San Francisco Tech
The boom may have bust, but the architects at San Francisco's SmithGroup learned some important lessons from the new economy
John Alderman -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
After the tech money started to circulate, a new kind of dynamism ripped through San Francisco, like a bratty whiz kid spouting hype, scoffing at tradition, and tearing down walls. Despite the fact that the city is now awash in unleased commercial buildings, have any design lessons been learned for the future? SmithGroup's project coprincipals Michael and Rebecca Nolan and project designer T. Jack Howard think so.
The test case was an office for a major TV network's Internet offshoot, now little more than nominally operational. The client company had been forged from three separate entities, each with a distinct culture. A new shared office, the philosophy went, would be neutral ground where the freeform spirit of each part would be able to meld into a greater whole. Complementing the intended collaborative work style, SmithGroup's layout would bestow transparency. Light was the architects' operating metaphor, in the sense both of weightlessness and agility and of TV and computer screens.
Lightness was the last thing that anyone would have imagined emerging from the wood-paneled, column-intensive space that SmithGroup walked into: eight floors and a mezzanine in a 1922 tower built for Standard Oil. Familiarity, however, proved to be the key to the transformation. SmithGroup, a downstairs neighbor, drew upon its own understanding of the building to develop and deploy adjustable aluminum and plastic constructions that contrast with the original stonework.
The space would feel alive, "as opposed to the Sam Spade model, where the doors are closed and you can't see if anyone's breathing," says Howard. "We strongly believe in the power of groups thinking together." As an incentive for transparency, SmithGroup placed most of the shared areas in the best locations, with plentiful natural light, and sited corridors along exterior window walls.
Facing those windows, TechWalls of acrylic and aluminum housed the vital nerves of the company. Beneath the panels' glassy surfaces run multicolored wires for computer data—neat but accessible. The panels themselves emit a soft blue radiance as they filter ambient lighting.
Wheeled, completely adjustable workstations grouped employees in flexible, open zones. Managers were often separated from their teams by only a sliding door. Open it, and joining a conversation was easy. Larger gathering spaces at key areas were furnished with mid-century modern pieces.
Moving into the space, the client's CEO boisterously shouted, "I love chaos!" (He certainly got it. From the time he moved in to the time that most of the staff moved out, three reorganizations occurred.) But it isn't chaos that the two Nolans and Howard take away from their experience—it's nearly the opposite, in fact. "It's classical in the sense that a rational system is carried out to the nth degree," says Howard. Michael Nolan continues: "I really think that it's still going to read when you come back in five years."
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