An open office
Andrea Codrington -- Interior Design, 5/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The employees at Human Rights Campaign joke about working in a building with no closets—an appropriate architectural metaphor for a nonprofit organization that advocates gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights. "The design really speaks to the fact that our constituents have nothing to hide," HRC president and executive director Cheryl Jacques says of the stunning Skidmore, Owings & Merrill interior, which maximizes visibility and openness.
A glass-fronted International Style gem in the midst of classicist Washington, D.C., the 1956 building originally housed Jewish organization B'nai B'rith International, but the eight-floor structure had entered midlife in less than perfect shape, encumbered by a 1970's addition. After deciding to buy, HRC hired Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum to carry out a thorough renovation—requiring, of course, a similarly elegant interior solution.
"Every decision we made hinged on how the space would look from the outside," says Nestor Santa-Cruz, the SOM lead project designer who recently joined SKB Architecture and Design as partner. His stripped-down schema emphasizes Miesian gestures: horizontal and vertical planes in such contrasting materials as terrazzo, slate, polished concrete, oak, and glass. An occasional yellow accent references the organization's logo—a yellow equals sign on a blue square field. "We overlaid office and retail typologies," says SOM partner Stephen Apking. "A neutral base palette with a single bright color and bold graphics." And light suffuses virtually the entire headquarters, 40,000 square feet encompassing the basement through the fifth floor.
Because tenants occupy the building's top three levels, the lobby had to do triple duty as shared territory, a branded entrance, and a public presence, the latter assuming particular importance, given HRC's proximity to all branches of the federal government. That complex program resulted in a space divided between a general entry and the HRC zone: a conference center for board meetings, an "action center" for political activists who drop in to use phones or computers, and a spacious "equality forum" that accommodates up to 200 people for parties, media events, and staff gatherings.
The stylishly luminous interior displays a who's who of modern and contemporary furniture—from Harry Bertoia to Humberto Campana—as well as a custom reception desk celebrating the endless possibilities of intersecting planes. Less apparent, one further detail speaks volumes about the organization's constituency. "There are three rest rooms on the ground floor," explains Santa-Cruz. "Men's, women's, and a private gender-neutral bathroom."
The light-filled lobby's airy atmosphere extends to the four upper levels, each of which features an open-plan work area for the majority of employees, plus a run of glassed-in offices overlooking a back alley. (Only the president and CFO have street-facing offices, a move that denotes not only their position but also the need for their actions to be visible to the public at large.) An occasional bright orange chair offsets the rectilinearity of workstations by Bataille & Ibens, while molded-plywood chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and cement tables by Maya Lin furnish a combination coffee bar and meeting area.
Transforming a mid-century building into a contemporary showpiece may be easier than updating society's perception of a maligned minority. But longtime HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch, who stepped down last year, believes there just may be a link between the two. "It was a monumental day when we raised HRC's flag and the American flag, just five blocks away from the White House," she says. "This building represents the spark of everyone in our community—and marks a turning point in the biggest civil-rights issue of our time."