Home away from home: Second Home Lisboa

Following the success of their first creative workspace, Second Home Spitalfields in London, entrepreneurs Sam Aldenton and Rohan Silva have opened up shop in Lisbon, drawn by the city’s booming co-working culture and thriving tech scene. Designed by Madrid-based practice SelgasCano, it’s an unconventional office, inspired by biophilia and arranged to maximise serendipitous meetings among its diverse community

Photography by Iwan Baan
Words by Cate St Hill

Lisbon seems to be having something of a moment right now. While the riverside regeneration of the old warehouse buildings along the river Tagus has seen Amanda Levete’s curvaceous new MAAT museum attempt to reconnect the old cobbled streets of the hilly historic city centre back to its waterfront, elsewhere in the Portuguese capital, a booming co-working culture and thriving tech scene is drawing arty types and innovative young entrepreneurs to stay.

Attracted by the cheap cost of living, healthy lifestyle, open, liberal attitude, sunshine, surf and sea, fledgling start-ups have become the new normal here as the city reinvents itself into a vibrant, buzzing, creative hub. If the intention of MAAT was to give Lisbon an architectural icon like Bilbao, then the city’s blossoming start-up scene draws comparisons to Nineties’ bohemian Berlin or East London. Some are even calling it Europe’s California.

Lisbon’s forward-thinking government is fostering this movement, freeing up constraints to attract a new generation of young talent and investors with start-up visas for students in foreign tech universities and reduced tax rates for start-up businesses. Startup Lisbon, a non-profit association, was founded in 2011 by the Lisbon Municipality to support companies in their first years with mentorship, investment and networking. Since then, huge technology conference Web Summit has relocated to the Portuguese city after seven years in Dublin, attracting more than 53,000 tech enthusiasts and 1,500 start-ups in 2016.

Co-working spaces have proliferated: there’s Village Underground Lisboa, housed in a cluster of old shipping containers and disused buses; Coworklisboa in a former industrial factory; and Lisbon WorkHub, which occupies a restored wine warehouse. This year the city is releasing an old army factory, the Manutenção Militar Complex, to become a Creative and Entrepreneur Hub for start-ups, companies and incubators (the subject of this year’s Docomomo 14th international conference on adaptive reuse). ‘Lisbon is a border city. This is where Europe ends and the world starts,’ enthuses João Vasconcelos, the secretary of industry for Lisbon and former director of Startup Lisbon. New to this scene is the second outpost of Second Home, a social enterprise and creative workspace provider that opened its first space in East London in November 2014.

Founded by entrepreneurs Sam Aldenton, and Rohan Silva, former senior policy adviser to Number 10 and architect of the Tech City initiative, Second Home’s mission is to support creativity and innovation in cities around the world with radical architecture that fosters collaboration and wellbeing.

Rohan Silva and Sam Aldenton, founders of Second HomeRohan Silva and Sam Aldenton, founders of Second Home

It is privately funded, with investors including TV executive Sir Peter Bazalgette, former chief economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill, co-founder of Jawbone, Alex Asseilly, and cofounders of M&C Saatchi Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair. Together with Madrid-based architecture practice SelgasCano, Second Home transformed a former carpet factory off Brick Lane into a retro-yellow and orange-hued workspace with sinuous, transparent, plastic walls between studios, and filled it with vintage Eames chairs, 1,000 plants and the coolest kids in town. Unlike your standard, deadly dull office space, Second Home Spitalfields is more of a sociable meeting place akin to a members’ club, with a curated programme of talks, exhibitions, wellbeing schemes, live music and film screenings.

There’s a restaurant and bar with an ex-Ottolenghi chef, and workers’ lunches each day. Teams renting the spaces are called ‘members’ and are carefully handpicked, ranging from tech companies such as Kickstarter and Taskrabbit, through British businesses Anglepoise and clean-energy company Bulb, to not-for-profit organisations such as the Syria Campaign and the new children’s museum for London, the Institute for Imagination.

‘We believe creativity and innovation best happens at the intersections of different domains, different industries and different disciplines,’ says Silva. ‘We think that something really special comes when people meet in the real world and collide with one another physically, and that is maybe quite an old-fashioned notion but it’s in pursuit of something very forward-looking.

Second Home Spitalfields, designed by SelgasCano in 2014, has 75 private studios for small and large companiesSecond Home Spitalfields, designed by SelgasCano in 2014, has 75 private studios for small and large companies

Theoretically, technology is obliterating distance; we can work with anyone anywhere, and yet if you look at how innovation is happening in cities across the world, it’s more strongly correlated today with dense urban centres in the age of the internet than it was 30 years ago when there was no internet. So there’s something about this digital age, which is pushing clusters of physical proximity. But the problem is our buildings separate us; a typical office building in Lisbon or London might be six storeys and each company is on a different floor. When do those companies actually get to interact with each other? In the lift, maybe, in an awkward silence? So we’re trying to design environments that map on to the way people want to work and maximise collaboration and serendipity. You’ll see fashion next to digital design, next to engineers trying to dig helium out of the ground in Tanzania, next to venture capitalists and so on, and that’s a really deliberate decision from us, and the architecture supports that.’

For Second Home Lisboa, Aldenton and Silva have again joined forces with SelgasCano to restore and renovate a 1,115 sq m space in the city’s oldest food market, the Mercado Da Ribeira, built in 1892. Facing the river on Avenida 24 de Julho, a stretch of road that runs from the old historic heart of the centre to the picturesque district of Belém to the west, the market is a traditional iron structure topped with a decorative, Oriental dome marking its entrance. Silva describes a moment of drunken epiphany in the early hours of the morning when he realised Lisbon’s potential as a destination for Second Home: ‘There I was with a glass of wine in one hand and a bifana [sandwich] in the other and it occurred to me that it’s not actually possible to be like that in London; the city in lots of ways has become less fun and less free,’ he says. ‘Lisbon is a really exciting place because it has so many different creative industries, and because the cost of living is markedly lower than in London there’s a real opportunity to support a creative ecosystem. We all agreed that this was a place that matched our Richard Florida, gay bohemian index of which cities are exciting and could attract a global creative class.’

Since opening, two more floors have been added to the Spitalfields space, more than doubling its capacitySince opening, two more floors have been added to the Spitalfields space, more than doubling its capacity

Rather luckily for them, one of Second Home’s investors, internet entrepreneur Peter Dubens, owns Time Out, which opened their own popular, gourmet food hall in the Ribeira market in 2014 and which has become a foodie heaven and the city’s number one tourist destination. He suggested they make use of an empty space above the market, previously used for storage. ‘We fell in love with it,’ says Silva simply. ‘This is really the geographical centre of Lisbon, it’s somewhere where the different tribes can converge in one place, both the grown-up, big companies and the more effervescent, early-stage innovators. What Time Out was essentially trying to do with the food market was edit the city under one roof, and in a sense we’re doing the same; we’re trying to create a microcosm of the city’s innovation and creative economy in one place.’

The lofty, L-shaped space has been left open-plan and exposed to the original structure. One half of the L, dedicated to a cafe, lounge and meeting place, is a multisensory riot of colour, enveloped in a bold Yves-Klein blue with yellow lino floors and mismatched vintage chairs. A wide, yellow-carpeted staircase leads up from the entrance of the market and is wrapped in a red and orange acrylic balustrade. Retro lights give it a warm, mid-century feel. Wavy, built-in yellow seating runs along one wall, looking over the water, while on the other side, curvy, transparent meeting rooms are lined with metal bookshelves and more than 2,000 books for lending. Says Aldenton: ‘It was already a magnificent building — there were key parts that really needed to be celebrated and preserved rather than removed. Lucia [Cano] walked in and said, “I got it! All we need to do is clean this place and paint the trusses a bright colour.” And that’s really what we’ve done.’

Second Home Lisboa, also designed by SelgasCano, is similarly filled with more than 1,000 plants and trees, and an eclectic mix of mid-century and vintage chairs and lampsSecond Home Lisboa, also designed by SelgasCano, is similarly filled with more than 1,000 plants and trees, and an eclectic mix of mid-century and vintage chairs and lamps

At the end of the space and round the corner, past the bar and the spaceship-like toilets, the long, open workspace runs parallel to the market below. The floors are bright, sunshine-yellow and the roof structure is white, with trusses highlighted orange and turquoise. A massive, white table (70 x 10m) twists and turns through the space, providing little pockets for different-sized teams within the larger whole. It’s designed to provide a balance between privacy and permeability, so teams can work quietly together in their dedicated spot, but connect and spark conversation with other disciplines as they move and walk around.

It’s unlike any traditional office — there’s no draining, fluorescent strip lights, dehydrating air-conditioning units or unopenable windows here. Inspired by the principles of biophilia, no vintage chair or pendant light in the space is the same, while desks are camouflaged by terracotta plant pots, concealing computer screens and workers within a dense, green, urban jungle. The many plants help divide the space and provide privacy for teams while reducing background noise and improving air quality. ‘We wanted to reflect the natural world. We do think it’s a shame that building and cities have become so standardised and homogenous, it’s very inhuman.

A section of the floor is dedicated to Second Home’s roaming members, for small teams and freelances dropping in and out. Group yoga classes also take place in this sunny spotA section of the floor is dedicated to Second Home’s roaming members, for small teams and freelances dropping in and out. Group yoga classes also take place in this sunny spot

We think that beauty comes from complexity,’ says Silva. ‘As a species we evolved in environments full of seasonality, plants, trees, natural light and variations in temperature, and all the empirical evidence suggests that being in environments that better reflect our natural world is better for our wellbeing, and therefore good for productivity and creativity.’ The spaces are heated and cooled by an advanced radiant system that uses cross-ventilation of air and 6km of under-floor pipework to create a comfortable, fluctuating base temperature that is always 9–10 degrees different to outside.

As in Second Home Spitalfields, the teams are carefully chosen. There are three types of membership: resident membership with a dedicated, permanent desk; flexible, roaming membership with access to the communal workspaces for small teams and freelancers; and light roaming for after 5pm and on weekends. Teams range from two to 25 people and a space for roaming members offers 60 seats.

Second Home Lisboa sits inside the Mercado Da Ribeira, Lisbon’s oldest food market, now home to the popular Time Out MarketSecond Home Lisboa sits inside the Mercado Da Ribeira, Lisbon’s oldest food market, now home to the popular Time Out Market

Around 20 per cent of the 250 members have been handpicked because they do things that all growing companies need, such as communications, branding, investment and accounting, while the other 80 per cent have been chosen to create as much diversity as possible. Explains Silva: ‘Our job is then to stir the pot and mix people up. There’s always an incentive to talk to the people around you — you might need a copywriter, someone to build an app for you. There’ll be people in the building who can do those things because we’ve chosen them.’

The strong emphasis on wellbeing is not only visible in the physical environment of the space, but the curated programme too. As well as films, live music and talks, there are complimentary yoga and pilates, meditation workshops, a running club on a Friday lunchtime along the river and a surf school. It’s a wonder they get any work done when they’re not sipping flat whites or drinking (natural) Portuguese wine at the bar, mingling, mixing and meditating. But it’s all deliberate in its attempt to inspire and foster interaction. You can strike up a deal across the bar, a friendship at a yoga class, an investment during a talk. The suggestion is that you don’t have to be chained to your desk to be productive and progressive — this is more than just a workspace, it’s almost a way of living.

The vibrant cafe and bar is used to host films, live-music events and talks from entrepreneursThe vibrant cafe and bar is used to host films, live-music events and talks from entrepreneurs

Enthuses Silva: ‘One of our heroes, Jane Jacobs, said that the public wealth of our cities is made up from the small change of random interactions on the sidewalk, and we think it’s the random collisions that add up to the public, civic wealth of Second Home. You never feel alone, there’s always a chance to make a connection you might not have otherwise thought about.’

As the start-up scene in Lisbon is still in its early stages and emerging, local companies need exposure to investment and expertise to help them learn and grow, members get five days a month to spend in the London space, and vice versa. Second Home has also just agreed a partnership with the British Government to bring over entrepreneurs to Lisbon to give talks and share knowledge. Says Silva: ‘We want to make it as easy as possible for people to collide and collaborate across different countries and spaces. Suddenly, this becomes a gateway to Lisbon. It used to be quite hard if you were an investor in London and wanted to see if there was anything to invest in; there wasn’t really a front door to Lisbon.’

The original structure is painted bright Yves-Klein blue and a yellow staircase leads to the market below. A lending library with more than 2,000 books wraps around meeting rooms to the leftThe original structure is painted bright Yves-Klein blue and a yellow staircase leads to the market below. A lending library with more than 2,000 books wraps around meeting rooms to the left

Second Home is responding to the shifts in workspace design, from isolated cubicles and sterile, white boxes to responsive environments that adapt and shift with people’s needs, but it’s also responding to changes in business, helping young companies to reach their potential and survive beyond the first few years with new opportunities. Today, small- to medium-sized businesses, the focus of Second Home’s membership, are producing 60–70 per cent of new jobs in developed countries. They’re flourishing and office spaces haven’t really caught up yet to cater for them. Second Home has a role to play in not only providing great surroundings to work in, but supporting the changing needs of these young creatives and connecting them to the world outside the office walls.

It’s more than simply adding a few pot plants to a space. ‘The reason we’re doing all this and are obsessed with creativity, is not because it’s a nice, fun, fuzzy thing. We actually think that creativity has a central economic and human importance in a way it wasn’t, even 20 years ago,’ says Silva. ‘In the Eighties and Nineties less sophisticated jobs were replaced in manufacturing by robots, and so in a sense technology replaced brawn.

Today technology can be described as replacing brains, so if the scariest place to be 20 years ago was working in a blue-collar factory, today it’s as a junior to middle white-collar professional in fields like law, accounting, banking. If you look at where the new, high-value jobs are being created today, they typically involve creativity. Everything we’re doing, when we’re talking about how we can try to foster and unlock creativity, is in order to help people win the race against the machine.’

Second Home Lisboa is the workspace provider’s second outpost, with three more in the pipelineSecond Home Lisboa is the workspace provider’s second outpost, with three more in the pipeline

Second Home Spitalfields has more than doubled in size from 30 to 75 studios since opening, with the addition of two new floors, and a bookshop, Libreria, also by SelgasCano, now sits opposite. Two more Second Homes are planned for London and one in LA, which could see SelgasCano’s Serpentine Pavilion from 2015 transported to Hollywood. Second Home London Fields, designed by Madrid-based Estudio Cano Lasso (Lucia Cano’s brother), will integrate childcare and aim to be the most family-friendly working environment in Europe. The facade will be stretched, semi-opaque ETFE with trees behind it, while the flooring will be recycled rubber commonly used in children’s playgrounds. Housed in Richard Roger’s first studio in Holland Park, Second Home Holland Park — due to open in September and again by SelgasCano — will be a 1,400 sq m space for older ‘grey entrepreneurs’, those starting their second or third career or retired and wanting to start their own business. Says Silva: ‘I think for too long the archetype of the entrepreneur has been someone in their 20s, in their skinny jeans, and actually entrepreneurship is something that anyone can potentially do.’

Second Home has flipped the office space on its head once, and now twice in Lisbon, and it will do it again. But unlike converted shipping containers or double-decker buses, slides through office floors and themed meetings rooms, Second Home is anything but gimmicky. It feels genuine, domestic and homely, from the architect’s painstaking sourcing of each of the retro lamps and armchairs from dealers from Cologne to Croydon, to the resident gardening team who tend all those plants.

As technology frees us from more traditional office spaces and makes us mobile, paradoxically the more we seek out real connections, conversation and human contact. Second Home shows how workspaces, and cities too, can be more sustainable, more creative, healthier and happier.

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