A new attitude
From buttoned-up to opened up, Gensler's airy new San Francisco headquarters embraces change and collaboration
Diane Dorrans Saeks -- Interior Design, 2/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
To the average San Franciscan, the sign glowing red atop this converted bay-side warehouse clearly reads "Hills Bros Coffee"—a legacy of the building's original tenant. To designers in the know, however, those same letters now spell a very different word: Gensler.
For the 35-year-old firm, which has spent 21 of those years in the top spot on Interior Design's Giants list, the move from a high-rise in the financial district to a seven-story brick building South of Market signals a major shift: from a traditional hierarchy to a forward-thinking collaborative that finesses multiple disciplines. That transformation had been accelerating for several years, and Gensler's previous digs had begun to seem rigid, with enclosed offices and hidden studios. "There was little natural light, and clients were relegated to one formal area," recalls managing principal Daniel Winey.
"The new space is transparent, open, and full of light, reflecting our new way of working," he continues. At almost 57,000 square feet on two levels of the building now known as Hills Plaza, the current world headquarters is only slightly larger than the former, but function allocations are strikingly different. Informally grouped ' tables, chairs, and sofas furnish a broad sunlit gallery; workstations benefit from runs of windows on both levels; pinup areas are accessible. And flexible charette studios reemphasize Gensler's redefined focus—not only on formalized architectural services but also on graphics, branding, consulting, product design, and retail rollout.
A dramatic elevator lobby immediately signals Gensler's change of direction. The firm's crimson logo is stacked in a 6-foot-tall column of clear cast resin, and richly luminous walls of red laminated glass get the blood pumping.
Inside, design principal Collin Burry and his 10-member team began by stripping the space down to its original brick walls, left raw, and its concrete floor and columns, which retain the patina and nicks of the industrial era. Burry cites the round columns, set in a 20-foot grid, as "one of the great virtues of the building," and he used the formation as an organizing system. Rows of columns determine the placement of the 200 workstations, clustered into studios of 15 to 20, and the open reception areas, arrayed around the perimeter of each floor plate to benefit from 8-foot-tall windows that receive direct sunlight for most of the day. Columns also delineate conference, meeting, and project rooms, all floating in the center of the space to express the historic structure.
Environmentally conscious, Burry thought minimum-impact where possible. "By employing indigenous and recycled materials, I introduced nature into the design," he explains. Flooring in reception is madrone, cut from cleared trees and coated in a water-based clear finish, and a fallen black-acacia tree yielded lumber for the area's table.
He also chose Gensler-designed items, such as the lacquered MDF reception desk, the gallery's felt-covered sofas, and the fluorescent 'fixtures above workstations. These pieces coordinate with tables by Warren Platner and chairs by Frank Gehry, Charles and Ray Eames, Mario Bellini, and Philippe Starck as well as exhibits of painting and sculpture by emerging artists.
Meeting and conference rooms' clear glass walls bear stenciled quotations from poems, haikus, and aphorisms—introducing a flash of Jenny Holzer–style inspiration. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose," reads one meeting-room door.
Whether or not everyone takes these sayings to heart, the loftlike interior has had a profound effect on the 200-person staff. "It's refreshed us," says Winey. Longtime corporate clients, invited into a variety of purpose-built areas to participate in the design process, have noticed the improvement, too. "Clients feel like an integral part of project development," he adds. "It's a distinct shift from I to we."