The Big Picture
Frank Stella and friends gather at Seattle's R.C. Hedreen Company by NBBJ
Lawrence W. Cheek -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Pocked and scarred and showing every one of their 81 years of service, 25 octagonal concrete columns paraded through the raw space that Seattle's R.C. Hedreen Company had targeted for its new office. What to do? Hiding them inside interior walls was out of the question. The 10,800-square-foot second floor seemed to crave open daylight—so precious amid the gang of taller towers that increasingly crowd downtown. Celebrating the columns, on the other hand, would have been ludicrous. They were merely clunky, not intriguingly quirky.
So NBBJ partner Rysia Suchecka and principal Anne M. Cunningham ordered up an 18-foot-long limestone-clad wall and placed it on strategic exhibit to attract the attention of visitors the instant they step off the elevators. The limestone, like the concrete, is blotched and pitted—but with fossils. At some level, everyone who now enters the office absorbs the textural connection between the dilapidated concrete and the dazzling limestone and begins to understand the former as an artifact of culture, paralleling the latter as a record of evolutionary biology. "I feel like I'm walking around in something between a brand-new facility and a ruin," says a delighted Dick Hedreen.
Although his company is small and low-profile—it develops commercial real estate, mostly hotels—Hedreen has a long-running passion for art and dedication to Seattle. Civic pride, Suchecka believes, was behind his choice of office building, a 1927 art deco tower neither located in one of the city's tonier quarters nor blessed with up-to-date wiring or equipment. "Moving to this place was a way of taking a stand," Suchecka says. "Dick's giving back to the city by his presence here."
Still, there were advantages: a 12-foot ceiling and big windows on three sides. The day lighting, the openness, and the columns became the drivers for the design. "He never said, 'Make it a backdrop for art,'" Suchecka continues. "He just said, 'Make it elegant, subtle, restrained, a place that feels good.'" Those specifications, however, formed a natural invitation to bring in substantial pieces from his personal art collection, which includes work by Frank Stella and Joan Mitchell.
Almost a dozen serious pieces now grace the headquarters, interacting with the design. Frank Stella's Dove of Tanna (#19, 3X), a mixed-media composition incorporating oil paint and aluminum, contrasts with the project's natural materials, such as metal, wood, and stone, all finished to a smooth polish. In reception, an oil on canvas by Chicago painter David Klamen shows a raw space lined with black columns even burlier than the real one opposite.
Private offices, lining the perimeter on two contiguous sides, were designed with meticulous attention to light and privacy. To guard against prying eyes on the street below, Suchecka and Cunningham printed company logos on window film. At the bottom of the windows, the logos overlap in a swarm; higher up, they evaporate into full transparency. The inside wall of each office has a pair of 10-foot-high clear glass partitions that slide over a fixed panel of frosted glass, which affords some level of opacity. Above the partitions, clerestories ensure that every last lumen of daylight gets through to the central work zones.
The executive offices all have walnut-veneered wall-mounted cabinets and built-in bookcases as well as freestanding desks with oval walnut tops that measure a generous 34 inches across to provide space for a sprawl of architectural drawings. Offices' bronze door pulls were particularly intended to give tactile pleasure. Suchecka and Cunningham even commissioned a mock-up, then tested it with hands of assorted sizes.
More felicitous details: For the spot where a felt-clad wall turns a corner, Suchecka and Cunningham specified a slim bronze blade so that passing shoulders wouldn't eventually rub the brown fabric into shabbiness. Beside the elevator bank, the designers preserved the 1927 mail chute, complete with bronze slot, as another vertical element.
The feel of the space is engendered by the underlying visual tension between fierce vertical and determined horizontal thrusts. Because the energy seems absolutely balanced in both directions, the overarching sensation is one of serenity. The forces are in repose. The architecture quietly recedes, leaving the art to provide the sizzle.
It seems most significant, though, that everyone inevitably encounters that limestone wall. There's no art displayed on it, only a modest company logo. It's all about the stone itself, its texture, history, and gravity as well as the delight of discovering unexpected detail. An enterprise looking for an architectural metaphor could hardly ask for more.