Back on line
Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen reactivates a century-old Seattle factory for ad agency Sedgwick Rd.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 5/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
The main conference room may be nicknamed Frankenstein, but the story behind the office is no monstrous Gothic tale. The action begins with McCann-Erickson Seattle securing a new name, Sedgwick Rd., and a new home, three floors of a 100-year-old machine shop in the city's transitional SODO neighborhood. President Jim Walker aspired to a design more progressive than the ad agency's former warren of enclosed offices, and he presented this brief to a handful of potential collaborators.
Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects won him over with its offbeat approach. "We went in with a crazy, propped-up presentation to show how we thought the space should be," recalls principal Tom Kundig. "We figured we'd either intrigued the client and landed the project—or blown it entirely!" Thankfully, it was the former.
"Tom and his group had obviously done a lot of homework on the building, but they were great about presenting ideas and effects rather than specific design details," says Walker. The president then contributed his own notions of functionality. Believing that the perimeter-office typology is deadly to the creative process, he favored a more interactive, egalitarian solution. He also felt that the 31,800-square-foot office needed a piazzalike meeting area to serve as a hub.
Accordingly, Kundig organized the plan around what he calls the "big room," a 4,000-square-foot atrium on the second floor. "It's the crossroads of the office, so it's constantly in use," he says. A tangle of original steel trusswork crisscrosses the space, and one wall is defined by a succession of 15-foot-wide steel pivot doors behind which Kundig grouped editing facilities, focus rooms, a library, and a coffee area.
To define a flexible gathering space within the big room, Kundig turned to mobile partitions of unusual derivation. "The building owner was already in the demolition process when we interviewed with Sedgwick Rd. for the job," he says. "We told the client that stripping the steel I beams, first-growth wood beams, and original windows and doors was removing the building's history and patina." Demolition was halted for two days while the architects inventoried and stored all reusable parts. "At that time, we had no idea what to do with them," he adds. "Everyone but Jim thought we were nuts." Kundig was able to explain, however, that reassembling the old parts in the new system was good karma—and very much like putting Frankenstein together. The name took.
Frankenstein, or commonly just "Frank," comprises six wheeled partitions, each a crazy quilt of multi-pane windows, peeling doors, and gnarled beams held together by new steel bracing. The partitions roll around with relative ease. "It's not like pushing a stalled car," Kundig promises—also hastening to allay fears about noisy wheels on the big room's floor plates of 16-gauge mild steel. "Everyone was concerned it would ring or ping, but it's surprisingly quiet."
Equally mobile is Frank's primary light source, cobbled together from salvaged sign lights and 1950s fluorescent louvers. Suspended from a track that runs the length of the big room's ceiling and operated by a hand-drawn pulley, this ad hoc chandelier trails Frank wherever he goes, like a devoted pet. To reroute phone and data cables as Frank travels, Kundig installed a power box with a 40-foot rat tail. "Like a grip on a film shoot," he says.
To encourage human movement, too, Kundig kept individual space deliberately snug. All 85 employees, from administrative staff to the president, work in 80-square-foot cubicles built of fiberglass sheeting or clear-sealed plywood. For more breathing room, employees can meet in break-out areas scattered along circulation corridors on all three floors. For conversations requiring privacy, there are phone booths, the six meeting spaces off the big room, and the third floor's glass-walled conference room, a sort of sky box overlooking the big room.
The staircase that leads up to the third-floor conference room is the best spot for surveying Sedgwick Rd.'s activities, equal parts performance art and improvisational theater. And the structure's raw, unadulterated materials—perforated-steel balustrades, steel handrails, and perforated grip-steel treads and risers—have all played a part in maintaining Kundig's low budget as well as the agency's work-in-progress spirit. "It ties in with what Jim said when we first met," Kundig recounts. "Advertising is unfinished business, a continual process of reinvention."