Church Of The Open Mind
Shubin + Donaldson applied cathedral architecture to the Santa Monica hangar that houses Brand New School
Greg Goldin -- Interior Design, 2/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Anyone who shows up at Brand New School is in for a shock. Is this the commercial design and production company that makes the boisterous, sensual, sometimes pugilistic graphics and animation for clients from Volkswagen to VH1? You're half expecting to enter a hip-hop romper room or an anime bouncy castle. At the absolute minimum, there ought to be an Etch A Sketch to doodle on. But the walls are blank, and the industrial-size shed is as quiet as a study hall. It's as if someone hit the mute button on the company's on-screen energy.
Structured, systematic, and based on a grid. That's how Jonathan Notaro, the founder of Brand New School, always envisioned his new headquarters, a former hangar at the Bergamot Station arts complex in Santa Monica. And he instructed Shubin + Donaldson Architects to strip the interior of the 10,000-square-foot metal-frame building bare before getting to work. Partners Russell Shubin and Robin Donaldson got the picture immediately. The idea, Shubin explains, was to emphasize the "strength of the shed while inserting a simple, meditative quality."
On a more functional level, individual offices had to be open yet secluded, and the producers had to have free access to designers and animators. A division of labor, in short, with very little hierarchy. There had to be a common area, too. Notaro thought this would be easy to accomplish—and inexpensive—but S+D understood that the existing 30-foot-high girders and walls could never support both enclosed offices and an axial flow, at least not without serious structural interventions.
S+D's solution is akin to a secular cathedral. Reception, the largest volume on the premises, is differentiated from work space by a freestanding 12-foot-high focal wall clad in pale bamboo normally used for flooring. The wall separates two long parallel corridors running almost the length of the building—aisles through the nave. Private offices, like small chapels, line the exterior side of each aisle. Between the two aisles, directly behind the bamboo wall, the "pew" space is a row of editing bays with no ceilings. On one side of the editing bays, open portals face the aisle; each room's other side has a stainless-steel sliding door. This setup permits Notaro and producers to crisscross the core, gliding between offices or stopping to scan the work being developed on a computer monitor. And all this fluidity was made possible simply by anchoring a network of steel box beams to the existing walls and floor.
As employees move through the building, distractions are minimal. The floor of polished concrete is a neutral platform. White-painted drywall is utterly blank. In the editing bays, floor-to-ceiling bulletin boards of spongy black expanded polypropylene create silent zones. Narrow fluorescent fixtures are secured to pencil-thin uni-strut tracks so as not to encroach visually on the headroom of the shed roof or compete with sunshine from the skylights—this is a firmament that the mind can wander in search of inspiration. As Shubin puts it, "If you're paying for a warehouse, and you don't get a chance to experience all that volume, what's the point?"
For a different point of view, employees can gaze down through an operable window in the conference room, which occupies the top of a two-story enclosure at the far end of the space, where the apse would be. Or they can stand on the adjacent mezzanine, which tapers soon to a narrow balcony, then to a dead end. From up there, the main level's precise orthogonal layout is revealed. Straight lines intersect with straight lines. No curves allowed. Solids and voids appear almost two-dimensional.
Such a self-effacing interior is deliberately a "backdrop to design against," Shubin says. This concept becomes most explicit in reception, largely unfurnished except for a solitary sofa and two tables by Charles and Ray Eames, grouped with chrome-framed chairs on an orange flokati rug. To one side, a 15-foot-high white wall stands completely bare, ready to morph into the backdrop for a photo shoot. To clients walking through the hangar's 18-foot-high doorway, the snowy expanse evokes wonder. What's going on inside this metal cavern? Whatever the mind can cook up.
The onetime hangar's 18-foot-high steel main door rolls up to connect reception, with its custom desk clad in stainless steel, to the outdoors, where company founder Jonathan Notaro placed one of his fiberglass picnic tables.
The roofless bays open, via sliding steel doors, to one of the two aisles running from front to back.
Eames seating offers a rest stop on the mezzanine, which overlooks the main level.
Reception's 12-foot-high bamboo wall backs a sofa and tables by Charles and Ray Eames, a flokati rug, and chrome-framed chairs. Photo shoots take place in front of the blank wall nearby.