From the side street it’s hard to believe this building for gaming company Tombola in Sunderland is a brand new one
Compare the banks of the river Wear in Sunderland today with the images on the history trail signboards dotted along it and you’ll find the scene almost unrecognisable.
I’m at the top of Panns Bank, named after the salt panning that once took place here, looking north across the river. In the historical image the other side is much closer, packed with brick and stone buildings standing shoulder to shoulder. Slate roofs rise in chaotic tiers behind, intercepted by poker straight alleys leading to the river and by the charging cliff pier of the second Wearmouth Bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson.
Today, there is a longer version of the bridge – the 1927 Mott, Hay and Anderson replacement – but it is surrounded by banks of grass and trees. It’s impossible to detect that this was once a merchant port and shipbuilding industry hub. The water is tranquil, its edge verdant and fresh.
The same applies to the southern side. Old buildings, docks and jetties have been swept away without trace, replaced by millennium university halls. Only the narrow stone-walled road has slipped through time, hemmed in by the trunk road behind. As an industrial target, the area was, of course, bombed during the Second World War, but photographs shot as late as the mid-1980s show densely built up Victorian streets.
This finer urban grain is what Newcastle-based Ryder Architecture has tried to reintroduce at the bottom of the bank along Low Street with its new office for online gaming company Tombola. The street once had 40 pubs on it and the architectural rhythm would have been warehouses, workshops, factories and yards – a vernacular of brick, steel, glass and pitched roofs.
When Tombola CEO Phil Cronin approached Ryder in 2015 the company was occupying one of the two surviving bonded warehouses on the quayside, Wylam Wharf. With now 263 employees, and a further 225 off-site, it was bursting at the seams. The brief was loose, but Cronin had just acquired the Scotia Engine Works shipbuilding site next door and had a more social office in mind.
‘They didn’t know what they wanted,’ explains Ryder senior architect Paul Milner. Tombola had decided to stay in Sunderland, where it was founded, but the new
office needed to help retain and attract staff as competitors were setting up satellite offices in Newcastle that were draining local skills.
‘The existing building was also not inherently suitable for modern business – very cellular, low ceilings, little windows that didn’t make the most of the attractive quality of the quayside,’ says Milner.
Against Ian Darby Partnership and Space Architects, Ryder was asked to develop an idea. But it was only after the studio won the job that everyone realised the initial L-shaped proposal in similar language to the bonded warehouse would struggle to meet the accommodation schedule. There was talk of adding different types of workspace, encouraging multidisciplinary working through chance encounters and of keeping the original warehouse, as well as potential growth beyond these plots.
During these conversations the concept of a campus and grander gesture emerged. The original proposal has become the first phase of a three-part development along the riverside. This new office provides the social hub, gym, auditorium for the company’s weekly address, CEO’s office and workspace for 200 people. The warehouse is being refurbished to accommodate 90 employees, and Ryder is doing feasibility studies on a 1990s Jane Derbyshire Architects building on the opposite side of Wylam Wharf which Tombola bought at the end of 2018.
Whether you take this first project as a standalone building or as a barometer for a future tech campus on the Wear in Sunderland, it is rather exciting. In its materials it raises the permanency in quality of the surrounding built environment. In its forms and volumes, it references local noteworthy architecture and re-establishes the long-lost closer grain that makes it a more interesting and hospitable place. Inside, it creates an inspirational workplace – one that would make me stick around too.
At an urban level, rather than pursue the L-shape, the plan became square and the building is pushed back to the road to recreate a hard street line. It butts up closely to the neighbouring electricity substation too. Along these sides the walls are solid and monolithic, constructed to proportions that resonate in the area and from long, salty, slightly warped Petersen bricks that bring back a manmade quality. The clay roof tiles merge into the facade and openings are varied – deep window reveals adopt the appearance of former warehouse doors, infill bays tell a story of a building that has evolved over time. With its three gable ends the party wall blends factory-like sawtooth with warehouse. Approaching from Panns Bank, there’s a moment where the building’s familiar textures and colours would have you believe it is not brand new.
Electrochromic glass removes the need for solar shading
Turn beyond the Low Street corner, however, and the finer grain evaporates. The building, sat 30m apart from Wylam Wharf, embraces a sense of movement around the site. There are no fences, and views through from the grade-II listed Quayside Exchange behind are preserved. The river presents itself in front of you, and there is a flattened green for outdoor events between the buildings. Here the elevation is entirely glazed except for a framing perimeter of brick that traces the silhouette of the building but stops short of the ground floor to the river. The glazing creates a complementary relationship with the solidity and small windows of the original office opposite, showing its yellow and red reflection.
Discreet glass double doors in the middle of the elevation take you to an unexpected interior. Whereas the exterior is heavy and monumental, inside it feels like a huge external covered three-storey space, where rain could pour in through the wraparound and apex openings in the roof. Exterior materials – brick, steel, glass – are carried through inside. The only softening surfaces are oak. In the centre, open to the whole, is the auditorium stair, and a big digital screen displays the number of people using Tombola in real time. It’s also where Cronin wants to have more evening socials – films, drinks, live events. To the right of this on the ground floor is a lounge space, social hub and café where staff can have breakfast, lunch and soon maybe even dinner with uninterrupted views of the river and the context – which explains the suspended brick wall on the outside. Ryder has achieved those views all over the building by using Saint Gobain’s electrochromic SageGlass which changes tint depending on luminosity, removing the need for solar shading. The kitchen too is open, so no member of staff is treated as back of house. The rest of the floor has a training room, booths under the auditorium seating for more intimate meetings, a gym and changing rooms with ridiculously nice lockers.
Two stairs are located along the back wall either side of the auditorium stair, dividing the office floors above into wings that meet in the middle around the tea points. Clear glass balustrades and detailing maintains sightlines between them. Services are tucked away into the bones of the building: cooling pipes in the concrete floor plates and behind the oak slats in the roof, cabling in the structural steel columns, flush integrated lighting, plant in a trench beneath the auditorium stair. Detailing is impeccably refined. The horizontal mortar in the brickwork, for example, is recessed while the vertical joints are flush. The whole building aligns to a 1.2m-wide module based on the glass that was so important for the views; there are shadow gap details, no architraves, inset door roses, minimal surface mounting. As its architect Paul Milner says: ‘It’s the employees that bring colour to the building.’ I’d say it is full of character anyway.
Architect Ryder Architecture
Structural engineer SHED
Project manager Ward Robinson