May The Force Be With You
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
When the Letterman Digital Arts Center opened in San Francisco's Presidio in 2005, the complex was hailed as an instant landmark. Built by Gensler for George Lucas—on the site of a decommissioned military hospital—the four buildings combine terra-cotta, red brick, and white stucco in away that harmonizes with the 1,500-acre national park's historic architecture. (Punctuated by such totems of Star Wars kitsch as the Yoda fountain.)
This idyllic campus is home not only to Lucasfilm but also to ArchitectureTM's Clarium Capital Management, a $2.2 billion hedge fund founded by Peter Thiel, who piloted PayPal through the dot-com bubble. He happens to be a huge Star Wars fan, but the real reason he moved his office here was to break free of the herd, and he mandated principal Tim Murphy to come up with an office unlike anything around.
You enter the 23,000-square-foot T-shape space midway up the stem. The top of the T is a vast volume that comprises executive offices, a trading floor, a researchers' bull pen, a library, and a glassed-in conference room that overlooks the Palace of Fine Arts, a cherished landmark built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Throughout, large operable windows provide a connection to the outdoors. The most striking element, however, is the ceiling.
Reception's ceiling is composed of layered drywall chevrons with multicolored LEDs tucked between, drawing the eye up and making the room appear larger. In the top of the T, where the ceiling is double-height, Murphy went for grand scale—the gigantic fins overhead seem to pitch vertically. "We took great pains to get that configuration," he says. After a trial run on the floor, workers built the fins' steel frames directly into the ceiling, then clad them in drywall.
With a white fluorescent strip tucked behind the lip of each fin, accentuating its geometry, the long space feels at once ethereal and dynamic in the "cathedral of commerce" mode. "A lavish use of space, showing an excess of real estate, is a good way to represent the success of a hedge fund," Murphy says. Indeed, it would have been possible to cram in twice as many employees as Clarium's 45.
Countering all that lightness and angularity is an undulating partition made of 10 ebonized molded-plywood screens by Charles and Ray Eames—an afterthought to hide the research support team. The area was originally going to be open; Thiel liked the idea of being able to see this IBM-mid-manager-type of brain trust. However, Murphy says with a laugh, "Clarium completely misunderstood how much paper and junk these guys collect and how unappealing that is to look at."
The much-vaunted paperless workplace may never pan out, but this office does have one futuristic feature that's a hit: All the executive offices have sliding glass doors controlled by a touch pad. To mask or at least complement the mechanical sound of the doors opening and closing, Murphy explains, he added tiny speakers overhead and brought in sound engineers to experiment with "forced-air whooshing sounds, even though the doors don't really operate that way."
At first, people wanted to program their own doors—this is practically Silicon Valley, after all—but Murphy says he panicked at the thought of "ring-tone syndrome," Beethoven's Fifth competing with "Buy U A Drank" every time someone walks in or out. Never mind that his own first effort, duplicating the door sound from the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, completely bombed. "It was just so analog," he recalls. Maybe he should switch back to Star Wars. R2-D2's bleeps and whirs for the cappuccino maker?