Bohlin Cywinski Jackson draws up a Bay Area studio for the powerhouse animation house
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
There's another dream team in town. The players, meeting on the field of architecture and design, consist of Oscar and Golden Globe-winning Pixar Animation Studios and AIA award-winning architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, with Garcia + Francica contributing to the finishes and furnishings schedule. The collaboration produced a spectacular campus in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco. The 15-acre site is anchored by a 218,000-square-foot building that simultaneously pays homage to grand, steel-frame structures and Emeryville's modest masonry buildings.
The Pixar story is familiar to anyone who follows the entertainment pages or the business section. Founded in 1986 by Steve Jobs of Apple fame, the company and its proprietary animation software won hearts with the 1995 blockbuster Toy Story and 2001's Monsters, Inc. Thanks to a successful 1995 IPO, Pixar had also became a darling of the financial sector. What might be less well known is Jobs's all-consuming passion for design. "He loves it, and that drove the studio project," says Pixar facilities director Tom Carlisle, who managed design and construction with the assistance of project manager Craig Payne.
From the start, Jobs was concerned about the durability of the design, Carlisle reports: "He didn't want a standard office-park building—one with corrugated-metal siding or ribbon windows. The building had to look good 100 years from now. That was his main criterion." Jobs also stipulated such perquisites as a lap pool, soccer field, basketball court, and fitness center to keep his young animators happy and, well, animated.
The connection between Pixar and BCJ was established by a circuitous route. An existing relationship led Pixar to approach Pei Cobb Freed & Partners first. "But we weren't thinking of a corporate campus, which is what Jim Freed is used to doing best," Carlisle explains. Intrigued by BCJ's range—the Bill Gates residential compound in Medina, Washington, and the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are just two of the firm's more impressive projects—Pixar reconsidered its choice. BCJ won the commission, and so began a hands-on, five-year process, analogous to a film-production schedule.
Pixar, reports BCJ senior associate and project manager Karl Backus, was "interested in a sense of craft and a loft environment" as well as design longevity. "We looked hard at traditional building methods in the neighborhood as well as Case Study Houses, early Bauhaus, and Eichler," he says. The resultant combination of brick and steel-frame techniques with expansive gridded window walls nods to both traditional and modern icons.
As significant as the architecture is, however, the greatest challenge was to "create enough of a clean slate to encourage Pixar to inhabit it and make it its own," says Peter Bohlin, BCJ's founding partner and principal for design. Everyone agrees: At Pixar, the interiors star. Responding to the client's self-description as a "coffee-klatch, staircase culture with spontaneous interaction," the architects devised a two-floor public center dominated by a 35-foot-high, 10,000-square-foot atrium. A soaring steel framework and triangulated trusses spanning 60 feet create a building within a building, as they stand free of brick elevations and drywall in-fill. Here, the elegance of an exposed-bones structure meets a crafts ethic. The architects used cold-rolled, bead-blasted steel, and all connections are custom-bolted, not welded, purely for aesthetics' sake. Within the public center, the framework and an anodized-aluminum storefront system define reception and lounge areas, a 135-seat café, and a mail center, plus two small screening rooms flanking a 235-seat theater.
Along the east-west axis, facing wings with 46,500-square-foot floor plates accommodate work spaces. Departing from the fifty-fifty split of previous quarters, this site features 85 percent closed offices for the 650-person staff. "As much as everyone liked the visual aspect of open cubes, it was hard for them to get work done," says Carlisle. BCJ addressed workforce density and circulation issues by placing the 10-by-12-foot and 12-by-15-foot offices in U-shape units of six, each with a central gathering area. These pods, along with the extra-wide corridors, inject some breathing room into the office landscape.
San Francisco firm Garcia + Francica, engaged toward final construction stages to take charge of furnishings, obtained cues from the materials palette (maple flooring, spruce ceiling, white-oak cabinetry), the space, and the client itself. "Pixar was about working hard and playing hard," says principal Jennifer Francica. The building cried out for final layering to enliven it. While Jobs made no stipulations, he did point Francica in the direction of mid-century classics. And he loves color: One need only reference the blueberry and tangerine iMacs for affirmation.
Francica's take on mid-century modern encompasses pieces of European as well as American lineage, mingling items from Cassina and Ligne Roset with Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, and Warren Platner staples. Perhaps Francica's most significant contribution was her collaboration with a local artist and supplier to create eight floor coverings subsequently handwoven by Tibetans in Nepal. Anchoring the furniture and breaking down scale, the vibrant, large-scale rugs read as paintings on the floor and provide the sought-after home atmosphere to keep animators going through long hours of the night.