Right to Light
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 5/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Say goodbye to that most coveted of executive perks, the cushy corner office. At Rider Bennett, a 45-year-old law firm in downtown Minneapolis, the conventional legal practice hierarchy, as dictated by architecture, has been given the heave-ho by 20 Below Studio, a local design firm. Gone are claustrophobic cubbies for newbies and support staff, partners' row, and marking ascension through the ranks by increasingly spacious offices.
The 220-person law practice's 94,500-square-foot workplace is spread across the top five floors of a 50-story skyscraper. Throughout, 20 Below Studio has instituted a new order by design. The offices for all attorneys, regardless of seniority, are 10 by 15 feet and located either along the perimeter window wall or internally for flexibility.
"It's more efficient to move bodies than walls," says designer Heather Rose-Dunning, one of 20 Below Studio's three founding partners. "The guiding philosophy is that everyone has a right to light."
Rider Bennett's slogan reads: Real solutions for real people. 20 Below Studio interpreted that mantra as a look that is friendly, inviting, and professional, a shift away from the legal world's usual sobriety. To ease the inevitable culture shock, the architects added several communal areas to nudge the employees onto more egalitarian terms. Group workrooms offer ample storage to discourage file-hoarding during active cases. In lieu of private in-office conference areas, there are 20 central breakout spaces, spread out among four floors. To discourage a cookie-cutter effect in the attorneys' private quarters, each features custom blond-anigre case goods with storage and desk configurations customized to individual needs.
On the 49th floor, a receptionist greets visitors from behind a custom desk in etimoe, quartzite, and glass. The light, neutral palette of the porcelain-tile floor and carpet sets off the textural tones of the custom etimoe-veneer millwork, glass, and drywall painted a soft white. Its location beneath a mechanical floor affords the area an extra 16 feet in ceiling height compared to the conference center and food-service facilities on this level; a 70-seat cafeteria is on the 48th floor.
A cast-in-place concrete stair leads down three floors. The stairway is bordered on one side by a glass balustrade, on the other by a custom five-story mesquite-paneled focal wall. Symbolic of flipping legal hierarchy on its head, the mesquite is turned on its end grain and acts as "architecture as art," explains Dunning. Large, framed cutouts break up the wall's massive scale and bring daylight into each floor's internal business center. The staircase and landings multitask as circulation, breakout, and visitor waiting areas.
To further increase transparency, 20 Below Studio designed a prefabricated glass-and-anigre storefront system to separate private offices from the corridor and support-staff workstations. "At first, some attorneys were concerned that the space looked too futuristic," says Dunning, "but now it gets high marks for comfort and efficiency." Or as Barry Clegg, Rider Bennett's managing partner, says, "After 45 years, we finally got it right."