Houston on Thames
Founded in Texas in 1840, law firm Baker Botts has staked out new territory in London—a Gensler-designed office in a neoclassical building
Bethan Ryder -- Interior Design, 6/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
"Law firms are incredibly competitive, especially when it comes to each other's offices. Everyone wants a better building and the best design," says Katie Harrington, international client-relations manager at London's Baker Botts.
In this cutthroat culture, one suspects that her new, Gensler-designed office will turn rival legal eagles an envious shade of green. One Baker Botts partner likens the interior to a "Rolls-Royce with a Ferrari engine."
Formerly the headquarters of London & Westminster Bank, the 1830's neoclassical building is a landmark, protected by English Heritage's Grade II* status. The exterior and the ground level's marble-clad banking hall recently underwent an extensive restoration by GMW Architects. The six stories above have been transformed into contemporary office space organized around a skylit atrium—except for a few rooms where 19th-century details remain.
Gensler rose to the challenge of appeasing English Heritage while simultaneously conveying the client's International Style– influenced corporate identity. Founded in Texas in 1840, Baker Botts is the firm that once hired a 15-year-old George W. Bush to work in the mail room and later helped him get Al Gore's recount challenge dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The London office is now one of 10, representing some of the world's largest energy companies.
The reception area's juxtaposition of pale and dark surfaces is a key ingredient of the Baker Botts look. Paneling of figured anigre veneer forms a backdrop to the receptionist's black desk, clad in Gucci-fabulous smoked glass and granite. French limestone flooring—a reinterpretation of the travertine in the Dallas office—provides a pale honey-tone foundation for a black rug. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's seating, upholstered in bone-colored leather, gathers around Florence Knoll's low glass-topped table.
Shaped like a truncated wedge, reception is a inserted between the modernized side of the office and the pair of lofty rooms with period details. Baker Botts earmarked the two connecting spaces for conferencing and social occasions, so Gensler needed to accommodate those functions while leaving the architectural envelope untouched. "The furniture had to be flexible and freestanding. The videoconferencing screen is on castors, and the tables are designed to flip up and roll out of the room," says Gensler principal Enrico Caruso. (He's no relation to the Neapolitan tenor.)
The modular tables have tops of bleached bird's-eye maple, and Caruso paired them with Mies van der Rohe's Brno chairs in chrome and cream leather. Such subtlety complements the imposing proportions, Corinthian columns, ornate moldings, and crystal chandeliers rather than detracting from them. "The furniture upholds the firm's international brand, but the architecture says, 'This is Baker Botts in London,'" Caruso explains.
Outside these conference rooms, representing 10 percent of the total 22,000 square feet, British and American contemporary art supplies bursts of color. One wall is lined with painted wooden cubes by Stuart Hartley. Abstract human figures are the focus of Gary Hume's lithograph triptych. A rainbow of dots pops out of three screen prints by Damien Hirst.
Finishes picked up from the reception area ensure visual continuity on the renovated side of the floor plate—note the anigre veneer on doors and 'the smoked glass on furniture systems. Meeting rooms and individual offices line window walls and all four sides of the atrium. Glass fronts maximize the penetration of natural light into a central open-plan area.
Paralegals and secretaries share this area with the library. Experts in law-firm design, Gensler is finding that technological progress is enabling consolidation. "With more information online, libraries are shrinking and splitting up into satellites specific to the group that uses them," Caruso says.
Everybody uses the café, where Gensler got funky. "It's a respite from the 'grown-up' look," the designer says. The signature Baker Botts contrast is immediately apparent—but raised a notch. Arne Jacobsen chairs are lacquered black or white, and a jazzy black-and-white pattern covers the backrests of two banquettes and the walls above.
Contrasting palettes are due to reappear at Baker Botts's Houston headquarters, currently being remodeled by Gensler. Nothing could make a better case for the success of Caruso's design.