at things from a distance. And sometimes that same human eye is subject to tiredness and anxiety.
What I saw was a big shiny box seemingly plonked on the edge of some water. All very grand. All very triumphant. Seemingly marooned in its own self-importance. A box full of people put somewhere in Glasgow. Somewhere away from Glasgow. That’s how it appeared from the motorway.
The taxi driver wasn’t especially upbeat about the area on the way there either. “I suppose its aspirational,” he said, “the flats are expensive”.
My hastily arrived at half-baked opinions were quickly challenged the moment I set foot in the building however. If you go for the first time, you’ll experience the same thing. That’s the point when the building reveals its secret. The moment when you come face to face with what’s hidden inside: it’s identity.
Silence underpins the industrial majesty of the minimalist ocean liner interior. Mezzanine floor upon mezzanine floor rise up further and further towards the diffused natural light flooding in from the roof.
High heels on polished floors are a distant memory. There’s really no point in wearing anything clumpy on foot. You won’t be heard. You’ll also be hard-pushed to shout across the building the sound is so muffled.
The flip side of this is that blood pressure drops. If people are having to run for meetings, you’ll never know. You’ll certainly never see or hear them. Folders and notebooks are held tightly and neatly under one arm. If you’ve got a smart briefcase, bring it to work with you. You’re sure to blend in better with the warm bare stone.
But be warned. Smart dress isn’t obligatory. In fact, the sheer scale of the place does rather put individuality in second place. At least that’s how it seems as you watch people glide along the carpeted walkways.
And yet there’s a liberating freedom implicit in the meeting spaces stylishly yet casually arranged at various points on the mezzanine floors. ‘We don’t do meeting rooms here’, it says. ‘We’re really quite transparent.’
Expansive, heavy wooden tables occasionally make defining the space a little difficult. Is this for a team meeting or for a production team to sit around and devour a chinese takeaway in recompense for a late night at the office? They look nice, even if I can’t find a socket to plug in my laptop.
Is it a masculine space or an industrial one lacking feminine touches? Or is it ‘the building the Broadcast Centre in London should have been?’ Or am I just tired? Am I falling out of love with the BBC? Am I being needlessly cynical. Is it time for a break?
There are meeting rooms of course. They – like the office space – reveal themselves when you arrive on a floor and make your way towards the exterior of the building. That’s when the classic row upon row desks reassure you you’re in a BBC building. It’s still a ‘new way of working’ but it’s home from home. Spacious. Airy. Reassuring. And just look at those shiny new PCs and monitors. I bet they work better than mine back in W12.
Once I’ve logged in to the PC I’ve commandeered (I do have to boot it twice because my desktop profile is so huge) I find it does indeed work better than mine ‘back at base’ in W12. My heart begins to race. This is how things could be. It has a big 16:9 monitor. The desk is clear. These things do make a difference to my simple clogged up mind. The view might be a little bland – from ‘my’ desk I could be looking out on to an industrial estate anywhere in the UK – but the studio-like sound qualities of the interior combined with the uncluttered environment in front of me help focus the mind.
After an hour or so doubt begins to creep in. This may not be the ideal working environment after all. This is the point where the rot set in, I have to confess.
To my left a lady with blonde hair peers at tiny writing on a post-it note. She talks loudly about gaffer tape and sponges, pleading with another lady with a notebook to ‘put all of the that in the hold. Really, trust me, I don’t want you to take that into the cabin.’
Such concern over something as benign as gaffer tape piques my interest. It’s boring detail. And I’m nosey. Incredibly nosey. And I need bloggable material. I look up to see if I can attribute the voice and the instruction to any well known piece of TV output. The nearest sign attached to the wall merely says ‘Zone 2.25’.
I get up from my desk to try get some pointers, in search of context. I find none. No hanging signs. No ‘room numbers’ of the kind we have in White City or Television Centre. There is nothing that tells me what that lady is working on and consequently why gaffer tape and how it’s transported is so very important to her and her colleagues.
Not being able to easily identify what people do or how they contribute to the output is problematic. Even though we’re better placed to work in open-plan office environments, the human brain insists on boxing people in. Its a way of aiding understanding. And devoid of all the obvious and usual signs it becomes difficult to comprehend anymore than we all work for the BBC here.
Mild panic momentarily sets in. Where are the studios? Where do they make TV or radio? Where are the website teams? Where do the TV producers hang out? Where the runners with the saggy arsed jeans and the headsets? Where’s the loading bay? Where’s the caretaker’s office with the strange collection of nick-nacks rescued from the rubbish? All the usual signposts are missing or hidden or restyled here. Where are the seductive bits of the building which mark out Pacific Quay as a production and broadcasting location? What makes this more than just a shiny box overlooking some water?
An answer to one of these questions is found during a brief visit to the newsroom. Far at the back of the building, underneath the beautifully appointed canteen and accesible to anyone who’s succeeded in getting past the main barriers at reception, the Pacific Quay newsroom is home to the most welcoming journalists I’ve met in a long time. If this is what real life outside of London is like, I don’t understand why I’m working in London.
It’s a far cry from the ongoing difficulties I’ve experience back in London updating my pass to gain access to the network equivalent in Television Centre. Once you’re in there there’s an undeniable sense that to even look at anyone sat at their desk will risk not only interrupting their tight schedule, but also risk delaying transmission of the 6 O’Clock News. Detached from the rest of the BBC by virtue of differing access codes, network news in London makes itself appear as the Corporation’s core activity. And insodoing makes itself appear like a cut above the rest of the output and its production staff.
And yet in Pacific Quay that ‘new way of working’ levels news with the rest of the output. That is an slightly unnerving experience. Because that combined with the austere, minimalist interior and the seemingly hidden away production teams presents a very different image of the Corporation. It signals to production stuff that all output is on a level.
But while news undoubtedly has the most striking visual presence (there’s evidence of the ‘BBC News’ livery all around everywhere because it is essentially one big backdrop for news programming), the rest of the building from what I could see during my brief time lacks the visual and psychological identifiers I’ve come to rely upon.
The lasting impression that Pacific Quay reveals when you step inside is that this is the BBC in Scotland. It feels like that the fact that particular programmes are based there is incidental as illustrated by it not being incredibly obvious to the day visitor what goes on where.
Maybe I do need to spend a bit more time there. Maybe I’d form the connection with the place I feel is lacking after a 24 hour visit. I hope so.