The Colors of Money
David Chipperfield and IA's mutual-admiration collaboration at a Lever House financial-services firm
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 1/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
What becomes a legend most? The double-entendre ad question aptly introduces Gordon Bunshaft's landmark 1952 Lever House, where executives at a financial-services firm were pondering their options for a space initially encompassing 40,000 square feet spread over three floors, one in the building's plinth and two in the vertical slab above. The answer turned out to be twofold. London's highly acclaimed David Chipperfield Architects, whose prior U.S. experience was limited to New York's Bryant Park hotel and Miami's Shore Club, assumed primary design responsibility. IA, based in the U.S., took the role of executive architects, providing American know-how and familiarity with resources, hence ease of execution.
All participants agreed on an elemental precept: Planning, effected first for the tower floors and then for the atrium-wrapping second floor of the plinth, should impinge minimally on Lever House's seminal architecture. Changes would of course be made but, seen from the street, interruptions to the 4-foot 8-inch grid configuration would all but disappear—a solution that captures Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's mid-century–modern spirit while addressing present-day workplace needs for 240 employees. (That number is projected to grow by 80 when Chipperfield and IA complete the 14th and 15th floors, which add 19,000 square feet.)
The key to the plan, explains architect Billy Prendergast, who worked on the project from Chipperfield's London office, was "revealing diagonal corners and pulling partitions off the facade to reveal the slablike qualities of the floors." Implemented, the concept took form in a partition system for the private spaces at the perimeter. Consistently sized at 325 square feet, offices are fronted with glass panels that seem to span the floor plates in continuous runs. Divisions, aligned with the building's aluminum mullions, come from walnut cabinetry, incorporating storage, and a clever frameless door treatment. Wood and glass panels are slotted into the 8-foot ceilings, while the walnut blocks stop just short of the window walls. As such, the architects' primary interventions suggest a dichotomy. They seem both intrinsic building elements and freestanding entities. Whatever the case, the building's integrity is maintained. Light streams in, and glorious views of Park Avenue are never far off. "This was a test for the client," Prendergast continues. "How much could they tolerate cellular and open-plan offices? We worked hard on the aesthetics and on their programming and adjacency needs."
Similarly, conference rooms and the trading floor follow the scheme as glass enclosures. The latter, the nerve center of the facility, stands just behind the reception desk, in full frontal view. As trading floors go, this is relatively small—10,000 square feet with space for 80 traders—and an aesthetic departure from the norm, too. Organized chaos characterizes most traders' desks, says Eric Regh, managing principal in IA's New York office: "Stations reflect personal working methods. There's no uniformity." This environment is clutter-free, thanks to rigorous maintenance and flat-screen monitors. What's impressive, Regh continues, is "what you're not seeing. There's no effusive technology." But obviously the place is wired to the hilt. In lieu of raising floors to accommodate wiring, the architects relied on the ceiling; IT conduits are concealed behind a grid of access panels and snaked through existing columns. Lighting combines fluorescent up-light pendants with recessed fixtures that read as illuminated ribbons animating the plane.
Supplementing the glass and walnut, honed Italian granite arrayed in a bricklike motif and neutral carpeting for the floors contribute to a restrained overall palette that befits Lever House's pedigree. The team then indulged in a few brilliant strokes for panache. A mural by Sol LeWitt—an artist the firm's founder had spotted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and been captivated by ever since—forms a graphic wraparound backdrop to vermilion-lacquered furnishings at the main reception area on the second floor. It's a mise-en-scène suggesting that fine art and fine business need not be mutually exclusive.