To offer office workers a less corporate extension to their indoor workspaces, Yinan Zhu proposes to transform a narrow London alley into a social sanctuary.

In the lead-up to each issue, we challenge emerging designers to respond to the Frame Lab theme with a forward-looking concept. The past year has shed new light on the role of the office, prompting those who use one to reconsider its relevance. There are lessons to be found in not just the pandemic period, but the time before that. In our current issue Frame 138, we ask: What were workplaces missing? What has working from home taught us? What would make us want to go back to the physical office? We asked four creative practices to share their ideas.

After completing a bachelor’s programme in Environmental Art Design at the Xiamen University in China, Yinan Zhu pursued a master’s degree in Interior Design from London’s Royal College of Art. Zhu’s reinterpretation of London’s Tyler Court alleyway provides local office workers with a multifunctional public space in which to socialize and slow down.

What was the starting point of your project Staying Vertical?

YINAN ZHU: A site in London called Tyler Court, a dark and narrow opening between two office buildings in Soho, which is quite unique in that neighbourhood. It’s used as a shortcut by locals to get from one street to another. The small ‘gap’ is rich in posters and graffiti and demonstrates a diversity of spaces, textures, dimensions and perspectives.

Why are you interested in this particular space?

As Soho becomes more crowded, access to public space becomes a problem. On top of that, there is the growth of privately owned public spaces – in short: POPS – which raises concerns about restricted use. Soho needs different types of public spaces. Rows of wooden benches accompanied by sad greenery cannot become the dominant model of shared space. Instead, such spaces could better serve their users throughout the day.

Including office workers.

Yes. During the day, Tyler Court is used by a group of local professionals who spend most of their (working) day in close proximity to one another and the site. It offers a rare ‘private’ space in the middle of hectic Soho. It’s a sort of accidental public space. You see people having a quick bite, making a phone call, smoking a cigarette to relax or having a chat. I started thinking about the ways in which the narrow street could better answer the personal needs of this group and offer a quirkier, less corporate and greener space that functions as an extension of their regular office environments.

These interventions could help office workers reconnect socially when they return to the office post-pandemic

How did you determine those needs? And what’s your response?

They were determined by research done and workshops held in Tyler Court, which resulted in 11 types of furniture and installations, ranging from a vertical herb garden and theatrical coffee shop to a social staircase and performance window that I propose to add to the passage and façades facing it. These interventions could help office workers reconnect socially when they return to the office post-pandemic.

Get your copy of Frame 138 here.