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Interior design in the no-frills '90s.

One glance at the offices of Scott Mednick Associates is enough to tell even the most casual observer that something radical is happening to office design today.

Instead of the boxy and monotonous offices of the traditional workplace, surprise and irregularity rule in the interiors of this advertising and video-production firm in Culver City, California.

The ceiling incorporates a row of steel arches regularly interrupted by decorative ventilation ducts. To soften and diffuse natural light from skylights, translucent acrylic sheets hang between the arches. In the middle of the main work room is a partially enclosed space, covered in a "roof" of wooden beams that ripple like a Japanese fan.

Throughout, visitors are surrounded by the rough-and-ready materials of the building trade: concrete blocks, plate steel, unfinished wooden two-by-fours, and metal bolts and fasteners.

The Mednick offices, designed by California architect Eric Owen Moss, are an example of the architectural "look" of the '90s--a look based on revealing, even revelling in, the act of construction itself. Gone is Postmodernism with its rooflines modeled after Greek temples or Chippendale chairs.

In a time of reassessment, architects are responding with projects that look half-finished or "in process," as if what goes on above the acoustic ceilings and behind the plaster walls is more interesting than the bland surfaces to which office users are accustomed.

In work like Moss's, the architecture appears to be half-finished, falling apart, suspended in space in mid-construction. Some observers have called this style "Deconstructivist," although Moss himself does not embrace the title.

For property and facilities managers, however, new kinds of architecture can mean new kinds of problems--especially in cases in which architects seem to care more about how buildings look than how they function or how they are to be maintained.

For example, in downtown Los Angeles designers created a spectacular fountain in an office lobby but failed to take into account the trajectories of splashing water. As a result, parts of the lobby's granite floor are perpetually wet and must be cordoned off from pedestrians.

In the lavatories of another new building, this one in Beverly Hills, architects installed lavatory soap dispensers that look elegant but could be tricky to use, as the levers are pointed like awls. "It would poke a hole in your hand if you tried to use one of those," says the building's facilities manager. "I've been after the architects for over a year to replace them." In the meantime, she says, "we just use liquid soap dispensers that you buy at the grocery store."

A feeling of rawness

Raw materials and the construction aesthetic have found their way, albeit in a refined form, into the recently completed Gas Company Tower, a 53-story highrise in downtown Los Angeles designed by Rick Keating, former principal of Skidmore Owings Merrill's L.A. office and currently principal of Keating Mann Jernigan Rottet.

The floor of the lobby is constructed of a rugged, hammered marble and the walls are finished in a sandy limestone. Those rough finishes contrast with detailing in gleaming stainless steel. A row of exterior fountains continues into the lobby, sealed beneath a glass pavement that is embedded in the floor.

Maintenance is a constant vigil for Dan Gifford, vice president in charge of asset management for the developer, Maguire Thomas Partners of Los Angeles. He says he experimented for months to find a floor sealant for the rough-textured marble floor that would preserve its matte finish. Keeping the stainless steel shiny, on the other hand, requires a 40-step cycle, different steps of which take place weekly, monthly, and yearly.

While the rage for raw materials originated in the architectural boutiques of Los Angeles and New York, the new style has spread to the heartland--in part because of the migration of New York- and L.A.-trained architects.

For example, architect Randy Brown left L.A. for Omaha, where he found an audience for the freshness and occasional irreverence that typify L.A. design. Among his clients is the law firm of Brown & Wolff, P.C., whose partners, Brown says, describe themselves as "young guys in old bodies." The attorneys chose to employ a new style of architecture in their offices because they wanted to set

themselves apart from their competition, he explains.

To maximize the visual impact of the reception area, Brown fronted the area in glass and created a surreal image of objects in space that visitors see immediately after stepping off the elevator.

The focal point of the reception area, the reception desk, is a helix-shaped curve of stainless steel. The firm's name is displayed in silver letters mounted on a sculpture made of synthetic granite. The result, says Brown, is "something never seen before in Omaha."

Avant-garde in the Heartland

The spirit of the avant-garde also has spread to Des Moines, Iowa, where the firm of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture is designing commercial buildings and interiors that would fit into the major cities on either coast. "We've been able to push our clients pretty far," says project architect Jeffrey Morgan.

Morgan was part of the team that designed the law offices of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, located in one of the tallest buildings in Des Moines, with a sweeping view of the Iowa prairie.

The architects freshened the conservative image of law firms by using traditional materials in non-traditional ways. For instance, the lobby is lined with columns and features a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The walls are covered in travertine marble, cut into in large, block-like panels that Morgan says convey more of an image of stability and durability than would thin marble veneers.

Materials and construction technology also can be used as symbols of a company. In the corporate headquarters of GenEx, a Des Moines-based manufacturer, Herbert Lewis architects tried to convey some of the company's culture by designing unique new office furniture, including desks made of steel plates welded to chemical tanks.

A ramp in the office is made from the checkered steel plate typically found in warehouses or construction sites. Much of the space is an open room; offices are enclosed in glass and preserve the sense of openness and continuous space.

Newfangled architecture like this can take some getting used to, however. Marcy Puls, manager of administrative services for GenEx, says she had some reservations when she first saw her stark new office: "I was really concerned initially. There was so much gray."

Puls, who is responsible for maintenance of the building, says she eventually learned to appreciate the new design. "It really fits our business: it's very industrial and very efficient." She says she especially likes the chemical-tank desks, both aesthetically and from a maintenance standpoint: "They don't rust and they don't need any furniture polish." However, she says that the glass walls "require constant attention."

Another high-design office that is a portrait of industry is that of Klein Tools in Chicago. To help architect Jamie Wigglesworth get a sense of its business, the tool manufacturer flew him to its manufacturing plant in Kansas. Wigglesworth, a design associate with Gensler Associates in Santa Monica, created an abstract interpretation of the facility.

A severely symmetrical room is constructed in industrial materials of wood and steel with rolling metal doors. The image of tools mounted on the walls is used both as a sales tool and as a symbol of the company's long history.

A screen at the ceiling diffuses light to mimic the haze of the manufacturing plant. Metal details are finished in cold bluing--the blue stain used to color gun parts--and then covered in clear lacquer to prevent rust.

The imagery has "a lot of meaning that really feels right to everybody in the company," Wigglesworth says. He adds that the facility is easy to maintain, thanks partly to his choice in flooring: asphalt tiles backed by fiberglass. If tools hit the floor, he explains, the asphalt will dent but eventually will pop out again.

Even large corporations sometimes desire the industrial look, particularly in creative organizations where people prefer to work in loft-like spaces. A case in point is Sony Entertainment, which recently moved its headquarters to two new buildings in Santa Monica designed by Los Angeles architect Steven Ehrlich.

The interiors, designed by Cosimo Pizzulli, a Santa Monica interior designer, feature high ceilings with exposed metal decking. Individual work areas are covered in low acoustic ceilings that are hung from chains like awnings, and covered in painted cloth that Pizzulli says is able to reflect ambient light.

To muffle the intense sound levels inherent to music-industry offices, Pizzulli provided acoustic insulation for most offices, as well as a "dropped seal" on the bottom of doors--a strip that drops into place and seals off the area between the door bottom and the floor--to keep noise out of the public areas.

Pizzulli's design also has maintenance in mind: he instructed construction workers to glue, rather than tack down, the carpets he personally designed for the offices. This will keep the carpet from being pulled out of shape by the constant motion of the heavy rolling carts used in the offices.

Classics still appeal

Of course, the raw, modern look is not for everybody or every situation. For instance, the architectural firm of Skidmore Owings Merrill recently finished work on a New York City building where Classicism was a better fit than Deconstructivism. The architects were faced with a unique design problem: building a high-rise office building in mid-town Manhattan atop the historic Grand Central Post Office.

"Because the base of the building was an historic building, we tried to create a structure that would work with that strong base," says Ann Kifer, a vice president with Hines Interests of Houston, the project's developer. The solution was a gently modernized version of the post office's traditional architecture.

The developer also had property managers in mind when it asked the architect to use granite and marble--materials that are both durable and easy to maintain. "We always require durable materials," says Kifer. While those materials may not be ultra-modern, they may provide some comfort to the people who must ensure that the building outlives the next changes in architectural fashion.

Morris Newman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Association of Realtors
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Author:Newman, Morris
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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