Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Trends come and trends go, but the ones with substance come back around again.
Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be the greatest architect of his generation, recognized the beauty of native materials, preferring his designs to grow naturally from their surroundings. Wright designed the first open plan spaces, with rooms that flowed and opened out to each other. After decades of skyscrapers and nondescript office parks, Wright’s principles are inspiring a new generation of designers who practice sustainable architecture. Many of his principles also are reflected in the guidelines for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) certification.
Everything old is new again
Wright believed people “derive countenance and sustenance from the ‘atmosphere’ of the things they live in or with.” From the 1960s through the early 1990s, concrete, boxlike structures were the norm in corporate America. Their designs were often based on the cost-efficiency of the space, not on the employee, says Victor Sidy, dean of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
“Commercial structures of 30 to 40 years ago were disconnected from the elements that make employees the most happy, healthy and productive — like natural light and being close to the outdoors,” Sidy says. “Certification systems, like LEED, brought a modern form of sustainable design sensibility back into popularity, encouraging designers and space planners to get back to the idea of a person as part of his or her surroundings.”
Although the need for privacy is still necessary in today’s workplace, Sidy feels a successful functioning office space is one of a community of people focusing on a similar goal.
“Sometimes the accomplishment of that goal needs to happen in the isolation of an office, but often, it occurs around a table in a small group,” Sidy adds. “That, to me, explains why there’s been a big return to open and flexible workspaces.”
Commercial architects today are designing for how people interact in a team, as opposed to the hierarchical organizational chart that is becoming a thing of the past for many companies. Sidy says one of the most critical contributions of office design is to provide a variety of different workspace options so employees — regardless of their position within the company — can have access to private areas for focus, and open areas for collaboration and teamwork.
“While a cutting-edge Internet startup might have a central café area where one can work with laptops may be seen by some as trendy, there’s still something to that,” Sidy says. “Can someone work 9 to 5, five days a week in a café? No, but providing a venue for that is important.”
Sidy feels this concept relates to a new trend in the professional world — the miniaturization of technology. Mobile phones, laptops and tablets have reduced the average office to the size of small roller bag for many professions. Even many architects, who were once tethered to a drafting table, can now work much more flexibly if they choose.
Most aspects of the workplace nowadays, from technology to workstations, are being designed to what Wright referred to as a “human scale.” As opposed to a person walking into a structure with cathedral ceilings and feeling insignificant and cut off from his or her surroundings, designers are incorporating interesting visual variations, such as varying ceiling heights, windows that can open and let in natural light and fresh air, or even outdoor terraces with green landscaping.
“People return over and over to places where they feel they have an impact on their space, whether it’s by opening a window or watering a plant at their desk,” Sidy says. “That feeling of cultivating a connection with one’s interior space goes a long way in increasing productivity and happiness in the workplace.”
Bring the outside in
This concept has been brought to life at Centra at Metropark, a cutting-edge office building in Iselin, N.J. The existing unremarkable concrete-and-glass structure hearkened back to corporate architecture of the 1980s and provided no buffer to traffic noise and street traffic. Kohn Pederson Fox Associates (KPF), an architecture design firm based in New York, salvaged and recycled components of the structure, incorporated landscaping and transformed it into a sustainable environment that is the gateway to what KPF calls “the corporate campus of the future.”
Image courtesy of KPF
KPF Director and Senior Designer Hugh Trumbull calls Centra at Metropark a “game of trying to figure out how to get the developer the most value out of each and every move they made.”
The idea of value in this case encompassed how workers would experience the space.
The new design — which includes floor-to-ceiling glass and sunken gardens — emphasizes the movement from car to building and is based on an urban/suburban campus aesthetic. KPF developed an asymmetrical tree-shaped column and truss to provide a signature element and the ability to add footage on the fourth floor rather than the ground floor, which doubled the size and scale of the building. A rectangular cutout in the center of the suspended fourth floor creates a public plaza for the base of the building. This also provides natural daylight and allowed for excavation into the basement for additional office space. Trumbull says this lower level is one of the most pursued spaces by prospective tenants.
Centra at Metropark is just the first building in the newly proposed campus. According to KPF, the front of the building leads to a campuslike green where future buildings will be developed. The result is similar to the quad of a university, a semi-urban space where people can gather together.
Michael Moran/Courtesy of KPF
The promotion of human interaction and a sense of place are two concepts that were important not only to designers of the past like Frank Lloyd Wright but also to architectural designers and space planners of the future.
“The drive in Americans to think about our natural environment and how it can best shape the future is inherent in our country’s philosophical point of view,” Trumbull says. “Thinking about how nature can inform the development of a site is a sensibility we at KPF hold dear.”