Big Man on Campus
Under principal Erik Sueberkrop's leadership, Marconi proceeds with its 97-acre complex near Pittsburgh
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Sometimes the client's words are the best. "What differentiates Studios Architecture from other firms is its flamboyant and innovative use of internal space. They focus on social energy," says Paul Harris, executive vice president of real estate for information-technology giant Marconi. Harris is eminently qualified to assess the firm's expertise, as demonstrated under the leadership of principal Erik Sueberkrop. His five-building 600,000-square-foot Marconi campus, on a 97-acre site north of Pittsburgh, is one of the more expansive locations in the U.K.-based conglomerate's network of 260 worldwide.
Marconi actually inherited this project—including Sueberkrop and associated Pittsburgh firm Perfido Weiskopf Architects—as a merger asset. When the company acquired Fore Systems in 1999, three of the buildings had been completed, and a fourth was under way as the initial phase of a comprehensive master plan. In the interest of design integrity, Marconi left the existing structures intact, adhered to the scheme in place, and resumed construction to complete the fifth building.
The sprawling research-and-development facility takes its architectural cues from the hilly topography of western Pennsylvania. The idea was that buildings should seem to emerge from the sloping land, then follow it down. "They vary quite a bit in weight and appearance, ranging from more solid concrete and masonry to lighter-weight steel and glass," says Sueberkrop. Elevations of the first-phase building, for example, are a grid of steel and glass whose various opacities establish a Mondrian-like rhythm while pragmatically masking level changes and columns from outside view. The latest building combines a masonry-block base with abundant glass and a folded shell of copper-painted corrugated aluminum. Canted sections add an unexpected ingredient, enlivening and deconstructing the total mass. "The piece is collected as an assembly of parts," Sueberkrop continues.
The interiors solution derives from the human element. With a fifty-fifty split between open and closed offices, the workplace incorporates "neighborhood" planning, which Studios employed to avoid a cube-farm environment. To this end, Sueberkrop explains, building five's workstation groups were limited to no more than 10 individuals. On all four floors, each neighborhood is assigned a team room furnished with rolling tablet armchairs only—the lack of conference tables sending the signal that informal, ad hoc meetings are welcome. Another interruption in the station configuration comes at each floor's center, where a large lab is defined by slightly irregular perimeter walls that break the Cartesian parti. And the floors as a whole step back in a tiered configuration as they rise, further alleviating workplace density.
A single spine, which morphs intermittently into closed walkways, connects the five buildings across a quarter-mile stretch. In each separate building, this "main street" addresses primary organization for both horizontal and vertical circulation, anchoring a series of dramatic, double-height nodes that house elevators and painted steel stairways. The stairs are intended, Sueberkrop says, to pick up on the vocabulary of coal-mining hoists, giving a nod to western Pennsylvania's industrial heritage.