With its 1970s European Service Centre in Brighton becoming obsolete, American Express decided to build its successor on the car park next door. Cathy Hayward talks to the team behind the project.
Hen and stag weekends might contribute several million to Brighton’s economy every season, but it’s the activities in the Wedding Cake, a modernist structure occupied since 1977 by Brighton’s largest private sector employer American Express, that generates an estimated £300 million for the City every year – around 7 per cent of its GDP.
The landmark’s name comes from the layered effect of the white horizontal lines of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) panels and contrasting blue-tinted glass. Both adored as a modernist triumph and hated as a further blight on the landscape of an area already lacking in decent architecture, the Wedding Cake, official name Amex House, will soon be no more.
For the past few years, the structure has been standing bereft, like a bride left at the altar, while its younger and more vibrant replacement is created in what was previously Amex House’s car park and sports area. While some employees still call the Wedding Cake home, the majority have now moved into the new building – 1 John Street the purpose-built Service Centre, supporting Amex customers across Europe. And by 2016 the Wedding Cake will be demolished – although the future of the site depends on the outcome of the current public consultation.
Already committed to the Sussex city thanks to its loyal workforce, the organisation recognised that Amex House was reaching M&E obsolescence, and in the mid 2000s started looking at other options. Changing location was never considered as the building houses front-line customer service employees and it is essential that people know the customers and the brand, explains Seamus O’Loughlin, vice president EMEA, Global Real Estate and Workplace Enablement at American Express, who joined the financial services provider in 2010. There were no available properties in the city to accommodate around 3,000 people, and the decision was therefore taken to build on the existing site. A decision which underscored American Express’ commitment to the local economy and community.
The 4,500 American Express employees in the Sussex area were previously spread across four main sites at Amex House, a further building nearby on Edward Street, Telecom House, also in Brighton and Sussex House in nearby Burgess Hill. Now the majority are based at 1 John Street, although the organisation still requires an additional site in Sussex for about 1,500 people. For those employees sat in the Wedding Cake watching the new building’s progress, the excitement as move-in date grew near was palpable. One employee overlooking the site took a photo from his desk every working day of the development over a period of several years. “We tried to build up the excitement as we had limited access to the facility in the run-up to practical completion,” explains O’Loughlin. “So for many people the first time they stepped over the threshold, was their first day in the office.”