Just off the Place des Nations, in the heart of Geneva’s international district, lies the new Administration Building for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). A specialized agency of the United Nations, WIPO is dedicated to creating an international intellectual-property system—no small feat in the age of the rapidly produced knockoff. Everything from novels to industrial design falls under its purview.

WIPO has 1,300 employees in Geneva, many of whom worked until now out of rented office space. In 1999, the organization held an international competition for a new administration building to sit adjacent to WIPO’s existing headquarters, and Stuttgart, Germany–based Behnisch Architekten won the commission. Then the project went on hold.

“Every five years, we have a substantial financial crisis somewhere,” says partner-in-charge Stefan Behnisch, Hon. FAIA, “and every time, the United Nations is hit by it.” When work resumed in 2006, the architect updated the design to include new technologies. But before construction could begin, the scheme had to be presented twice to the General Assembly for approval, a process about which Behnisch says, “I learned a lot about complex international diplomacy.”

“Building for international organizations is very interesting,” Behnisch says. When working for a client that represents 185 different nations, he explains, “It’s very hard to get a grip on the cultural background.” So the architects looked to the organization’s processes, and discovered that a common denominator in all of WIPO’s dealings is “a very polite behavior to each other,” he says.

To create a polite building, the architects relied on pure geometries and a thoughtful approach to interior spaces to accommodate the needs of 500 of WIPO’s employees from diverse cultures under one roof. The Administration Building measures 100 meters (328 feet) by 40 meters (131 feet), and is clad in a subdued curtainwall system interrupted by fritted vertical spandrel panels in varying shades of blue. “The façade is a little bit like a business suit,” Behnisch says.

The façade creates a sense of transparency, but due to the high-profile nature of the organization, it also had to be secure. The lower floors have blast-resistant glazing, there are no operable windows, and all entrances are monitored. “The art is not making it [security] visible and obvious,” Behnisch says.

The interior of the 47,140-square-meter (507,410-square-foot) building is dominated by three full-height atria, all connected at the ground floor. It is around these voids that the public spaces—including a cafeteria, a library, and conference rooms—and the offices are organized. In Europe, Behnisch says, “we try to avoid floor plates deeper than 55 feet. … If you have a deep site, what can you do? You punch holes in it.” The glazed roof over each atrium is capped by computer-controlled and -motorized polished-steel lamellas, which move in response to sun conditions to direct light into the building while minimizing glare and heat gain.

On the ground floor, a shallow pool that flows through all three atria helps to maintain desired humidity levels, reflect daylight, and dampen noise. Gardens in open corridors on the upper levels and trees in the atrium at the main entrance bring nature into the building, and allow “more opportunities for interaction among colleagues,” says Isabelle Boutillon, director of WIPO’s premises division.

“In this new building, there is more of a sense of people being closer by,” Boutillon says, “even though they may have to walk just as far away as between two separate buildings. … Because you’re inside and with these very transparent surroundings, it seems like it’s just next door.”

And though Behnisch Architekten’s (and, in fact, most of Europe’s) portfolio of office space is usually characterized by an open plan, the roughly 500 employees who work in the Administration Building are nearly all ensconced in private offices. “It was a requirement here, but we didn’t fight it,” Behnisch says. “Normally we would fight it. But it has to do with the Eskimo sitting next to the guy from Kenya. They have very different climatic, cultural, and privacy requirements.”

To provide temperature control, the building makes use of passive and alternative strategies to regulate the interior environment, such as taking advantage of a recent citywide initiative to pipe chilled water from nearby Lake Geneva for cooling. “Our building was one of the first one in Geneva to benefit fully from this system from the start,” Boutillon says. “The infrastructure was built in such a way to cater to the lake-water system.” The use of lake water is combined with a thermally activated, concrete, ground-floor slab, the use of the stack effect to naturally draw air through the building and up through the atria, and operable windows in each office that open to the atria, allowing employees to control their individual environments.

“I think … [the reaction has been] very positive, but since they are such a bunch of polite people you never know,” Behnisch says jokingly. But Boutillon notes that “what people like most is the transparency. The fact that from one side of the atrium to the other, across the void, people can see each other,” she says. “It is very lively.”

Project Credits

Project World Intellectual Property Organization Administration Building, Geneva
Client World Intellectual Property Organization
Architect Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart—Stefan Behnisch, Hon. FAIA (partner-in-charge); Stefan Rappold (project leader, project phase); Nicola Wagner, Klaus Schwägerl, Astrid Kirchner, Alexandra Eichenlaub, Dennis Wirth, Lisa Rezbach (project team)
Collaborating Architect Hofmeister Architekten, Stuttgart, Germany—Malte L. Hofmeister (project lead, implementation planning phase)
Structural Engineer Schlaich Bergmann und Partner; T-Ingénierie; Lygdopolous Ingénieur Civil
Electrical Engineer Mab-Ingénierie; Amstein + Walthert
M/E/P RG Riedweg & Gendre; Transsolar Energietechnik; Sorane; Technic’s Energy
Façade Emmer Pfenninger Partner
Building Physics Horstmann + Berger
Lighting Ingenieurbüro Walter Bamberger
Landscape Planungsgruppe ASGN Architekten; Oxalis Architectes paysagistes
Fire Protection Institut Suisse de Promotion de la Sécurité
Survey Heimberg & Cie Ingénieurs Géomètres Officiels et Géomaticiens
Geotechnics Géotechnique Appliquée
Graphic Design Müller-Steeneck Grafik-Design
Traffic T-Ingénierie
Size 47,140 square meters (507,410 square feet)
Cost €110 million ($143.5 million)

Materials and Sources

Carpet Fabromont (Kugelgarn) fabromont.ch; Interface interfaceglobal.com
Mardeco (terrazzo) www.mardeco.ch; Raymond Stéfano (glass floor) www.vitreries.ch; Multisol (oak-oiled parquet) multisol.ch
Fire protection
DES (fire-sprinkler installation)
Furniture Vitra (conference room and cafeteria tables, couches) vitra.com; Interstuhl (conference room chairs) interstuhl.de; Hay (cafeteria chairs) hay.dk; Offecct (entrance hall easy chairs) offecct.se; Bior (library bookshelves) mobior.com
Nowak Glas (Isopane) glas-nowak.de
Zumtobel Lighting www.zumtobel.us; Dark dark.be; Viabizzuno viabizzuno.com; Kundalini kundalini.it; XAL xalusa.com; Louis Poulsen louispoulsen.com
Strähle (partition walls) Raum-Systeme www.straehle.de; Dorma (mobile partition walls) dorma-usa.com