Gaetano Pesce's design of offices in New York for the American advertising agency, Chiat/Day, must be the furthest flight from the rectangle ever achieved in office design. In downtown Manhattan, source of the rectangular office block and setting for the archetypal functional office (best depicted in The Apartment made by Billy Wilder in 1960), Pesce has created an exuberant playpen for the employees of a technologically sophisticated firm practicing virtual reality.
The firm operates without hierarchy or individual workstations -- or, it is said, clutter. Staff come in, pick up mobile pieces of equipment such as a telephone, plug into any computer and meet informally, depositing the equipment back where it was found at the end of the day. The model for this prophetic office, as advocates of virtual reality point out, is domestic space which we all accept is composed of different areas used by the inhabitants at different times and possibly for different purposes -- you can make coffee in the kitchen and be followed by someone making soup, and so on. Pesce observes that technology now should allow the inhabitants of an office to choose where to sit and who to sit next to, when they want to and can.
It is true that advertising, long before most other businesses, established a tradition of being informal and meritocratic so that the final step to dispensing with everything that makes an office recognisable -- hierarchy, ritual, massed desks/workstations (however informally arranged) -- is a short one. The Chiat/Day staff were initially nervous about their new terrain but, say both clients and architect, they now love it.
The firm occupies one floor of an unremarkable office tower at the foot of Manhattan. Commissioned to fit it out, Pesce was faced by a space that was a faceted square in plan and deep, with lifts at the centre. Glazed around the perimeter, it had spectacular views of city and sea. To make sense of this amorphous space, Pesce imposed a design conceived as urban. From the piazza/lift lobby at the centre, the various spaces -- for working, for meeting, for eating and drinking -- flow away to the perimeter and are marked out by lanes. Areas requiring privacy are contained in several curious structures.
The architect's rationally ordered plan is predicated on freedom and informality. But in the expression of surface, the performance artist always lurking around this architect has erupted, splashing across a blank canvas an interior whose exuberance and apparent spontaneity mocks the very idea of the territorial office and the blank impersonal nature of the building designed to contain it.
`Colour' Pesce insists, `is the expression of life. How can you grow up in a beige atmosphere?' And on emerging from the lifts, it is colour painted liberally over the floor and emanating from every other surface that strikes the senses. Jewel-like colours, made luminous or flowing side by side and the suggestions of fracture, remind one that Pesce is a Venetian and of the glass-making traditions of that city. Within the composition of the painted resin-coated floor there are various directional signals; such as the arrows pointing to the Statue of Liberty or to the Empire State Building.
Structure, texture and the furniture testify to Pesce's extensive experiments with materials: polyesters, resin, rubber, and felt. His ecological sensibilities include the conviction that materials such as stone, wood and metal are wastefully expensive; and he is proud of the fact that the Chiat/Day scheme conformed to a low budget and was on time. Staff keep personal effects in rubber lockers; structures for meetings are built from (presumably salvaged) video cassettes and mobile phones, dipped in resin and made into bricks. Pesce designed the furniture, which includes deliquescent developments of the Samsone table, produced by Cassina in 1980; and the delightful little cast-resin chair recently produced for Bernini.
Pesce has constantly sought to question assumptions and has frequently caused outrage; but he is gentler and more playful these days. This comment on barrenness is a far cry from the savagery of his exhibition held in 1975 in Paris at the blusee des Arts Decoratifs and entitled `Homage to Mies van der Rohe'. Visitors to it were faced with a disembowelled cow carcase putrefying in a glass case under hot lights. It caused a public furore, though Modernist fundamentalists in those days were pretty impervious to criticism. The warders, sickened by the putrefaction, held their own rebellion and the work of art was destroyed `as a health hazard'. Almost 30 years later, the young sculptor, Damien Hirst is resorting to the same kinds of tactics to convey pessimistic messages of his own, but in these sourer times he seems merely opportunistic. Pesce is anyway an infinitely more sophisticated and inventive figure. As a Venetian, his appreciation of inconsistencies and ironies must have been sharpened on a city where sublime reaches of the human spirit have always co-existed with decay. In Britain, we have been less familiar with his restless surrealistic architecture (a recent example is the Organic Building in Osaka. Built in 1992, its facade incorporates a vertical garden); more familiar with his affectionate subversions of everyday pieces of furniture.
Ideas of social entropy, now being embraced on all sides, suggest that we are leaving the age of reason to enter one akin to the Middle Ages, in which humanity in all its aspects will roam unfettered and turmoil will be an inalienable fact of life. One of the parallels being drawn and adduced as evidence by proponents of the ideas is the medieval communication through imagery, the easy handling of mixed media (think of medieval manuscripts, where images are interspersed with text), and love of colour. One need not accept the theory, only pause in these Manhattan circumstances to note that this parallel is curious.
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|Title Annotation:||office design for Chiat Day in New York City|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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