Shout It Out
Saatchi & Saatchi, designed by Red House China, is the coolest ad agency in Beijing
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Emblazoned in big blue letters at the entrance of Saatchi & Saatchi's Beijing office is the slogan "Nothing Is Impossible." It's the kind of catchphrase you'd expect to see at one of the world's biggest advertising agencies. But the words could just as easily be the motto of Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo. Leaving the security and familiarity of his native Venezuela, he signed on to serve as chief architect for SOHO China, the real-estate developer behind many of Beijing's cutting-edge mixed-use projects. Then, after five years, he decided to strike out on his own, under the name Red House China.
At Saatchi, "impossible" entailed reconciling an extremely low budget with the client's desire for dynamism and creativity. And the space that Ochoa conceived clearly manages to satisfy both requirements. "Everything is always moving. It had to be rich, different, never boring," he says. It's true that he clad the reception area and the adjacent elevator lobby in gray striped marble. But look up, and you'll see exposed fluorescent tubes running between the ceiling's thin strips of raw MDF. "Almost every material was very basic and inexpensive," he adds. "We saved where we could." Unfortunately, that entailed buying chairs that appear to be by Eero Saarinen and Verner Panton but are actually knockoffs. The building core is clad in salt-treated rusted steel, a cheaper alternative to Cor-Ten.
White epoxy flooring, inexpensive in China at approximately $2 a square foot, runs virtually throughout the 20,000 square feet, split among the top three stories of a tower in Beijing's central business district. The middle level, 36, is where visitors step off the elevator. A tilted, curved wall greets them at the entry, and a hollow white egg-shape pod houses the reception desk. Right next door, a white-on-white double-height café features a bar topped in solid-surfacing and shaped like a boat. "There's barely a straight line in the place," Ochoa says. Some of the few are directly overhead: the fluorescent linear fixtures crisscrossing in midair.
The rest of the reception level is occupied by work space, both managerial offices and the communal tables where creatives perfect campaigns for the likes of the Toyota Motor Corporation and its Lexus division; the level below has a similar floor plan. They both essentially consist of a circulation corridor arcing around a square core. "It's a very simple gesture that lends dynamism to the space," Ochoa explains.
Separating those circulation corridors from the surrounding work space are curving wall segments. On the corridor side, they're paneled in vertical strips of MDF like the ones in reception. The side facing out is clad in various huge, bold images: Italian Renaissance cupids, a woman with a heart-shape tongue piercing, a bare-chested man sporting a heart-shape tattoo. All refer to Saatchi's concept of Lovemarks—basically super-brands beloved of consumers—and all double as pinup boards. "They're working walls," Ochoa says. "Also, since it's an advertising agency, there needed to be some sort of imagery." In the corner brainstorming room, a beige-carpeted conversation pit, walls of faux blackboard and milky-white glass act, respectively, as pinup and dry-erase boards.
In order to create a smoother transition from both office levels to the penthouse event space, Ochoa devoted another corner to a feature that became the highlight of the office, what ties it all together. Pine steps follow a parabolic path around the curve of a dramatic rusted-steel column that shoots up through all three levels—an enormous funnel that seemingly appears from nowhere. As the architect says, "There's never a routine, always a surprise."
The stair terminates at one end of the long, narrow event space. At the far end sits what appears to be a 12-foot-tall MDF dome. In fact, it's only a half dome. Slide it around a circular floor track, and a white-lacquered conference table is revealed—shaped like a heart, of course. "People love it," Ochoa says. "Saatchi had requested a completely separate meeting room, but curtains or sliding partitions would have felt weird here," he continues, pointing to the high ceiling and exposed ductwork. Not that the industrial feel stopped him from adding a cheeky touch: a handful of ballroom-worthy crystal chandeliers.
Previous spread, left: In an office area at Saatchi & Saatchi's Beijing outpost by Red House China, a supergraphic printed on synthetic fabric covers a 10½-foot-high wall that can double as a pinup surface. Photography: Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo.
Previous spread, right: The café's custom bar is topped in solid-surfacing. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou.
Opposite top: Strips of MDF clad the walls of an epoxy-floored corridor that encircles the building core. Opposite bottom: Angular and curved enclosures conceal a printer area and a meeting room, respectively. Photography: Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo.
Top: A supergraphic of Italian Renaissance cupids presides over an office area. Photography: Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo. Bottom: Marble surfaces surround reception's pod of lacquered MDF and plywood. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou.
Opposite top: At one end of the penthouse event space, a custom conference table has a lacquered plywood top. Opposite bottom: An MDF shell swings around on a steel track to shield the table from the rest of the 100-foot-long room. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou.
Below: The crystal chandeliers take incandescent bulbs. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou.
PROJECT TEAM JIANG XIAOYU (PROJECT MANAGER); ZHANG ZHIWEI; ZHOU PING: RED HOUSE CHINA. BEIJING KDKE ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN CO.: STRUCTURAL ENGINEER. WTL DESIGN: GENERAL CONTRACTOR.
PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT LONGEMA: CUSTOM TABLES (OFFICE AREA), CUSTOM CONFERENCE TABLE (EVENT SPACE). ARTAN LIGHTING: CHANDELIERS (EVENT SPACE). THROUGHOUT TDB CO.: CUSTOM MURALS.
Opposite top: Connecting the three levels, pine stairs wrap a column of salt-treated rusted steel. Opposite bottom: Velvet-upholstered chairs furnish a lounge. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou.
Top: The brainstorming room features a wool-carpeted conversation pit. Photography: Zhiyi Zhou. Bottom: Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo sits with his back to the room's pinup wall of faux blackboard. Photography: Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo.