An amazing discovery
At a cable giant's Gensler-designed headquarters in suburban Maryland, there's a surprise around every corner
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When it launched in 1985, the Discovery Channel was just another cable upstart trying to make it in a scrappy industry. Today, Discovery Communications, Inc., or DCI, comprises 23 networks including the Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Kids, the Travel Channel, and Animal Planet as well as TLC, responsible for the wildly popular Trading Spaces. Then there are the 100-plus retail stores and the Internet unit, discovery.com.
Managing these diverse operations from 21 separate floors in five different buildings in Bethesda, Maryland, DCI realized it was desperately in need of consolidation—and a global headquarters that could attract top talent. Rather than relocate to the media hubs of New York or Los Angeles, an enduring pioneer spirit led management to stake a claim to a brownfield in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, a blighted community just northeast of the nation's capital.
SmithGroup designed the 550,000-square-foot L-shape building, which consists of a 150-foot-tall atrium linking two wings, of seven and 10 stories. Then DCI turned to Gensler to create an interior that met standardization requirements for 1,800 employees yet reflected a culture based on individuality and entrepreneurship.
"The whole idea is discovery, so we made sure that visual and sensory experiences vary throughout," says Gensler design principal Chris Banks. "With such a large floor plate, we relied on form, color, and light to provide a sense of scale and place."
Illustrating her point are the giant pendant fixtures hanging outside a business center and a high-definition theater—textured stainless-steel domes that resemble sheared-off planets. And the elevator banks are paneled in Acrylite that, backlit with gels, appears pale blue by day but emits an increasingly intense blue glow as the sun sets. Inside the high-definition theater, one of the first in the world, the floating ceiling's "Swiss cheese" cutouts shift attention from off-the-shelf fixtures suspended in the middle. ("The bulbs cost more than the housing," says senior designer Barbara Noguera-Frye.) A control panel transforms the ceiling plane into a sea of blue orbs, a school of jellyfish swimming overhead.
In the multipurpose area used for receptions and screenings, the same floating ceiling provides a hiding place for stainless-steel partitions that lower like accordion shades at 30-foot intervals. The system, a substitute for conventional acoustical curtains, operates with a single key and without ceiling or floor tracks. Best of all, the partitions don't take up valuable space when not in use.
Besides restricting construction costs, Banks considered the expenses for future upkeep. Cabling, left exposed for easy access, also makes the place feel more loftlike, less buttoned-up. Low-maintenance vinyl covers the floors in the main corridors—though it looks like polished concrete.
For workstations, Banks chose a pole-and-screen wall system that offers increased flexibility and costs less than conventional cubicles. Based on 120-degree angles, the hexagonal units resemble a honeycomb from above, a fitting image for worker bees who, she says, "abhor the idea of being put in a cube."
Each workstation's hinged flip-up whiteboard panel, intended for messages and graffiti, can double as an ersatz door. When more privacy is required to "call the kids or close a deal," Banks says, small offices with bona fide doors are available on each floor. Overall, however, DCI aims to foster community spirit, as evidenced by the windowed "main street" along the perimeter of all floors. (Lining some of these corridors, local children's artwork bears witness to Discovery's commitment to the larger Silver Spring community.) '
Reflecting Discovery founder and CEO John Hendricks's twin passions for nature and science, the hand-chiseled Jerusalem limestone cladding the walls of the atrium gives way, in the larger building, to a curved wall in troweled terra-cotta plaster and luminescent frosted-glass paneling bathed in ethereal blue light. Printed graphics identify divisions, and laptop touchdown stations participate in a kind of creative chaos.
On each floor, employees congregate for lunch, meetings, and other confabs in a spacious elliptical "community center." Although the centers have their own pantries, the company asked Gensler to leave out fitness rooms and cafeterias, the better to encourage DCI employees to explore the neighborhood. Consequently, five gyms and numerous restaurants have sprouted nearby, seemingly overnight. "We brought the market," says Barbara Henry, Discovery's community-relations manager.
The urban revitalization shows no sign of slowing down. Last year, the American Film Institute opened a theater and cultural center right across the street, ideally situated to enjoy the exterior fiber-optic lighting that turns DCI into the neighborhood's nighttime beacon. Henry's teenage son refers to it as the "best after-hours club in Silver Spring."