Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum shows itself off to best advantage at a warehouse building in Culver City, California
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
There's simply no way to overstate how much appearances matter in Los Angeles. Architecture firms, like movie stars, can ill afford to send the wrong visual message. "Our previous offices did not convey that design was a high priority," says Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum vice president and interior design director Clay Pendergrast.
Founded in 1955 in Saint Louis, HOK today maintains satellites in cities across the country and around the world. The former L.A. premises, two stories in a brick building in Santa Monica, featured a sorry collection of old upholstered cubicles and battered case goods. "You saw computers and drafting tables but no clear floor plan," Pendergrast recalls. The deteriorating situation was underscored several years ago, when HOK performed a renovation limited to the lobby.
With rents in beach towns edging ever upward, HOK scrapped its Santa Monica digs and departed for the virtual no-man's-land of Culver City, not far from Los Angeles International Airport and the old MGM studios. The specific destination was a warehouse built to serve the movie industry. At 24,000 square feet, the building would permit HOK to house its 100 L.A. employees on a single level. "It's about the size of a football field," estimates project designer Barbara Ostroff.
The landlord had already made some upgrades in response to the wave of gentrification sweeping Culver City. To ensure plenty of ambient light, 30 new frosted-glass skylights had been installed. The building offers no real views, but glass garage doors on two walls roll up to admit warm breezes.
The architects first removed a wall that the landlord had tacked to the ceiling's central bowstring truss, reunifying the grand sweep of the volume. This central truss became the departure point for HOK's new symmetrical layout. With very few exceptions, both the architecture and the furnishings that unfold to one side of the truss are precisely mirrored on the other side.
Inside the reconfigured front doors, HOK removed existing bathrooms—easing traffic flow to the building's center—and furnished a small reception area with George Nelson reproductions and a wool shag rug. The space is bracketed by the mirror-image facades of two freestanding interior "buildings" constructed of figured maple paneling, gypsum board, and MDF. Sized to fit neatly under the lowest string of the trusses, these twin structures are far lower than the soaring original ceiling of sandblasted fir. Hallways running between the buildings' gypsum-board walls and the warehouse's brick shell function as galleries for architectural photography.
Within the interior buildings, HOK ganged conference rooms, 12 private offices, support facilities, and new bathrooms. This permitted the drafting studio for 80 employees to remain unobstructed. "The scale of the drafting studio is a surprise as you leave reception," says architectural design director Ernest Cirangle. Only banks of flat files and workstation partitions of fluted Lexan polycarbonate act as dividers. Ostroff says she furthermore helped to choose an "extremely open" European office system not yet common in the U.S. "Frankly, we wanted something that you don't see everywhere," Pendergrast explains.
The drafting studio benefits from the placement of the interior buildings, which block traffic noise that would otherwise leak in. Originally, HOK also intended to screen the studio from public areas by installing a wall of colored glass. In the end, though, the architects settled for gypsum board painted in persimmon, the corporate color. "That's what we could afford," Pendergrast explains.
In another budget-conscious move, the best furniture from Santa Monica found a new home in Culver City. HOK redeployed the Santa Monica conference rooms' Eames Soft Pad chairs, for example, at "teaming" tables used for informal meetings. Buying both office systems and task chairs from the same manufacturer netted a substantial discount. Forgoing suspended ceilings and a planned mezzanine helped, too.
It was only such strict discipline that allowed HOK to complete the project for about half the sum that the firm's clients would ordinarily have invested in the fit-out of a similarly sized space. "You can often solve problems more creatively when you're your own client," Pendergrast says. "We had to make a dramatic statement at a low cost."